In India, a 110-year old innovation comes full circle

How the Indian giant, Godrej used design-led innovation to create a whole new product category.

By Anijo Mathew
Head of Department of Art and Design/American University of Sharjah + Founder/Vamonde

Our story begins over a century ago when a young Indian entrepreneur started playing around with safes. Ardeshir Burjorji Sorabji Godrej was not new to innovation. A few years ago, he founded a company with a loan of 3500 rupees (about US$45,000 today) because he believed that merely boycotting British goods was not enough. Instead, he wanted to create a modern Indian enterprise that understood and designed for the needs of the Indian people. Today, his legacy, Godrej, is a giant of the Indian economy. They make appliances, furniture, agricultural augments, beauty products; they have service solutions in security, construction, real estate, retail, and even build rocket engines. It is said that nearly 600 million people around the world touch a Godrej product every single day.

Back in 1901, Ardeshir started much like a human-centred designer today. By talking to Indian business owners, he discovered that most safes at the time were not fireproof. So he started drawing up and prototyping designs for a burglar and fireproof safe made of a single sheet of steel. He discussed ideas with local engineers and craftsmen to make sure the designs could be made in India. Within a year, Ardeshir got three patents for his designs and launched the first Godrej safe. 1905 was a watershed year for Ardeshir. When the Queen of England visited India, Godrej was invited to build personal safes for her entourage. In a single stroke, he had finally displaced several decades of reliance on British brands such as Chubb and defined the Godrej brand as one of the foundations of the home-grown Indian industry.

So, for the next 110 years, Godrej built safes. And they were extremely good at it.

Godrej safes, such as this one, were among the few things to survive the otherwise devastating 1944 explosion at the Bombay. Today, in India, the Godrej brand is synonymous with trust and quality. (Image and fact courtesy: Godrej).

By 2012, Godrej held nearly 80% of the Indian security market. Godrej Security Solutions (GSS) was by far the largest producer and distributor of safes in the South Asian region and the most recognised brand in India. However, despite this large market share, their volume sales had been lagging in the last few years. The banking sector was not paying dividends, and GSS decided to focus on the home security market again.

Herein lay the dilemma. The home safe market had penetration levels of less than 1% of the total addressable market. Indian consumers did not buy safes!

A category adoption problem

Marketing calls this a “category adoption” problem. According to Everett Rogers, there are five types of adopters — innovators (willing to take the early risk), early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards (last to adopt). Geoffrey Moore points out that there is a big chasm between early adopters and early majority, and such chasms can be disastrous to a business’s long term success. In the Indian home safes market, the home safe product never crossed from the early adopters to the early majority segment where all the money was. Indian customers were not “adopting” the category of home safes.

The frontline defence to any category adoption problem is education and marketing. So, this is where GSS spent most of its money. Mehernosh Pithawala, the global Head of Marketing and Innovation, said GSS worked with the best agencies in India to educate the Indian consumer about the benefits of a home safe and market their brand as the best product. From a technical standpoint, things should be working for Godrej. But the market did not budge.

I first met Mehernosh when he was a participant in the India Immersion Program (IIP), a program co-designed by me at the IIT Institute of Design and promoted at Godrej by Navroze Godrej. The goal was to introduce Godrej executives to design-led innovation. During IIP Mehernosh learnt it was not enough to look at technical feasibility (how to make something) and economic viability (why it will make money), but that savvy businesses must also evaluate user desirability (what people actually need). When I met Mehernosh, he knew how and why…just not what.

Navroze Godrej speaking at the Godrej Innovation Center where the India Immersion Program ran from 2011 to 2017 (image from Swapna Joshi’s article of ID’s Strategy World Tour)

Here is an idea: let’s talk to users

Category adoption starts with the idea that a category exists and users need to “adopt” it. Since GSS made safes, they always assumed the solution was a safe. In market studies, they asked users what kind of safe they wanted, not what problems they faced. Like any good company, Godrej continuously benchmarked their products against the best in the category, adding new features and technology to meet the standards of the best safes in the world. Post IIP, Mehernosh decided that to reframe, he would have to think and innovate like Ardeshir Godrej. He had to look beyond benchmarks.

So Mehernosh joined hands with Future Factory, a Mumbai based design consultancy to conduct what might be GSS’s first human-centred research into Indian habits around security in nearly a century. They found that Indians preferred practical hacks over buying products to solve their home security problems.

