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The need for culture-sensitive marketing

By Madhukar Sabnavis
Last updated on: March 06, 2009 18:08 IST
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In the early 1990s, a pioneering CEO, who was not marketing-trained, while briefing the agency on a press advertisement, said innocently, "Let us first list all the points we want to say about our brand in the ad.

Then let's choose the most important one for the headline and say the rest in body copy." It sounded both naïve and heretic - after all, classical marketing and advertising theory we were brought up on by men like Philip Kotler, Al Reis and Jack Trout stated that brands and ads need to be single-minded.

When we pointed this out to this CEO, he jocularly quipped: "Single-mindedness is the creation of lazy advertising people. Consumers buy a cache of benefits and we need advertising to reflect this." We obeyed him because he was the client and we built a brand that, today, stands tall in the Indian market!

A decade and half of Indian liberalisation and the entry of global brands into this country seem to establish that much of marketing theory published in books and taught in management schools needs to be re-evaluated when it comes to markets like India.

Is this a case of stage of market development or is this a deeper reflection of cultural differences that need to be recognised and taken into consideration? Is culture-neutral marketing and marketing principles a possibility or is it the new marketing myopia?

Marketing gurus from the west have built their theories based on the belief that consumers, where ever they are, behave the same. After all, consumer needs, wants and desires are universal - and human motivations are the same. So why should marketing to consumers across the globe be different?

But consider the following. Paul Harris, a famous sociologist said, "Consumers globalise, people don't." Brands are built not only in consumers' minds, but also in the hearts and minds of people.

And one big defining factor of people is culture. Culture, as defined by Carl Jung, is the collective unconscious, that is built over centuries and passed on from generation to generation much like physical characteristics and genes. And culture defines the way collective groups of people think and behave.

Move from one country to another and you are moving from one culture to another - in fact, even within India as you move north to south, you are moving from one set of collective behaviours to another set.

Gert Hofstede, in his seminal work on culture, defined the five dimensions of culture - power distance, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance and long-term orientation. He evaluated different nations and religions on these parameters. India scores 80 on power distance while the US scores only 40. On individualism, India scores only 40 while the US is at 90!

Clearly India is an affiliative yet hierarchal culture, while the US is more equal yet individualistic. Christians score 80 on the uncertainty avoidance index while Hindus are more comfortable with risk at 38. On power distance, Hindus are at a high 75 while Christians are more equal at 30. How does all this affect marketing and consumer behaviour?

David Ogilvy, many years ago, postulated that popularity can never be a positioning platform. No one buys a product because others like it, he asserted. In an individualistic culture, this is very true.

However in an affiliative culture like ours, this may not be a non-option. At one level, there is comfort in numbers --  just because so many people like it, it must be good. At another level, popularity also helps in giving a sense of belonging and inclusiveness- and so, not surprisingly, it works in a society like India.

Standing out is not a good thing for many people! Many advertisements subliminally work because they show lots of people consuming the product; so consumers de-code it as saying that the product is acceptable to many people and so good for everyone!

Similarly, marketing based in a culture of equality is comfortable with 'democratic' brands - brands that can both functionally and emotionally cater to people across socio-economic classes. Thus, brands can own categories and stretch across the economic demographics of the culture quite comfortably.

The only reason for multi-brands in such markets is the existence of different psychographic segments. However, in a hierarchical and socio- based class society like India, it could mean brands for different economic demographics -- as psychographics is closely linked to demographics.

This implies that when a brand reaches the lower classes, it unconsciously distances itself from the upper classes. And thus, brands can exist and operate in tiers! Not surprisingly, as categories have evolved over the last decade and half, brands exist that have distinct imageries catering to different socio-economic segments.

A third interesting dimension of cultural difference is how brand loyalty gets built. In his book, Geography of Thought, Richard Nesbitt talks about the fundamental 'distrusting' nature of Eastern culture and that is very true of India too. Earning trust and thus respect is the most important value in any business transaction.

This has interesting implications for branding. Western marketing principles believe in the need to create love and desire as a means to strengthen brand loyalty. 'How far will you go to get the brand you want' is the ultimate test of brand loyalty.

In India, the strongest test is: 'Would you buy another product from this brand blindly?' - trust being the driving force behind brand loyalty. So this, perhaps, explains why brands are able to transcend categories so easily unlike the west where brands tend to get locked into specific categories. Brands like Tata, Birla and Reliance are able to sell diverse products from manufactured goods to financial services to software on the back of 'trust' created.

Much marketing that has evolved in India reflects the culture because most marketers in India have been Indians and so unconsciously adapted western principles for Indian needs.

However, conceptually there is a need for marketing thinkers to re-evaluate models of marketing and branding developed in the west and consider introducing cultural sensitivity to it. After all, if human relations are defined by cultures, then brands - which ultimately are about product-people relationships - cannot remain agnostic to them.

Something worth thinking about.

The writer is Country Head, Discovery and Planning, Ogilvy and Mather, India.

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Madhukar Sabnavis
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