Bean There, Done That
By: Sapna Nair-Purohit Photo Credit: Manoj Patil Dated: September 01, 2014
This is the story of a man who, armed with a number and a spray can, turned the city of Mumbai into his advertising canvas and made ‘bean bags’ a cool fixture to have in homes
26407383... If you have visited Mumbai even once, you couldn’t have failed to see this number scrawled on the city’s walls. Yet, few know what it means or who is behind that rather ubiquitous number. Even the BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) had had to launch a hunt for the man who was painting the town red, albeit illegally.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
Till the 1980s, bean bags were largely unknown. Ansari’s first tryst with the ‘bean bag’ happened while peeking into an American magazine being read by someone at the upscale Benzer store in Mumbai. That image intrigued him and Ansari decided to design one on his own.
“Rozi-roti sab sikha deti hai” (survival teaches you everything), says Farooq Ansari, a graduate in economics, when asked about his early days. “I had to find ways to earn a living. I wanted to do something that nobody had done. What started as a survival skill is now my passion and I am living it,” he says.
With just a ‘picture’ in mind, it was a struggle for him to figure out and obtain the raw materials to design the prototype. He began experimenting with different fabrics and did the cutting and stitching himself. After about ten failed attempts, Ansari had his first bean bag! His masterpiece on his back, Ansari would now go door to door hawking his ware. His strategy: befriending the security guards and approaching influential residents (usually the secretaries) of housing societies.
“I would tell them that it is a new sort of seating arrangement, is comfortable, and wouldn’t harm their other furniture or flooring,” Ansari recalls. He would ask those who bought his dream bags to refer him to some of their friends who might just be interested.
THE SPRAY PAINT BLITZKRIEG
For two years, Ansari made every construction site in Mumbai his medium of advertising. He painted almost every wall and pipeline he could lay his spray can on, zooming across the city late at night on his bike.
The number 26407383 was/is plastered all over the city. And it generated tremendous curiosity. Ansari had unwittingly pulled off a counterintuitive marketing strategy: he did not want to highlight the brand name ‘Dolphin’, and instead wanted the number to become synonymous with bean bags. People would, and still do, call in to ask what this ‘bean bag’ business is all about. Many intrigued foreigners drop by to see who the number belongs to.
“Curiosity generated awareness and that in turn got me sales and it is only multiplying,” says Ansari. In the early 80s, he used to sell one or two bean bags a day. Today, he sells close to 200 bean bags! He has also had successful tie-ups with corporates and schools.
Ansari stopped spray painting, when he started receiving memos from the BMC. He has had to pay a hefty fine. But he is happy that he made the most of it.
However, Ansari’s attempt at newer ways of promoting his business with branded ‘No Parking’ stickers on the gates of housing societies and promotions in schools haven’t yielded results. He has now tied up with rickshaw and taxi drivers in Mumbai, making them mobile salesmen for Dolphin bean bags. “This will be innovative,” he says. Ansari is up to speed, with his son now helping to set up a social media presence for Dolphin!
A BEAN BAG IN EVERY HOME
Today, Ansari makes bean bags of all shapes and sizes, with the egg-shaped one being the fastest selling. He has tied up with e-commerce platforms, such as Jabong.com, Pepperfry.com, and FabFurnish.com, and has also set up a showroom in Mumbai’s Goregaon area. Today, Dolphin Bean Bags are sold at retail outlets across the country and exported to the Middle East.
Although he fields a lot of online enquiries, Ansari prefers dealing with customers personally. Ansari claims that everyone — from a resident of Dharavi to Shah Rukh Khan himself — sits on a Dolphin. To appeal to a wide range of customers, he makes bean bags in different materials, such as leather, cotton and lycra, and even customises designs.
“Sitting on a bean bag is a desire everyone has. And my desire is to get a bean bag in every household,” Ansari declares, adding that he and his family prefer to lounge around on the seven bean bags he has at home. A Dolphin bean bag could cost between Rs. 2,000 and Rs. 30,000.
Ansari’s is a case study for many marketing students and small-scale industries. And of course also to the many me-toos in the market today. But he is dismissive of the new bean bag makers making a foray in metros such as Chennai, Bangalore, and Delhi. “They are doing my job by promoting bean bags in their regions,” he says with a knowing smile.
My desire is to get a bean bag in every household...
The bean bag as we know it today was first designed by an Italian company called Zanotta in 1969. The original bean bag, called "il sacco", was a pear-shaped leather bag packed with styrofoam beans and continues to be in production.
Three designers Zanotta — Piero Gatti, Cesare Paolini, and Franco Teodoro are said to have designed the original bean bag. It was serendipity. The three had apparently noticed that during coffee or cigarette breaks staff would sit or recline on bags filled with styrofoam!