Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Is Our Creativity Culturally Obtuse?

Published in Jan-Feb 2022

An in-depth understanding of people’s culture is key to success in advertising. Yet, not many acquire this talent.

Historically, marketing strategies have focused on the individual. The idea was to identify a target market and develop ads that appealed to them across the board. This strategy is no longer effective. Today, advertising has to be relevant to the audience – and cultural insights will make the brand story relevant to them.

Cultural insights are observations of the cultural practices and traditions of a country or a region. They can be thought-provoking, funny, sad, random or simply interesting. They help brands tell stories that are relevant to their audiences and engage them at an emotional level. The chances of uncovering cultural insights increase when people deliberately make the effort to broaden their mental horizons. You do not need to be Sherlock Holmes, but you must have the ability to ‘observe’ rather than merely ‘see’ the things happening around you. A key characteristic of a cultural insight is that once identified, it appears obvious – the ‘aha’ moment which makes you feel, “Why didn’t I think of that before?”

Some of the best ideas come from an in-depth understanding of the culture we live in. For example, Harley Davidson used cultural insights to drive their brand forward. They are one of the last American motorcycle manufacturers still going in the US – in fact, in recent years, they have seen their stock prices rise. One can attribute their success to their ability to tap into the culture of Americana. Their TVC ‘United We Will Ride’ features the American quest for solidarity in the context of the country’s cultural diversity.

Indian advertising has long understood the importance of cultural insights and has produced some very effective TVCs that have touched the hearts of their consumers. One example is Cadbury Dairy Milk’s ‘Bus Stop’ ad. The insight is based on the cultural practice that Indian people like to start off any new venture by eating something sweet; they believe it will greatly enhance the chances of a positive outcome. The story in this case: a boy asks a girl waiting at a bus stop to share a bite of her Cadbury Dairy Milk, as all good deeds start with something sweet. When the girl asks him what good deed he is talking about, he replies that he will offer her a ride back home. The TVC makes the brand very relevant to the local culture and creates an emotional bond with its audience.

Another example is Camlin Permanent Marker. Traditionally in India, when a woman’s husband dies, her bangles are broken and her bindi is washed off (they are the symbols of a married woman). In the ad, the husband, the day he dies, is shown (in retrospect) to have used Calin Permanent Marker to imprint the bindi on his wife’s forehead, so that when the rudalis (professional mourners) try to remove the mark, they fail – and as no one is able to remove the mark, the husband regains his life. Touching and culturally relevant.

Shan Foods’ Biryani Masala TVC (made by Ogilvy & Mather, India), is based on the insight that many Chinese families have moved to Pakistan because of CPEC but are finding it difficult to mix with local people. The TVC uses food’s ability to bridge cultural divides as the core idea.

A rare example in Pakistan is the Osaka Battery TVC which is based on the insight that Pakistanis are not largely self-starters and need a ‘push’ to move. The ad features many facets of the ‘push’ – the bribe, the boss noticing, the guy only waking up when water is thrown at him and sifarish. Although there is no single storyline in the commercial, it struck a chord with audiences and it must have worked well because it was aired for quite a long time.

It is sad to notice that such examples are rare in Pakistan and a reason why is the fact that our creatives mostly do not watch ads from other cultures for inspiration or to identify the underlying thinking process. Brands need to pay attention to the culture of a region. It means knowing where and how people live, their culture and their beliefs. Cultural insight can be hard to glean. They are embedded in the norms, values and beliefs of people and are not necessarily found on the surface, but uncovered by observing people and their behaviour over a period of time. There are many techniques that have worked reasonably well, such as ethnography. However, there is no substitute for having someone on the ground collecting first-hand observations. Cultural insights and data discovery are a significant part of consumer research. People from different countries, cultures and backgrounds have different ways of doing things.

To succeed in any market, brands need to understand the culture and that the ability to glean the relevant insight is a very valuable skill to acquire in advertising. In Russia, the word ‘bread’ means ‘money’, so using images of bread loaves can be a powerful way to relate to Russians. In China, people think it is bad luck to be photographed alone, so an image of only one person in an ad can turn Chinese consumers off. In the Philippines, people consider it rude to refuse food or drink when offered. 

In-depth understanding of people and their culture and behaviour is the key to success in advertising. Without cultural knowledge and relevance, advertising is nothing but noise.

Khalid Naseem is Head of Strategy, Firebolt63.