Of Symbols, Rituals and Heroes

According to John Naisbitt, in this era of glabalisation, the more universal we become, the more tribal we act.  As we adopt more and more global symbols (read Coke, McDonald, Reebok), there is a strong revival of everything local. When Japan became a big economic power, it was easy to be deceived into thinking it had “Westernised.’ The traditional patterns of familial relationships, and other social codes, however, just shifted from rural family life to urban corporate life. With changes in lifestyle, there is a danger of falling into the trap of lamenting over lost values. In India, children expressing their opinions more openly – seen as loss of respect for elders- is a reaction to the dependence relationship of parent-child. However, most young people continue to live with their parents and are happy to have arranged marriages. Research must direct marketers beyond universal motivations and desires to the cultural meaning of products and communication.

We are all aware that the advertising for Coke, Pepsi, McDonald’s, Colgate and other MNCs in India, in all likelihood, is different from that used in any other country. ‘Yeh Dil Maange More’ with Sachin and Amitabh, Aamir Khan in his ethnic ‘avataars’ for Coca Cola and the Surf Excel ad, with the whole neighbourhood giving advice to the young, first-time-buyer of a washing machine, are so Indian. Effective advertising must reflect the ‘culture’ of a society with manifestations of culture being the symbols, heroes/icons, rituals and values of that society. While these are visible to everybody, their meaning is only understood and shared by people in that culture. Symbols are the most superficial manifestations of culture and values are the deepest.

Symbols include words, dress, hairstyle, music, status symbols etcetra. New symbols are easily adopted and old ones disappear or take on new meanings – ‘bindi’ a sign of marital status for Hindus, is today a fashion accessory with the likes of Madonna popularising it in the West. And aspirational symbols today may be jeans, short hair, Reebok shoes, cell phones as opposed to saris, braided hair and Bata chappals

Icons are persons or fantasy figures who serve as role models. These too are constantly changing. Earlier our icons were Mahatama Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Today they are Bill Gates, Dhirubhai Ambani, and Harshad Mehta. Filmstars, sports personalities, celebrities are often used as icons by advertisers.

Rituals are socially essential activites like marriage, social and religious ceremonies. Most rituals continue to be practised today but maybe they are packaged differently. Think of the mega events for garbha and e-cards on your birthday.

Values are broad tendencies to prefer certain states of affairs over others. They deal with evil vs. good, ugly vs. beautiful, sacrifice vs. gratification and so on. It is important to differentiate between the desirable and the desired values; how people think the world ought to be versus what people want for themselves. Lord Ram may stand for the desirable value but the desired may be  someone who can out-manouvre his detractors and does not have to lead a life of deprivation and sacrifice.

This model of culture can be used for building brand architecture. Think of your brand as a ‘culture’. For example Sunsilk could look like this; core value- make the hair bring out the best in you, rituals – hair care aka salon, icons – the Sunsilk girl who has a brilliant hair day no matter what, symbols – beauty and glamour.

Geert Hofstede, an organisational anthropologist through extensive quantitative research has shown that there are five dimensions of cultural patterns and that these can be used to explain differences across cultures of different countries. These dimensions also help marketers and advertisers to make their products and services relevant and successfully communicate the same to the consumer:

1.    Power Distance (PD) – It is the extent to which members of a society accept that power is unequally distributed. In large PD countries there is a hierarchy in relationships such as parent-child, teacher-student, and boss-subordinate. The one superior in rank or status cannot be argued with and must be respected. Status symbols are more frequently used in large PD cultures as in India. Communication is based on aspirations using role models. There is belief in the ‘expert opinion’ – so numerous endorsements by celebrities as opinion leaders. Products serve as means for identification with those in power; surrogate whiskey advertising, cigarettes (India Kings), cars, clothes are some examples that use this appeal.

2.    Collectivism versus Individualism – The contrast can be defined as people belonging to in-groups that look after them in exchange for loyalty versus people looking after themselves and their immediate family only. In  collective societies (India) there is a tendency to conform. Products and titles are collectively agreed symbols of wealth and status such as a Mercedes Benz, a gold plated Rolex, and, becoming a doctor, lawyer or engineer. Product usage tends to be shown in a group or family situations. Indica even uses the line “more car per car’ to suggest that it is a good family car and the ads for  Maruti show how their promotional schemes put the whole family in an upbeat mood. In high individualistic societies (USA), there is non-conformity and products demonstrate user individuality.

3.    Masculinity versus Femininity – The dominant values in a masculine society (India) are achievement and success, while the dominant values in a feminine society are caring for others and quality of life. This dimension discriminates between cultures particularly with respect to values related to winning, success and status which are much used in advertising appeals. Therefore, there are well developed status symbols in these societies. Man/woman of the Year is the ideal for people in masculine cultures because mediocrity is proof of failure. Even women are ambitious and competitive but may channel this through their children and husband. This kind of advertising appeal is used from detergent powders to television sets and refrigerators.

4.    Uncertainty Avoidance(UA) – It is the extent to which people feel threatened by uncertainty and ambiguity and try to avoid these situations. In high UA societies there is low tolerance for uncertainty and they try to cope with it by making rules and prescribing behaviour. With low uncertainty avoidance, as in India, there is high brand loyalty, emphasis on superstition and religion, and importance of perceived popularity; ‘Laakhon ki pasand’ is a ubiquitous appeal in Indian advertising.

5.    Long-Term Orientation(LTO) Versus Short-Term Orientation(STO)
– LTO is the extent to which a society exhibits a pragmatic future-oriented perspective rather than a short-term point of view. Most East Asian countries including India,score high on LTO index. The characteristics of such societies are perseverance, hierarchy in relationships, thrift, ancestor worship and having a sense of shame. Pragmatism is an important aspect of most East Asian cultures. They adapt to other cultures in such a way that it may be mistaken for becoming Westernenised. Pragmatism makes people prefer what ‘works’ over what is “true” or what is “right.”

To sum up, a proper understanding of ‘culture’ can make the difference between the success and failure of a brand.

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