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Madhukar Sabnavis: Get into culture

Advertising built on cultural insights forges strong brand connect

Madhukar Sabnavis 

An NRI family was coming home to visit siblings in India. My friend couldn’t resist noticing that instead of mixing with their local relatives, the NRI family stuck to each other. It made him remark, “Through the visit, my brother’s family stuck to each other like Fevicol.” A brand and its advertising had suddenly become a part of everyday language usage. My friend was far removed from advertising and marketing.

When India recaptured part of Kargil heights from the enemy in 1999, one of the brave soldiers led the cheers by shouting, “Yeh dil maange more,” repeating a line from the then-running Pepsi campaign. Somewhere a base line, a set of words in a popular advertisement had left such an impact that in the chilling zone of Kargil, the soldier couldn’t resist expressing his desires using brand language.

Fevicol is an interesting brand. It exists in a category that is low involvement — glue. It’s an unseen, intermediary product used by carpenters to make furniture. An average end consumer is more interested in the end furniture rather than the little ingredients that go into making it. Yet, like a pioneer, the brand owner decided to create a mass brand of it some twenty years ago and created a series of interesting TV commercials based on ‘unbreakable bonds’. What’s more interesting about the Fevicol story is that every execution is based on strong local insights and observations. Whether it is ‘overloaded buses’ lumbering away like a camel with people precariously perched on them or the Indian joint family enquiring from one another whether a plant has been watered, every single execution captures an idiosyncracy of India and thus makes it so very India-relevant. For the average non-Indian, the advertising is unusual and entertaining; for the Indian viewer it goes beyond, it makes the brand a part of his fabric. And thus the line ‘yeh Fevicol ka jodh hai’ (‘It’s a Fevicol bond’) becomes a part of our culture. (Fascinatingly, the line has never been used as a baseline in advertising!)

It’s a commonly accepted fact in marketing theory that great advertising is based on strong insights. One school believes in having insights that emerge from the product and its usage. Dove has been built over decades on the simple product insight that ‘soap dries skin; Dove doesn’t because of its one quarter moisturising cream’. Polaroid was built on the insight that ‘people enjoy seeing themselves in photographs’. The other school — the school that propounds that the world is one big market and consumers across the world are all the same with the same basic motivations — believes in ‘human truths’, ie, fundamental human drives and motivations. Nike’s advertising of ‘Just do it’ is based on the fundamental human drive to win; Volkswagen’s successful campaign of the 1990s was built on the truth ‘Life is uncertain and unpredictable’. Closer home, the Tata Safari campaign of ‘Reclaim your life’ is based on the truth that most corporate executives are ‘successful outside, unhappy inside’; Pepsodent’s ‘Dhishum Dhishum’ series is based on a mother’s constant fear: “Who is taking care of my child when I am not around?” They endear because they connect with basic human psychology.

However, as the centre of gravity of business moves eastwards, there is perhaps a need to revaluate whether the Anglo-Saxon view of effective advertising still holds. While product and human truths do have their roles, the cultural differences between the east and west open up a third type of insight- cultural insights. Deep diving into local culture and integrating into it could help brands to make deeper connects with their audience.

Every culture is rich in symbols, heroes and rituals. Language is one strong symbol. Pepsi, over the years, has successfully managed to create new idioms and phrases to become part of the local landscape. Its competitor, Coke, ran a very successful campaign earlier in this decade tapping into the Indian custom of referring to cold drinks as ‘Thanda’ — using language to force local connect. Unlike Pepsi which creates new vocabulary, Coke identified and owned prevalent language — both good ways to get into culture and make people feel “this is my brand.”

However, understanding and using unique local rituals can forge stronger ties. Asian Paints today is one of the few players that is a leader in its category and yet Indian. Its campaign in the 1990s, ‘Celebrate with Asian Paints’, tapped into the great Indian festival rituals, which not only made it synonymous with paint but also created strong associations with festivals — rituals close to the average Indian’s heart. Fair & Lovely’s brand strength comes because its advertising is built on a strong Indian (and perhaps Asian) desire to look fair. ‘Fair is beautiful’ is so embedded in the Indian psyche that a brand that promises the transformation and benefits of the same makes it dear to the average Indian. Cadbury Dairy Milk in the last five years has embarked on a journey of ‘Indianising’ a western sweet by placing itself in the context of Indian sweets. It is attempting to own the Indian ‘muh meetha karna’ moments — the latest ‘Pay Day’ commercial being one more effort in that direction. Not surprisingly, the ‘Kuch meetha ho jaye’ campaign connects at a very local level and the brand is seeing growth in both market and mindshares.

As markets get more crowded and competitive, the need for emotional differentiation increases. Much of western marketing thinking is based on finding emotional benefits in universal human truths. But with the rise of non-Anglo-Saxon markets, there is an opportunity to connect using cultural insights. Historically, many local connects have come naturally as advertising creative people write from personal experience and knowledge. In future, there is perhaps a need to understand local culture better to consciously tap local symbols, heroes and rituals and thus take the brand closer to consumers.

Winner of two Gold Cannes from India this year, The Times of India ‘Nakka Mukka’ commercial, made for the Chennai market, is based on double roles: of Chennai/Madras, cinema/politics, superstar/minister. It was delivered in the language of ‘cut-outs’ — all based on a deep understanding of local culture. The Cannes recognition could be a reflection of the current western fascination for local nuances; however, it could be used as an opportunity to make ‘culture’ a part of strategic thinking. We must always remember that advertising is about addressing both consumers and people. And culture is an integral part of ‘people’.

Something worth thinking about.

The author can be contacted at madhukar.  Views expressed are personal.

First Published: Fri, July 03 2009. 00:56 IST