How brands can tap into cultural nuances to connect with consumers

Brands don’t exist in a vacuum. One cannot deny that cultural context affects the way brands must behave and conduct business in a country. Next time you’re at a McDonald’s restaurant in India, look out for the sign that says “No beef and beef products sold here.”

But how can the cultural context be leveraged to help Indian brands succeed? To understand the “how,” let’s first tackle the “why.”

It might seem counterintuitive to focus on a local story in today’s aspiring, globally engaged India. But the observant will note that the reality is growing to be quite the opposite. Among all the firang (foreign) influences permeating Indian culture today, Indians crave some shuddh desi ghee (traditional clarified butter used in Indian cuisine).

Bye bye Prada, hello Patanjali.

This isn’t just an Indian phenomenon. The Brexit vote, for example, is symptomatic of a number of countries on the fence between globalization and nationalization. Brands represent ideals, values and identities. As such, when they ally themselves with cultural values or national pride, they are able to tap into a deep well of preexisting emotion.

With foreign players like Starbucks and their ilk penetrating the Indian market, Indian companies can leverage this Indian need for identity in order to drive brand loyalty. Even in a time when brands enjoy less consumer loyalty—culture sells. It’s even inflation-proof.

If you’re trying to answer the question, “How do I get the Indian customer to care about me?” this certainly does seem to be a winning strategy. However, building a narrative around people’s cultural values and beliefs is a double-edged sword to be wielded with caution. In a country like India, a minefield of sentiments and opinions, you have to do it right.

Credit: Patanjali

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Here are the five things you need to keep in mind.

  1. Credibility is a must

While this may seem par for the course, authenticity is the backbone of any cultural or social proposition. Authenticity is built over time, so this one is less of a criterion and more of a conviction. Think about it. Missionary schools in India don’t sell a belief system, they live it.

  1. Don’t overplay it

Unless you happen to actually be a guru or Narendra Modi, the hero of your story cannot be religion or politics. It should, instead, manifest as part of the driving values of the brand. Think of Patanjali. It is not a brand with spiritual products per se. The brand instead leverages founder Baba Ramdev’s image as a yoga guru to associate itself with the idea of natural, pure, healthy and Indian—qualities directly relevant to the products it sells.

  1. Be sensitized to the topics you are dealing with

In the internet age, where brands face the constant threat of the social media shredder, death by tweets and hashtags is a stark reality. The recent Pepsi Live for Now film illustrates this point. The advertising that appeared to be capitalizing on the protests taking place in the United States ultimately did the brand more harm than good.

  1. Find the right point of resonance between your brand and the social message

The lack of resonance between a brand and a social message can ultimately lead to the failure of a campaign. In contrast, Dettol, a brand of soap and cleaning products, was able to ally itself with Prime Minister Modi’s Swachh Bharat (Clean India) initiative with great success as a brand that has stood for hygiene and sanitation over the years. The brand outperformed category growth. Similarly, Tata Tea’s Jaago Re (Awaken) campaigns to raise awareness around social issues connected at a fundamental level with its products’ “refreshing” properties.

  1. Use language as an ally of the nation

Brands are able to tug on our collective Indian heartstrings with well-timed slogans like “Bleed Blue,” to support India’s cricket team. I am personally susceptible to the word desh (native land) as used in Tata Salt’s desh ka namak campaign to recognize people who in some way are giving back to India; or Hero Honda’s desh ki dhadkan, which celebrates India’s cultural and geographic diversity. The dairy brand Amul has consistently been there at every turning point in Indian history with a well-placed pun in the world’s longest running campaign, establishing the brand’s credibility as a commentator.

Credit: Nike, Bleed Blue

Indians are embracing their roots and culture, and there is great value to be found for brands tapping into cultural nuances. As with most things in branding, the key is finding your story and telling it right. The big difference? Your story already lives in the hearts of consumers; it’s just waiting to be unlocked.

Sanjana Mathur is Strategist and Client Manager at Landor, Mumbai.