Culture is innate to civilisation. Humans build culture and a shared culture is how we make sense of the world and of ourselves. In earlier times, people told stories to make sense of the stars.
Countries create a culture of progress and national pride through a shared understanding of sacrifice, heroes and stories.This is the way that culture and brands are inextricably linked. The best brands are defined by and establish themselves through finding meaning in culture and then conveying the meaning through great stories.
Culture builds a deep relevance for brands
Human ability to resonate with culture is highly sophisticated and needs to be cared for, by brands. Culture comes from a Latin word ‘cultus’, which means ‘care’. Creating culturally relevant brands requires being highly perceptive (thin skinned), pushing boundaries (because many marketers don’t even know what’s beyond), presenting alternative views (take on the herd of‘yes men’), taking a stand (protect your idea firmly), stimulating debate (to build on the idea further), nurturing diversity (for challenging narrow views) and taking people on journeys of individual discovery, challenge and change. It’s about raising and solving cultural tensions together. Many a times marketers get frightened by the audacity of the possibility. But it’s those who don’t, create memorable brands in culture.
The point to ponder
A big predicament for the branding community is to find a cultural sweet spot, large enough for its future growth. Should you find a global sweet spot and build a brand like Apple that is consistent across regions, countries and communities with ‘Think Different’ or should you localise the sweet spot and adapt to culture the way Cadbury does through ‘Kuch Meetha Ho Jaye’? Today, it is a very crucial time to be raising this question when brands are either becoming distant (due to inability to understand local culture) or transactional (due to the rise of online buying behaviour in consumers).
Five best practices for mid and senior level marketing professionals
Brand managers are the new culture navigators and new investors in the cultural capital of a brand.
Let’s see how some brands have achieved a global cultural relevance.
For some brands, like Nike, the Olympic Games and the Paralympics, creating cultural impact is a more obvious task: it is in their DNA. So too for tech brands, whose intellectual, innovative and life-changing contributions continue to surprise and delight people across the world and actually forge new dimensions of culture in the process: Facebook, Uber, Zomato, Apple, Amazon, WhatsApp and Netflix (UX and relevance is a bigger draw, advertising has a negligible role).
For other brands, their cultural impact is supported by CSR, such as Aditya Birla Group’s dedication to encourage young engineering and management students through scholarships or the ‘Teach India’ initiative by Times of India or ‘Save The Tiger’ campaign.
But for many brands from more traditional categories -- food, sport and games, home and entertainment -- creating cultural impact is totally in the hands of marketing. This is where marketers are reinventing themselves – beyond traditional brand building and beyond familiar markets.
An evaluation of the success of these brands takes us to five 'best practices'.
1. Solve cultural problems
Cultural icons find social hot points and take a point of view and global icons do so
even more. They enter very local territory and bring an outsider’s caring and concerned perspective. They enter debates and dialogues and dare to solve cultural contradictions. They become the source of problem-solving that audiences look to for solutions.
P&G Ariel (Share the Load):
With 'Share the Load', a Cannes 2016 award-winner for P&G in India, Ariel took a point of view on nothing less than the role of women in home and society and the hierarchies of gender and status. The campaign features a busy working wife and mother struggling to keep together her family, work-life and household duties, like doing the laundry.
The woman’s uncomplaining industry and purpose catch the eye of her father, who comes
to realise how much his daughter could use a helping hand with the chores. His eyes are opened. Why shouldn’t men share laundry responsibilities? Why is laundry only the 'mother’s work'? Online, 1.57 million men pledged to 'share the load', and Ariel benefitted from $10M in earned-media publicity. Sales volume increased 105%.
2. Research in order to get closer to culture
Going deep in a culture is not easy. Getting it right is tricky and consumer research, while critical, is costly. At the same time, global icons need to be at the right place, at the right time, time and again.
Cadbury Dairy Milk (Shubh Aarambh):
Cadbury with Ogilvy reinterpreted their biggest product in their portfolio, Cadbury Dairy Milk (CDM) in India and spoke in the lingo of every Indian household. The campaign was 'Shubh Aarambh' and the brand’s growth after that catapulted to another level. The campaign derives its concept from the Indian tradition of having something sweet before doing anything auspicious, be it a deed or an occasion, with the belief that it improved the effect and makes the outcome favorable.
