The power of cultural context

S RAMESH KUMAR | Updated on January 23, 2018

Package design and communication that borrow heavily from the ethnic culture are complex compared to those that do not

The interesting article on minimalist design in cat.a.lyst last week ( Why Less is More) made me think about the differences between western culture and ethnic Indian culture and how such differences can affect branding associations and related decisions. Apple, Chanel, Nike, Longines and Mercedes that follow minimalist design and communication are western brands. Paper Boat and Titan Edge, to mention a few Indian brands that have adopted minimalist packaging and communication, are higher-end brands in terms of their prices and therefore bound to target consumers who prefer costlier brands for a variety of reasons – minimalistic looks being one.

Given the influence of western cultures on the Indian context after liberalisation, consumers at the higher end of the price spectrum seem inclined towards brands that have a western orientation and hence their acceptability.

High and low context cultures

At a fundamental level does culture play a part in making brands minimalist or otherwise? Culture at a basic level is shared meaning in context and has a number of dimensions associated with it. There can be eating habits, habits of hygiene, grooming culture, dressing culture and culture of addressing others, to name a few.

One of the distinguishing features of culture is “high cultural context” and “low cultural context”. This categorisation has interesting implications on conspicuous consumption as well as on the mindset of consumers who are a part of the marketing environment. Both factors influence branding.

Low cultural context is one where cultural cues add little meaning when communication/ interaction takes place between the consumer and marketer.

There is little influence of emotions, gestures and implicit understanding of cultural cues and symbols. Germany is a low culture environment and so is Sweden. In a high cultural context, inherent cultural cues that include symbols and emotions have an impact on communication.

Water given to a stranger (hospitality), exaggerated expressions of emotions (Surf Excel’s ad that showed a boy performing antics in the mud and dirtying himself to bring a smile to the face of his teacher who has lost her dog, linking to the detergent brand’s proposition is an example), story-telling that is inherent in Indian ads and most Hindu women not wearing a white sari to a wedding are examples of ‘high context culture’.

Brands and high context culture

Ethnic mainstream culture includes a mix of colours, diverse emotions that include “story-telling”, familial relationships and images that reflect symbolic meanings and an exaggerated expression of emotions. Marketing communications and packaging design by and large associated with the mainstream culture are quite complex as compared with those in the low cultural context settings.

Diverse emotions

Top Spin is a biscuit introduced by Parle. Its ad depicts an airhostess getting confused about the destination of the aircraft because she is indulging in eating these biscuits (humour that conveys the taste of the biscuit, which is aimed at adults). Maggi noodles, which has over 70 per cent of the market share in the category, has introduced an ad that involves the interaction between a daughter and her mother. The daughter, who is about to set off as an independent adult, makes noodles that has the mother exclaiming they taste exactly like hers, and the daughter says that’s because it’s her recipe (brand revitalising in a competitive environment). Raga’s recent ad that reflects the gender equality and self-reliance of the protagonist is another example of simple story-telling that creates an association with the self-concept of the consumer. The lady tells her former boyfriend in a chance meeting that she would rather have her job than have continued the relationship which expected her to be home-bound after marriage.

The mother–child relationship is universal in its bonding but the Indian cultural context seems to have had a major impact on the ads of brands that have used such relationships for the past several decades. Horlicks, Vicks, Complan, Clinic Plus, Kellogg’s, Dettol, Glucon D, Rasna, Tang, Parachute’s sub brands, Surf Excel, Raga and Bournvita are just some of the brands that have used this relationships in ads with the power of story-telling.

Exaggerated emotions

A few ads can be compared to the exaggeration of happiness that was reflected by Johnson & Johnsons’s One Touch (Horizon) sugar monitoring meter intended for diabetics. The ad showed a young happy family with a kid celebrating the happiness of using the meter to monitor the sugar level of the husband/father. Onset of diabetes in anyone is a concern and the sugar meter provides valuable and timely inputs with convenience as the value addition. It may be interesting to study how such “exaggerated emotions” are conveyed in other cultures by marketers promoting similar offerings.

Package design, product form

The ethnic cultural context seems to continue with several product forms/preparations that have existed for decades despite new forms of substitutes appearing. Detergent bars (non-existent in the West), tea being made with milk and tea heated together (a practice unknown to the West), use of turmeric for the skin (one is reminded of the success of Santoor soap) and usage of natural herbs for hair (reflected in the low penetration of shampoo in India) are some examples. Package designs are quite complex due to the preference for loud colors (Parachute and Reynold pens are exceptions and they may have benefited by the unique pack/product designs due to the contract they had created with the offerings from the unorganised sector which is yet another feature of the Indian marketing culture).

India is too eclectic and vibrant to be contained only by the cultural fantasies of the West – at least at this point in time.

S Ramesh Kumar is Professor of Marketing, IIM - Bangalore

Published on April 02, 2015

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