The cousins monetising Colombo traffic

By Uwin Lugoda

One of the worst annoyances plaguing Sri Lanka is vehicular traffic, which can leave one stuck on the road for long periods of time, wasting time, energy, and money.

The misery is particularly acute for those travelling by three-wheelers, as it leaves you stuck with nothing to do, apart from maybe consuming your phone data out of sheer boredom and frustration.

What if there was a way to not only to keep the rider entertained in a three-wheeler, but also help corporations create awareness? This is where “Transit Advertising” comes in, which is advertising placed in or on modes of public transportation.

While this type of advertising has been around for the past decade in several countries including Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam, Transit Advertising is still very new to Sri Lanka, and first cousins Sanjay Pathmanathan and Avinesh Nareshkumar co-founded Qualia over two years ago to help Sri Lanka catch up to the progress made by other countries in that respect.

How does this keep the passenger entertained? We’ll get to that soon, but first let’s find out how Qualia came to be.

Pathmanathan claims he came up with the idea to use three-wheelers as a mobile advertising tool three years ago, whilst working on a project called “Pimp My Tuk Tuk”.

“We basically had 20 tuk tuks going around the island and all of the tuks were endorsed by companies like Coke and Subway; and they were just pimped out and branded top-to-bottom with branding from the respective companies, and I thought: ‘Oh cool, people are willing to pay for this kind of branding, on this form of transportation.’”

“When you look back at this country three years ago, you can see these tuk tuks kind of coasting around, and there was all this underutilised space that could be used for advertising that was right in your face; tuks come down your road, they drop you off at home, they are one of the biggest modes of transportation in the country, and also something that everyone can afford.”

After meeting with Nareshkumar to discuss the idea, the duo realised that partnering up with a locally grown transport provider like PickMe would help spring this idea into action.

Avinesh went on to further explain that they were looking to solve a problem that affects all Sri Lankans on a daily basis with a solution that will be mutually beneficial to multiple parties.

“We are piggy-backing off the problem that is traffic, to give the rider a better or more aesthetic trip experience.”

Qualia started off with external branding in three-wheels, where they covered the sides with branding from their respective clients. Nareshkumar stated that when they did the external branding, they realised that there’s huge visibility within Colombo and the Western Province as a whole. He said that this type of branding helped gain exposure for companies to people walking on the pavement and those in other cars as well.

Nareshkumar explained that they initially registered as a partnership with PickMe in August, 2017, and stated that because of their partnership with PickMe, they were able to give, from an advertising point of view, a door-to-door marketing solution.

“If you hail a PickMe, you don’t tell the three-wheels to come to the top of the road, you tell them come to your house, and that is where decisions are actually made.”

When asked why the duo works only with PickMe, they explained that PickMe provides brand security with thoroughly-screened drivers, and that the information of those drivers are readily available to them.

They also mentioned that they are able to reach larger volumes of drivers, having partnered up with PickMe, stating: “So, if we had to go get 100 drivers, we’d have to go meet 100 different people, whereas with PickMe, I press one button and get 100 guys call me.”

Depending on their requirements, Qualia calls out to PickMe, which in turn sends out the incentive to its top-performing drivers.

Nareshkumar explained that this was not only to help large corporations, but the drivers as well. He stated that the branding done on the vehicles was completely free and the drivers get a monthly fee depending on the vehicle they drive.

“Giving them an incentive to earn additional income enables PickMe to retain drivers; this is also why PickMe partners with us, because they use us as a driver retention tool.”

Six months ago, Qualia commenced developments on a whole new digital initiative for the vehicles registered with them, with the main intention of revolutionising the traffic experience for cab and three-wheeler passengers.

The 10-inch monitor

The 10-inch monitor is a touch and interactive screen, enforced into a fibreglass chassis, and is built into the vehicles. Nareshkumar stated that this pushes general content as well as advertising content in an interactive form.

“Advertising is where we monetise it, but with the content segment we are trying to give the rider the most relevant trip experience.”

Sanjay states that within a matter of seconds, Qualia can populate the vehicles with a whole new set of content which includes things like breaking news and other important information to keep the rider notified.

Using Scope Cinemas as an example, Sanjay explained that the rider was now able to see a trailer for a movie, click the more info button, scan the QR code, and book tickets straight away, from inside the vehicle.

“What separates the tablets from the branding on the exterior is that there’s dialogue. With the exterior, you can look at it, but you can’t interact with it, whereas with the screen, if you like the product, you can click on it, you can rate it, you can request for more information, and we can generate those QR codes for you.

“Also, as the platform grows, that level of interactivity will increase as well. And it’s a captive audience; when you’re inside a three-wheeler, you’re not looking around as this is right in front of you. ”

They explained that their customers have to pay a fixed fee per month depending on the quantity and type of vehicle they want their brands displayed on. Nareshkumar went on to explain that they use the types of vehicle to target certain demographics.

“There’s a difference in the buying power of the people inside each vehicle; it’s not about the tuk, it is not about the car, it’s about the consumer who’s in the tuk or car.

“For example, you’ll have Colgate toothpaste advertised in tuk tuks, but then you’ll have Axe deodorant going in cars.”

Speaking about the challenges they’ve faced while bring Qualia to life, Nareshkumar said that in Sri Lanka, the legislation states that you cannot brand the front and the back of a vehicle. As such, he explained that the sides are well within the Constitution, but until they got it writing, they had to postpone their operations.

Despite this small delay, Qualia has been gathering traction throughout the years and now has 18-20 clients including Hemas, NSB, and Durdans, to name a few.

Qualia also has over 250 vehicles in and around Colombo with their clients’ branding both outside and inside the vehicles.

Nareshkumar went on to speak about his vision for a decorated Colombo with aesthetically pleasing three-wheelers.

“There are 1.2 million three-wheelers in the country at the moment, out of which 300,000 are in Colombo. So, if we can move at least 50% of that, Colombo will look completely different. That’s the motivation and passion behind it.”

As for their future plans, Qualia looks to start on its next two phases as well as to move islandwide, alongside PickMe. Nareshkumar also stated that by the end of the year, they look to have around 500-1,000 three-wheelers in Colombo.