Published in Mar-Apr 2023
We are always talking about culture; company culture, national culture, community culture. And at times we say, of people we disagree with or disapprove of, that they lack culture.
Yet, do we really know what culture is? I think this is a very important starting point, because like sets in mathematics, (I hear you groan) culture too has subsets and overlaps and intersects. In Pakistan, we have a national culture as well as ethnic, social and religious cultures. Put simply, culture is a common set of customs, rituals amongst a group of people.
In a professional context, two groups of people (apart from the C-suite) are very concerned about culture – HR teams and marketers. HR professionals are the custodians of a company’s culture. Marketers are the people who either enforce a culture or alter it through their communication.
Over the last 10 years, people have generally been taken aback to find out that many of their beliefs and habits were the result of work done by savvy marketers and malleable scientists. For example, the belief that milk is the best source of calcium or that drinking eight glasses of water a day is essential to health. Or Nike’s role in making jogging cool. I am sure there are a million ways in which marketers have changed the culture of a society. Neil Christy always gives the example of how Coca-Cola was the brains behind the popularity of Santa Claus, having used him in their advertising in the thirties.
In Pakistan too, brands have played a role in defining our culture and even changing it. A straightforward example is the switch from homemade masalas to ready-made or packaged masalas. This was not accomplished easily. Women had strong opinions about packet masalas. However, through psychology and smart marketing brands, like National Foods, managed to win women over to their products. Or take lawn. A former colleague who had been in textiles was flabbergasted at the rise in the popularity of lawn; according to him, lawn used to be an unpopular product and the factory used to throw it away. Today, lawn is the highest-selling fabric across textile and clothing brands. It is highly probable that some excellent marketing had a part to play in this.
To change a culture, a brand needs to first become part of the consideration set. I attended a talk where Adil Moosajee, the founder of Ego, said that rather than spending money on advertising, he identified a number of working women and gave them four to five outfits to wear at work and at functions. His strategy was excellent, as women tend to observe what other women wear and may want to buy something from the same brand, if not the same outfit. This reminded me of how Apple made the iPod popular by paying people to stand in public spaces using the device with its distinctive earphones. People passing by recognised the brand and became more receptive to buying it.
Yet, not all marketing efforts are successful in changing a culture. Here are two examples. The percentage of unbanked people in Pakistan is still in the high 80s, despite efforts towards financial inclusivity. Eighty percent of consumers still use unbranded milk; yet given the marketing spend that went on converting people to branded milk, it seems unbelievable that such a large majority of people has not still converted.
One way for brand managers to change cultural norms is not to tackle them head-on. Entrenched beliefs are like a powerful young bulldog with a bit of cloth between its teeth. You can try all you can, but you won’t be able to remove the cloth. You need to distract the dog or patiently wait. Let’s go back to the case of packaged masalas. Brands could have easily played on the convenience factor of packaged masalas. However, instead of helping the cause, this would have had the opposite effect, because of the entrenched belief that women who used packaged masalas do not love their home and family enough. It was the perception that had to be tackled first.
One way forward is to bring about a paradigm shift, which is what Volkswagen did when it launched the Golf. Research showed that people perceived small cars to be relatively less safe than bigger cars. Volkswagen developed a very graphic ad to alter this perception. They showed situations where people, when under attack, adopted the foetal position to protect themselves. In a similar way, the limitations of packaged masalas could have been reversed by showing that a woman who really does care for her family will want to be with them rather than spend hours in the kitchen. See how Gluco smartly moved from being considered a brand for babies to becoming a brand for growing children. EBM did this by changing the way Gluco was perceived by showing older children in their advertising who were overachievers either in their studies or in sports. They reinforced this by changing the packaging and the tagline to ‘Strong bano smart raho.’
By reframing the conversation, Pakistani brands can walk the culture tightrope.
Tyrone Tellis is Marketing Manager,