How to Drive Adoption of Social Innovations Amid Social Taboos

Understanding the four factors of adoption for social innovations

November 30, 2015

When was the last time you tried out a new innovation? Was it a watch that counts your steps, or a service that orders taxis from your smartphone? Why did you try it? Is it now part of your daily routine or did you discard it after a few uses?

In middle class consumer-driven cultures of the West, we are used to trying new innovations that we believe could improve our lives. However, we don’t always adopt them. In fact, we are pretty picky customers. Some of us are early adopters – racing to buy the newest gadget – while others are more cautious, only joining once everybody else has. But sustained adoption – incorporating the innovation into our daily life – requires that a product solves a real and ongoing pain or creates tangible gains.

As an entrepreneur, convincing your customers to change is the real challenge, and the secret to success. Fifteen years of investing in social enterprises in some of the toughest markets around the world has taught Acumen that this behavior change challenge is especially acute when introducing social innovations to customers at the bottom of the pyramid (BoP). We’ve seen many companies struggle when it comes to things like getting a mother to purchase a high quality solar light for her household, or convincing a father to install an insecticide-treated wall lining in his house.

Recognizing that social innovations are only as powerful as the number of people who successfully adopt it, Acumen and Bain & Company teamed up last year to specifically understand why smallholder farmers adopt new products and technologies. They found that there are four factors: Advantage, Affordability, Awareness, and Access (a framework they’re calling the Four As of Adoption); that are the key drivers among farmers, and are applicable to other BoP customer segments as well.

We spoke with Acumen fellow, engineer, and former investment banker Suhani Mohan who is using the Four As to develop a winning business model to create change for adolescent girls in India.

Picture this: 88% of women in India don’t use sanitary pads.

The majority cannot afford to spend the 200 rupees per month ($3.00) and do not have access to them even if they could afford them. There is huge stigma attached to menstruation, further compounding the social oppression that women and girls regularly face. The inability to discretely manage menstruation leads 1 out of 4 adolescent girls to drop out of school.

Suhani thinks she can solve this. “There was a huge gap/product misfit,” she says, “No product was available at the right price point. There were low-cost options but the quality was very bad, so nobody wanted to spend money on them.” Because of their low popularity, many retailers – especially in rural areas and slums – don’t even bother to carry sanitary napkins.

Working on the idea for almost one year, she and her team designed a sanitary napkin that was affordable and high quality, and founded Saral Designs in 2015. Now that the company has finalized the product design, they are focusing on driving adoption at scale. “One of the biggest challenges that we have is behavior change. In India, the rural women’s lifestyle does not support use of sanitary napkins.”

Here's how Suhani is applying the Four As of adoption:

1. Affordability

“The poor value money more than any urban customer and think a lot before spending.” One of the problems with the available products was that they were too expensive. To bring the price down, Saral Designs developed a game-changing innovation: a manufacturing machine that will allow decentralized production of a product with the same level of quality and performance as international brands.

As an engineer, designing the machine was the easier part for Suhani. Making decentralized manufacturing work in practice was the challenge. She needed to get non-skilled workers to be able to comfortably run the unit in a local environment. To tackle this, she hired a few general contract laborers to test her prototype in an urban slum setting. This exercise provided key insights into the machine’s design: “We had to write everything down explicitly. Where do you need to place X before you start… Red, green, press this, etc. We added a lot of instructions on the machine itself.”

Saral’s innovative product design, plus decentralized manufacturing, has brought the price of a packet of 7 pads – virtually identical to more expensive brands – down to just 26 rupees. The company also piloted selling smaller packet sizes of 3 pads for 10 rupees, door to door in an urban slum. They found the lower price and quantity lowered the risk of investment for first-time users and increased their adoption. Some first-timer buyers even called back and volunteered to distribute the product in their own communities.

However bringing the price down can risk leading the consumer to believe that quality is compromised.

According to Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Blank, prices should be formulated based on value, not cost. But what does value mean to a customer who has never used a product before? That’s where awareness, access, and advantage come into play.

2. Awareness

The most powerful channel to create awareness among BoP customers is through word of mouth.

