Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in May-Jun 2015

Culture for brand success

Brands have lost the imagination to use our culture to their advantage.
Illustration by Creative Unit.
Illustration by Creative Unit.

David Ogilvy is often quoted on how to structure an agency and develop an effective culture for success. Yet, I wonder whether he ever said anything about societal culture and the role advertising plays in shaping it. Culture is a word that is bandied about endlessly in Pakistan, yet most people have little idea what exactly it is. In fact, they regard culture as something immobile and set in stone.

The reality is quite different. Culture is anything but rigid and inflexible; rather it is people who impose restrictions on something that is fluid and malleable. I will not go into bookish explanations and only stress that all cultures evolve. In Pakistan in the 50s and 60s, the sari was a widely accepted form of women’s wear. It was not only frequently seen on TV, it was also a part of the everyday wardrobe of the urban Pakistani woman. Today, the sari has been relegated to occasions such as weddings or formal dinners. In the same way, whether we are aware of it or not, our culture has changed and adapted to new trends and ideas.

Culture informs the work of marketers and it is a facet of society they can transform through their work. Take the example of recipe mix masalas. When this product category was introduced in the 80s (I assume), the reaction was negative. Women were not comfortable using such a product, as they felt it suggested that they did not care enough for their family and were lazy. However, over time, due to marketing efforts as well as other societal changes, recipe mix masalas have gained acceptance and are now part of the urban housewife’s kitchen.

So how do brands decide whether to toe the line and adhere to society’s norms or challenge the prevalent mindset? Factors such as the ability to gain an edge over an entrenched competitor, growth potential and opportunities to reach an untapped psychographic may encourage a brand to take a society’s culture head on. In order to challenge received norms, marketers need to undertake in-depth research to pinpoint attitudes, the reasons behind the attitudes and the level of resistance to change.

In Pakistan, marketers are probably constantly evaluating whether they need to be the bearers of cultural change or endorse the existing culture.

I suggest that they approach culture in another way. Pakistani brands need to appreciate and respect the culture of our nation.

Last year Tapal won a PAS Award for its Chenak Dust campaign which highlighted the culture of the people living in Thar. Looking back down the years, we all tend to be nostalgic when remembering Morven Gold’s Rhythm of Unity commercial, which for many of us is still the benchmark of what a great cultural communication should be. Yet, if we look at the advertising currently produced, it seems that brands are paying lip service to culture and not appreciating it.

To use a metaphor, culture is a rich palette containing a variety of hues and shades, yet brands seem only to be painting in green, focusing on patriotism, religion or other tried-and-tested formulas.

Why are our brands taking culture for granted? In my view, the problem is that in their quest to produce aspirational advertising, they have forgotten how to produce inspirational advertising. Thanks to our exposure to Indian channels, we can see how Indian brands are embracing their culture to produce inspirational advertising. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that India used to be a closed economy, but there is no denying that many Indian brands look for local concepts and ideas, rather than adopting global communication platforms and even when they do, there is always a local twist, so that the audience does not feel alienated.

An apt example of a truly desi idea is the epic Nike India cricket commercial. Instead of showing kids playing cricket in the galees (streets) or on a cricket field, the brand team decided to use a local ‘bane’ – the traffic jam – as the setting for one of the most unforgettable games of cricket ever.

Another example is the commercial for Fevicol where a bus is travelling on a very bumpy road with a horde of passengers clinging on all sides for dear life. At the end of the commercial no passenger has fallen off and the tagline appears ‘Fevicol – the ultimate adhesive’. Compare this to the much derided naach gaana and other devices used by Pakistani brands and you will be forced to agree. Pakistani brands need to appreciate culture better. Hackneyed executions with stereotypical portrayals of ethnic groups do not count as proof of respect for culture.

Going back to the Rhythm of Unity commercial or taking a look at the iconic PIA ad with an attractive dusky complexioned woman extolling the East’s hospitality, with a headline that reads ‘Our unfair advantage’, a case can be made that although local brands used to respect culture, they have somehow lost their way. Whatever the case, a cultural revival is the need of the hour.

Morven Gold’s 'Rhythm of Unity', an example of great cultural communication

The power of culture was demonstrated to me at a seminar when Mansoor Nawaz (who was then working for DMC, the activation agency for Telenor) spoke on the topic of ‘Leveraging rural speak in building brand equities’. He spoke about the importance of a brand having a story and gave the example of how DMC was able to communicate the benefits of Talkshawk by placing the brand in the context of a folk tale. Every Pakistani knows the story Heer Ranjha, the lovers who met a fatal end due to jealousy and enmity. DMC changed the story from one of sorrow to one of joy. In this version, Heer and Ranjha are using Talkshawk to talk to each other and are thus able to warn each other about the evil plans of the villain, who is using a rival service and can’t get his calls through. This example shows that when brands embrace culture with a good understanding of their target audience, their beliefs, heritage and culture, they can greatly improve the effectiveness of their communication.

Respect for culture is a sure way for marketers to create empathy and a sense of belonging. By being culturally savvy, brands will be able to break through the clutter, communicate better and create ownership. When everyone is searching for an unfair advantage, Pakistani brands should embrace culture for success.

Tyrone Tellis is a marketing professional working in Pakistan.