Having lived in the US for the past few years, I have become more of a cultural purist. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for diversity, experiencing new cultures and embracing ideas from around the world. It’s just that I feel that things need to retain their cultural originality rather than be force-fitted into new product spins to satisfy consumer tastes or marketing programmes in the developed world.
The standard marketing spiel about creating fusion products has remained largely unchanged for the past 50 years. It’s about bringing age-old wisdom from some unknown part of the world, replete with mystique and novelty. This wisdom of the ancients, now neatly packaged with the miracles of modern science, is supposed to give consumers a much-needed boost of dopamine either through a better self-image or the joys of ownership. This is what I find unsettling.
The problem with fusion marketing is that the cultural element or history behind the concept is reduced to a unique positioning proposition (UPP); something that creates a difference from the competition, a reason to buy something that provides no benefit but exists in the idea. For all the talk about embracing diversity, fusion products have little to no appreciation or understanding of the cultures that spawn these products, the uniqueness that makes them different and their hard-won achievements. Ultimately, these cultures and their artistic heritage are reduced to peddling products.
Here are a few examples.
The Peshawari chappal by British designer Paul Smith.
This £300 sandal was the Peshawari with a pop of colour added at the base, without a mention of what made this rugged footwear of the frontier an iconic item throughout the subcontinent. Recently, Target advertised a ‘Jute India Bench’ for $300, which was nothing less than a glorification of the charpoy. Both companies were forthcoming about the ‘design inspiration’ of their product, but apart from the fact that they were subcontinental in origin, buyers knew nothing about the heritage behind these products.
Yes, one can argue that Pakistani brands are getting noticed internationally. But the fact is that the scope is immense, the possibilities endless and that so much more can be done if Pakistani brands can harness the power of their culture.
Recently, there was an ad for a ‘chandelier headpiece’ which turned out to be a jhumka which e-retailers are popularising with price tags between $100 and $2,500. There was also the ‘organic toothbrush’ (a miswak), which retails at an average $25 a pop. I even came across the ajrak bikini. This comparatively cheap product, priced at a modest $88, had nothing modest about it.
Like I said, I am all for global integration and cultures interacting. It has made me appreciate the beauty in diversity and instil a pride in the 5,000 years’ history of the subcontinent. But I do feel brands need to work to build on these aspects and not cheapen them.
Heaven knows there is a clear case for ethnic products and businesses. The Pakistani diaspora is evidence that our products are in demand. Brands such as Ahmed Foods, CandyLand, Khaadi, National, Pakola and Shan sell here on the strength (and uniqueness) of their offering. Even non-branded products, such as Pakistani clothing and food are hugely popular, although sometimes hamstrung by their lack of organisation and scale.
If there is one thing that the charpoy, the Peshawari chappal and even the ajrak bikini show is that our culture has what it takes to be noticed. Our problem is not a lack of branding but a lack of vision and appreciation of how we can contribute to the global cultural scene. Yes, one can argue that Pakistani brands are getting noticed internationally. But the fact is that the scope is immense, the possibilities endless and that so much more can be done if Pakistani brands can harness the power of their culture.
For this to work, we need to invest in our artisans and keep traditional art forms alive. As global consumer preferences settle on more conscientious and sustainably-sourced products, traditional Pakistani products have a huge potential to cash in big.
In other words, our time is now.
Tariq Ziad Khan is a US-based marketer and a former member of Aurora’s editorial team.