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.
On the contrary, culture is anything except rigid and inflexible; rather it is people who impose restrictions on something that is fluid and malleable. All cultures evolve. In Pakistan, in the fifties and sixties, sari was a widely accepted form of women’s wear. It was frequently seen on TV, and was a part of the everyday wardrobe of the urban Pakistani woman. Today, 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 eighties, 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.
"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."
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 Pakistan, marketers are constantly evaluating whether they need to be the bearers of cultural change or endorse the existing culture. I suggest that they approach culture 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 of Thar. Looking back, 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. 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 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.
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.
Another example is Fevicol, where a bus is travelling on a very bumpy road, with a horde of passengers clinging on all sides. At the end of the commercial, no passenger has fallen off and the tagline appears ‘Fevicol – the ultimate adhesive’. Compare this to the naach gaana and other devices used by Pakistani brands. 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 and a headline that reads ‘Our Unfair Advantage’, a case can be made that although local brands used to respect culture, they have lost their way.
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. firstname.lastname@example.org
First published in THE DAWN OF ADVERTISING IN PAKISTAN (1947-2017), a Special Report published by DAWN on March 31, 2018.