They were much more likely to hide their valuables in a rice bin or under the pillow than buy a product to hold them. People felt proud of the fact that you would find it challenging to find something in their house (Godrej refers to this as the James Bond approach to security). Other things prevented people from buying safes such as a belief in karma — “such things will not happen to me,” or reliance on their family and neighbours to keep an eye on their apartments when they were not at home. The biggest problem, however, was that safes were seen as a product for rich people with money, too expensive and unnecessary for the average middle-class Indian.

They also found that when users bought a safe, a big Godrej Security truck drove up. Two uniformed staff members with corporate precision unloaded a large cardboard box, lugged it up the two-three flights, installed the safe, cleaned up the debris, and left. Before the end of the day, everyone in the neighbourhood knew that the user had bought a safe. And if you bought a safe, you must have something to hide.

Finally, it turns out most Indian folks did not have much to secure at home at all. They wanted temporary storage for small valuables like loose cash, passports, documents, an expensive watch, or a gold necklace, while the household help or a stranger was at home. It was not about robbery or theft; it was about deterring temptation.

By talking to real people, Mehernosh had identified a demand space — a gap in the Indian market that no one was addressing. There was a real need in the Indian market, but not one that required an expensive safe. It was no longer a category adoption problem. The problem was that he wasn’t selling into the right category for the Indian user.

Designing a whole new category

So he went back to the team and asked them to rethink the entire idea. The result, a beautiful new device, called Goldilocks — the world’s first personal locker designed for each member of an Indian family. It is small and inexpensive; you buy it off Amazon or Flipkart. It arrives by courier in a nondescript package, so no one needs to know you just purchased a safe. It uses a simple numeric password system that allows easy access as desired. Most safes are installed by cutting into walls and floors. Goldilocks is small enough that you could keep it inside a wardrobe drawer. It is big enough to keep watches, small jewellery, or cash and a pocket perfectly sized to hold a passport or wallet. If someone tries to open it or pick it up, it starts to screech and won’t stop until you enter your code again. The design team even disrupted the form of a safe. Goldilocks looks more like a technology device that you would expect to see in a modern home than a 19th-century wall safe.

Godrej Goldilocks (image courtesy:

Goldilocks picked off very well. In the first year, Goldilocks became the highest selling SKU in the home safe category and the highest-selling model across brands in India. Future Factory won A Design Gold award in Unexpected Design for the design of Goldilocks. Godrej is now seeing demand for the product even from countries like Sweden and Thailand.

Home safes to safe homes; a reframe

It’s now been several years since Goldilocks launched. It has not been the roaring success that Mehernosh hoped it would become. Mehernosh feels this is because the product is still too expensive. GSS is trying to get Goldilocks to fall to a price point where people think of it as an impulse tech purchase, rather than a planned purchase for their home.

Goldilocks prompted Godrej to see home security as a viable opportunity space for GSS and have initiated a significant push into the consumer security market. They are now working on several other products such as a new wall-mounted locker; a security camera solution; and a smart home integration system all designed around Indian habits and attitudes.

The story of Goldilocks teaches us four valuable lessons:

  1. education and marketing are not enough: for most companies looking to solve a category adoption problem, you need to get in the weeds and understand why the problem exists in the first place.
  2. innovation is not what you can do, but what you should do: using a design-led approach, GSS stopped thinking about what they could make and instead, built a product that users really needed.
  3. reframe the problem: shifting the focus from home safes to safe homes allowed GSS to understand that the real consumer market for security in India was bigger than any one product. Securing one’s home is more complicated than securing one’s valuables.
  4. innovating for India is not about borrowing solutions: Godrej was built on the singular premise that the Indian consumer is unique. With this exercise, Mehernosh and his team reinforced the idea that innovation has to come from within, not by aping solutions from other companies and cultures.

At the end of my interview, I asked Mehernosh what he felt was the most important signifier of success. Without hesitation, he said he felt proud when people in the leadership team recently started to give out Goldilocks as corporate gifts. Goldilocks may not be a huge commercial success but continues to feature on the main page of the group’s website. It serves as a symbol of innovation, reminding everyone that Godrej is a modern company that has not forgotten its roots. Mehernosh reframed a 110-year old idea using the same belief that Ardeshir Godrej held. The Indian consumer is different from everyone else. To innovate in India, you need to keep your eyes and ears peeled firmly to the ground and listen.

Academic, startup founder, and innovator who works with organisations globally on design-led innovation and urban technology.