Establishing a cultural connect


We have come a long way since Thomas Friedman highlighted the impact of the globalised world in his book, “The World is Flat” in 2005.

Today, a globalised world is taken for granted and nowadays when you play a game on your app, you may face off against anyone from any part of the world and this was vividly brought alive to me, during a game on QuizUp, when I went up against another player from Antartica. Could I have imagined doing this 10 or 15 years ago on my dear old Nokia 3310 when the most fun I could have on the mobile was playing Snake.

The world of brands has also evolved in this timeframe to a great extent and as Myspace and Ryze have given way to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram, where geographical boundaries mean very little and the world becomes a little more flat every single day, and the boundaries of distance become meaningless, we also wonder if the cultural boundaries are also blurring.

As marketers and brands address new geographies and countries, it is tempting to assume that ideas which have acquired traction in one geography will be transferable to others, but for an idea to cross into new geographies it has to understand the cultural context of consumers in the new geographies and use this understanding in an integral way in its brand promise and communication.

In fact, one may argue that as the world becomes flat, the challenge for large global brands has become tougher, information and technology democratisation has allowed new nimble challengers to emerge even as a global brand faces off against its traditional competitors.

The only answer is to understand and define the new cultural context in which we will be operating and incorporate this understanding in our brand strategies, this column will derive some learning through case studies of brands which have faced such cultural challenges and have navigated them successfully or faced difficulties.

This becomes even more important in India where brands have to be sensitive not only to the ‘Indian’ culture but also the disparate regional cultures.

The challenge of relevance
The first and most important challenge which brands need to address is the challenge of ‘Relevance’, while it is tempting to transfer successful ideas across geographies, it is vital to first ask if there is a need for the product in the Indian context and if yes, how should we build a brand to address this need. Consider the category of ready-to-eat foods in India, which after years of efforts even today struggles to cross the Rs 100 crore barrier.

The ready-to-eat category in India suffers from a huge challenge of relevance, unlike in many international markets, the percentage of working couples and consequently working moms in India. Only 15% of Indian women in the top two socio economic segments viz. SEC AB are working and given the pricing this is the segment which most ready-to-eat brands seem to be targeting (Source: Indian Readership Survey 2013). Then is the story of convenience or quickness which many brands seem to be extolling to drive this shift. A relevant story is something which brands will need to consider in driving their brand strategies to address this segment.

The challenge of habit
Kellogg’s entered the Indian market in 1994 with the launch of its corn flakes and 20 years later as per the last estimate is still just worth Rs 300 crore as a company (Source: Outlook India April 13, 2013). Of course the brand took some time to arrive at the right price value equation and distribution. But still faces the challenge of habit as Indians prefer a hot breakfast to a cold one, whether it’s upma, poha, pongal or idli-dosa depending on the region and culture.

And many of those who have tried would attest that Cornflakes in hot milk are not really a great combination quickly transforming into a soggy mass. Given the vital role that milk plays in our culture, could a product which performed well with hot milk have transformed the fortunes of Kellogg’s in India is something worth thinking about.

In contrast, one has to only look at the relatively spectacular success that oats as a category has achieved in India led by Quaker Oats which first addressed the crying need of heart health, in a nation where hypertension afflicts large segments of the population and then quickly integrated oats into the Indian cultural context by popularizing recipes for dosa, uttapa to kheer from Oats carving out a clear role in the Indian cultural spectrum.

Saffola has raised the game even further with the launch of masala oats which address the taste deficit in the bland oats without resorting to time consuming recipes and have virtually converted themselves into a healthier version of noodles quickly powering its way to be a leader in the nascent yet fast growing oats category.

The challenge of local innovation
In the globalized world, there is something comfortable for international brands and that is the presence of international competitors. These competitors are the known enemies, we tend to know how they operate, what are their strengths and weaknesses, their brand philosophy and direction and often we also have people who have worked with them in our system.
The challenge is that as we enter new markets, there are many local brands which behave in unexpected ways and throw up significant obstacles.

Consider Wagh Bakri tea which has resisted every effort of mighty brands like Unilever and Tata Tea to maintain a stranglehold on the Gujarat market with a 50% market share and has gained a further 25% share in Rajasthan. Wagh Bakri has achieved this by gaining a deep insight into local cultures and habits and customizing its product for each sub region in its market e.g. the flavour of Wagh Bakri tea in Southern Gujarat is blended to stand out in the creamier milk which is used in that region (Source: Business Standard June 6, 2011 and Business Today June 10, 2012).

Or take the case of another regional brand – Bovonto which has proven itself to be a tough competitor to Pepsi and Coke in the TN market and even commands a slight price premium. Even as other cola brands in the country faltered or sold out, Bovonto has survived by leveraging its unique grape cola taste as a strong differentiator. Similarly, Sosyo has tenaciously held on in the Gujarat market with an approximately 30% share with a unique taste reminiscent of alcohol and was initially branded Whisky not before becoming Socio and then Sosyo, a unique proposition in the only state in India with prohibition.

Local challengers have not only become relevant in pockets but on a national scale, like Amul ice cream which leveraged the long standing Indian belief in the goodness of milk and its position as India’s leading milk brand by far to position itself as Real Milk, Real Ice Cream even as it repositioned Walls and Baskin Robbins as frozen desserts, which could not compare with the goodness of milk.

These brands are just a tip of the iceberg. Across categories we have seen brands which have used a keen insight into local culture to build and maintain leadership at a national or regional level, whether its Fogg, which addressed the value seeking nature of the Indian consumer with its no gas, more perfume message or Santoor which has succeeded by building on a strong consumer insight and is among the leading soap brands in the country today.

These three challenges are just the tip of the iceberg.

But the story is not all one sided, local innovation can actually create winning products which could in turn become global brands in their own right, Fair and Lovely which originated in India is today a part of Unilever’s brand portfolio in many countries, ITC’s Kitchens of India brings the flavours of India alive in many countries across the globe.

As India evolves, we are bound to see increasing competition across categories, geographies and town classes among brands and we are equally likely to see some high pitched battles for mind share and market share.
Brands, local or global, which pay keen attention to local cultural nuances and are able to calibrate strategies both in terms of positioning and proposition by being sensitive to these nuances will have a bright future.

Sunil Shetty- FCBUlka

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