Serena Jacob
Dec 14, 2015

The context of culture: Be aware of local nuances

Although global culture is more homogenous than ever, failure to appreciate local customs, values and even physical gestures can still have a detrimental impact on sales.

Serena Jacob
Serena Jacob

Globalisation has had a rapid and irreversible impact on consumers in Asia Pacific. Small rural villages are now no strangers to global brands, western fashions can be bought from chain stores across the region and international celebrities can be followed by anyone with an internet connection.

But while ‘international’ holds a very real allure for consumers in many of Asia's markets, there is also an underlying counter phenomenon. Despite being open to exciting new global brands, many consumers have a deep-seated desire to preserve and showcase their own culture and maintain their unique cultural identity. As American futurist John Naisbitt predicted in Megatrends 2000, “as our outer worlds grow more similar, we will increasingly treasure the traditions that spring from within".

These ingrained cultural nuances are still easily noticeable despite the façade of global business norms. A large company in Delhi will still wait for an auspicious day to sign a joint venture agreement with a giant MNC. Walk around Jakarta on a Friday and you will notice people wearing the traditional batik shirts, showing their pride in Indonesia’s cultural heritage.

This paradoxical situation has led to an interesting challenge for global brands and their communication strategies: how to get the right balance when targeting a local market with a global campaign, whilst also staying true to the brand’s essence and maintaining a consistent message and tone. 

Even when a brand’s communication is based on a universal truth, how that truth manifests in different markets can vary hugely across cultures. Love, motherhood, masculinity—these are all universal concepts, yet demonstrated very differently across cultures. 

One of the main pitfalls for brands is the assumption that ‘ideals’ are consistent across countries. I encountered one case of a global personal-care brand that had signed a major soccer star as its principal endorser. The global campaign on the ‘macho’ nature of the sports star. However, the brand team discovered that in Indonesia, men would rather be quietly masculine or ‘manly’ (cowo or cowo banget). Qualitative research revealed that their ideal focused on being humble, athletic, mature and responsible—a man who gets on with his buddies, but is also attractive to women. This discovery had implications for how the campaign was rolled out locally.

Physical gestures and their cultural associations are also very important throughout Asia, and this is something outsiders can easily overlook. Another case concerned some packaging for a dairy brand. One of the packs showed a superhero character punching the air with his left hand to show the energy the drink offered. In focus groups we found that this image evoked considerable discomfort among mums in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Malaysia, who teach their children very early on that the left hand is the ‘dirty’ or ‘impolite’ hand, which should not be used for any good act such as eating or greeting someone. The packaging undermined those lessons and impacted the success of the product.

While global synergy in communication is seen by many as the holy grail of effective marketing, ensuring local relevance is the often-overlooked counterpart. Yet misreading your audience can not only impact the sales of a specific product, it can have a far-reaching effect on the overall equity of a brand. To truly understand audiences, brands need to go deeper into their culture and spot the subconscious beliefs and habits that consumers themselves are not aware of.

Serena Jacob is managing director for TNS Qualitative in Asia Pacific


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