Saral Designs is testing various channels to spread the word in rural areas including women leaders of microfinance self-help groups, Anganwadi women, and healthcare workers. “As we are early in this journey, we are figuring it out. We have opted for focus group discussions with influential women instead of traditional media. We sit with them and explain the benefits of the product, so they can take it forward.”

Suhani and her team have also identified adolescent girls as potential early adopters: “We are aiming our focus on adolescent girls, who are more adaptable to change, and mothers to encourage their girls to use them.” Suhani has observed that mothers aspire for a better life for their daughters. If they have limited resources to invest in health, they will put their daughters before themselves. Saral Designs is tapping into this aspiration, not only through daughters but also through peers: “Even if the mother is not using them, she will make sure her daughters are using them, especially if her friends are getting them for their daughters.”

Marketing can help to create a sense of aspiration around the product, but the consumers also need to be able to access it in order to buy it.

3. Access

Meaningful access to feminine products is about convenience and also about privacy. Part of the access problem is that retail channels do not keep sanitary pads on shelves because of low sales. Suhani has started looking at more informal ways of distribution through market kiosks and women entrepreneurs at the village level who offer several products so distribution costs are lower.

But the key innovation the company made was designing a vending machine to be installed in restrooms in schools and urban slums.

According to Suhani, the initial pilots of the vending machines both in schools and in common slum restrooms have been phenomenal. “In India, the girls’ school uniform doesn’t have pockets! So they have nowhere to put the pad. Having the machine in the restroom avoids this problem.” Carrying sanitary napkins openly in slum communities created the same problem so access through a private vending machine offered a significant value proposition.

The vending machines can also display health and how-to messages to increase awareness. All of this is found in a private setting that girls feel comfortable accessing.

While the vending machine school pilot has only been going on for two months, teachers have mentioned that the number of girls missing school when on their period has gone down since the machine was installed.

“There is a trend. They don’t have to miss school due to
lack of access to sanitary napkins.”

4. Advantage

In order for people to change behavior, they need to perceive an advantage of using that product versus what they are currently doing. When surveying smallholder farmers, Bain & Company and Acumen found that advantage was the most critical of the Four As. In India, traditional advertisements on TV for sanitary pads show women wearing white pants, emphasizing freedom from constraint by menstruation. Suhani believes this approach doesn’t resonate with rural adolescent girls because they do not feel this sense of freedom in their daily lives. Instead, Saral Designs is focusing on the health benefits in its messaging, which Suhani believes girls find more compelling.

Still, sanitary napkins are an aspirational product for most of India. Saral Designs not only has to convince girls to practice using sanitary napkins on a regular basis, but also provide a competitive advantage compared to other sanitary napkins on the market. Some girls had already used sanitary napkins once or twice but only on special occasions, such as when they were traveling. The reason for not adopting the product fully was due to the high cost and lack of availability in their local markets. So, the lower price point for a product virtually identical to name brands, combined with an ability to purchase privately and conveniently are obvious advantages. But one other important advantage emerged via customer feedback: trust.

Saral Designs’ customers appreciated the fact that the product was made locally. In an urban slum environment where many products are constantly being offered and sold, the proximity of manufacturing to sales really clicked. “We told them, ‘our manufacturing unit is just next door, so just give us a call.’” Creating that personal connection and customer trust will be an important aspect of scaling up for the company.

Saral Designs is currently in a rigorous pilot phase, conducting market research around various distribution models (decentralized, franchises, schools), as well as finding out what marketing messages resonate with adolescent girls most (e.g. health or freedom?). Suhani is planning for scale, but is doing so methodically, building a strong understanding of how distribution works first, and leveraging technology to strengthen her operations.

“In this sector – people get obsessed by production. They get carried away setting up manufacturing units and forget how the product actually goes to the market."

"We are partnering with organizations to build the market first, then provide them with the unit. The model needs to be robust enough to create continuous revenues to make the whole ecosystem sustainable.”

By prioritizing demand for the product and understanding the Four As of sustained adoption among her customers, Suhani is helping women and girls better care for their health and hygiene and helping her company create a product these customers will pay for.

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