Whether it was about a middle-aged woman wearing jeans for the first time or a young boy at the bus stand, 'Shubh Aarambh' as a thought created an anticipation of happiness and captured the imagination of India, while re-setting the Indian tradition of sweets through a refreshing new approach with chocolates.
3. Provoke personal reactions across cultures
Culturally impactful brands make powerful, one-to-one connections across cultures. They do so by resetting the classic mode of traditional brand communications --- problem-solution- resolution—into culturally-impactful contexts. The result is not traditional brand differentiation vs. competition, but rather individual enlightenment, culture by culture. This seemingly small change effectively resets the communications paradigm.
Guinness (Made of More):
Rarely do brands treat Africans as cultural equals, much less as inspirational role models. Breaking that trend is one of several reasons to admire 'Sapeurs, Made of More' ad from Guinness and London agency AMV BBDO. The spot shines a light on the Society of Elegant Persons of the Congo, better known as the Sapeurs. This impeccably stylish club, made up of blue-collar workers who dedicate their off time to colorful fashion and effortless savoir faire, has drawn international attention in recent years as a bellwether of peacetime optimism and confidence in the Republic of the Congo.
Channel 4 (We’re the Superhumans)
Rio 2016 Paralympics campaign by Channel 4 was led by a rousing video that had people with disabilities challenging and confronting the conventional public view on television.
• It established cultural tension, posing the contradiction: Can a disabled athlete really be an athlete?
• It provided the solution, the culturally relevant idea: Disabled people do amazing things, they’re incredibly able, beyond our wildest imaginations
• It offered the resolution in self-identification: I identify with these inspiring people and I
feel whenever I’m faced with a challenge, I can change my own destiny if I first change my attitude.
4. Speak meaningfully to cultures and the global management serves the local cultural expertise
New Global icons root their communications in each of the cultures they operate in. They immerse themselves not just in the language and habits of a culture but in its value system, vernacular, idioms, humour, customs, beliefs and philosophies. They connect to lifestyles, identity and ideology and become part of creating powerful new stories and myths. They invite people to come along with them and to feel that they share a common cause.
Nike Gutsy Cricket (India)
Nike was the last of big three sporting brands to enter India after Reebok and Adidas. Cricket is what Football is to Brazil. We know that India is more India in its streets and not in the posh office or residential complexes. So when it comes to cricket, it is at its best at the gully (street) cricket level and the brand decided to meaningfully own street cricket. The brand continues to do so even today.
It is important to build diverse brand teams to ensure brands resonate more effectively in each and every local market. It is vital to dial-up and dial-down, from central creation to local adaptation and back to central for revisions, thus delivering the brand’s DNA, appropriately nuanced, and fostering new ways of working. So as never to lose local sensitivities, while still reaping central cost efficiencies, global icons are re-aligning their marketing to put global even more in the service of local.
Today, global teams provide the local teams more tools to help them win in their markets. Local teams bring their deep knowledge of culture, e.g., consumption rituals, perceptions of products in context, the affinity and emotional relationships as well as practical, hands-on dynamics of the retail trade.
5. They re-engineer their brand while never losing their soul.
Global icons—think Disney or McDonald’s or Coke – are masters at re-engineering their brands, culture to culture, while never, ever losing their souls.Disneyland Anaheim, Disneyland Tokyo and Disneyland Paris are at home in three cultures and yet distinctly Disney in each.
Whether a McTurco, a McArabia or a McItaly, they are all McDonald’s. You just feel Coke is Coke whether you encounter it in Kenya or Hong Kong or Berlin. These brands are in exquisite touch with their distinct DNAs. Their values, philosophies, visions and reasons for being drive them everywhere.
In future, brands will need to understand cultures, lifestyles and ideologies much better than they do today. There is no iconicity, no cultural impact, no relevancy without mastering the power of culture.
Should you seek to become a big brand, aim to become an icon in the culture you want to play in. Reach out fora deep cultural meaning. It’s there and only a few brand managers will find it to glory.
(The author is chief marketing and digital officer, DHFL Pramerica Life Insurance)