Indonesia inherited diversity through its geographical layout of 18,000+ islands and 1,300+ ethnic groups. The task to tie together a nation that is spatially and culturally disparate required conscious integration, designed through a cohesive system of three key forces geared to induce inclusivity: Religion, colonisation and political identity.
Interestingly, while each of these historical forces helped unify the nation, it also unintentionally positioned Java and Javanese culture as the dominant heritage.
Religion: Islam in Indonesia entered through trading routes and the acceptance of Islam helped elevate business through enhanced networks in commerce. As Java was the hub of trade and commerce at the time, growth of Islam and Islamic practices became influenced by Javanese culture and pre-existing religious practices of Hinduism and Buddhism. As Islam spread to other Islands, some of the Javanese influences on Islam travelled with it.
Colonialisation: The Colonial period marked the era that laid infrastructural foundation of the country. As Java was the political hub, greater development on the island led to greater access and mobility of the native inhabitants, allowing assimilation of Javanese culture and ideologies within various districts of the island. This assimilation strengthened the idea of one Javanese identity.
Political identity: As the country gained independence, Soekarno crafted Pancasila, an official document that outlines five principles as foundational philosophy for all Indonesians.
These five principles were highly influenced by Soekarno’s belief that Javanese culture is the key to lead a perfect life (as seen in his speech delivered on July 1982). Thus, once again, through Pancasila, the Javanese way of life was positioned as the dominant culture that rest of Indonesia should follow.
The dominance and centrality of Java and Javanese culture continues to date. This is reflected through many facets of governance, policy-making, pop culture reference, and even through the marketing strategies adopted by most brands...and rightly so!
However, some of the macro political and social shifts currently happening in the country may change this narrative in near future.
One of the biggest contributors to this shift in the power structure of the islands is expected to be the recent bill passed to shift the capital of the nation from Jakarta to Nusantara, Borneo. While there are many reasons for the shift of the capital, one of the key reasons, as announced by President Jokowi, is the hope to bring national and international attention to the eastern part of the country. The belief is that Jakarta and Java have benefitted from attention in the past and now it is time to throw the spotlight on other, more resourceful and less developed islands of the country—allowing for the rise of newer cities and social groups.
Another factor lending a critical hand to this shift is the power of internet and social media. Platforms like Instagram, Tiktok and YouTube promote a fluid exchange of thoughts, beliefs and ideas amongst Indonesians living across islands. This exchange can be a conscious, like the tribal ikat inspired fusion fashion showcased in New York fashion week 2019 by designers Dian Pelangi and Maggie Hutauruk, or subconscious, like the virality of Sumatran YouTube star Ria Ruci’s mermaid look or Atta Halilintar’s hairstyle and bandana look, across Islands. In either case, the internet plays an unbiased role in presenting the richness of diversity in art, culture and heritage that Indonesia enjoys.
Thus, we can confidently ascertain that as political efforts gain momentum, newer cities across Indonesia, especially non-Java islands, will emerge. And as people in these new cities gain traction, they will evolve and grow imbued with a sense of affirmation, confidence and renewed pride in self and local culture
A great example capturing this shift are Ambon and Makassar. Both cities are enjoying rapid development and a spotlight as budding music hubs and trading gateways for eastern Indonesia, respectively. As the cities are growing, so are their residents. However, interestingly, the evolution of the people is happening in its own way, on its own terms. People are shifting their way of life such that they can continue to keep the Ambonese and Sulawesi cultures alive.
Just like Ambon and Makassar, new cities across various non-Javanese islands will emerge soon. Consequently, we will see the rise of culturally rooted communities wherein people are redefining their identity while retaining current sensibilities, preference and attitudes.
Each of these blooming non-Javanese communities present a new set of potential consumers for brands. And brands need to prepare to connect with this new consumer who comes with their own set of beliefs, values and aspirations.
As a first step towards this preparation, brands need to evolve with the consumer and consciously move away from the ‘all Indonesians are the same’ point of view to recognising that Indonesia is a mosaic of distinct cultures. This shift in perspective will help brands unlock new insights and adopt new strategies to resonate with the lived reality of the emerging consumer.
A few thought starters on how brands can create resonance with the new consumers....
Celebrate local pride: The idea of local pride is shifting from Pan-Indonesia to specific regions, smaller communities and even particular ethnic groups. President Jokowi’s 'Bangga Buatan Indonesian' ('Proud of Indonesian product') campaign has given this sentiment a big push. This offers brands an opportunity to collaborate with local boutique companies and specific ethnic communities to offer products and services that reflect new consumers values and beliefs.
Personalise conversation: As the consumer base increases across non-Java islands, brands need to incorporate new style, references and aesthetic in communications—both online and offline. The new consumers expect brands to speak to them in a manner and tone that aligns with their lived reality.
Offer authenticity: Gain the trust and loyalty of the new emerging consumer by showcasing local authenticity, offering a unique and irreplicable experience. Use of ’local ingredients’ or ‘process,’ or even packaging, can be leveraged to convey the reassurance of an authentic and genuine product or service. This will help to earn the trust of the consumer.
Represent inclusivity: As Indonesian identity expands to embrace its diversity, brands need to represent it too. However, the inclusivity narrative adopted by brands should seamlessly connect with the category, remaining both true to brand identity and anchored in consumer’s reality.
Shilpi Sud is a lead at Quantum Consumer Solutions.
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