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Culture change processes and Marketing: What’s the Connection? Part 1

Many marketers who are trying to develop and grow new or even established categories are directly or indirectly engaged in bringing about cultural change. This is particularly true in the Indian context as millions of consumers from rural and small town backgrounds enter the consumption cycle for many products and services that were never part of their traditional cultural practices or ways of life.

Many examples come to mind. It can do with converting people from using shikakai powder to shampoo for washing hair, or using sanitary napkins instead of using cloth. These are very old and established product categories. Moving on to more contemporary products, the category development task can entail getting people to replace white sugar with Stevia or cash with Paytm.

Such types of category shifts are not just about individual choices based on value propositions. They entail addressing deeply held beliefs anchored in many culturally defined practices. Whether it is shifting out of oiling hair and using shikakai powder (a practice steeped in tradition) or using sanitary napkins instead of cloth (a practice governed by menstrual taboos) or even using Paytm instead of cash (switching out of an entrenched habit), there is a culture change that needs to be engineered. It is not enough to sell product value propositions via advertising or carry out sampling and activation.

Another context is that of brands and categories that are very strong in one part of the country but are unknown or irrelevant in another part of the country. For e.g. gold loans are well established in the South with very well established brands and companies. But what happens when they want to expand their footprint and go up North. Almond oil is big in the North and coconut oil in the South for the care of hair. Can these two cross over successfully?

This perspective of marketing as a catalyst for culture change, requires a deeper understanding of culture change processes as they happen in India. While many processes could be common across many countries and societies, it is still useful to obtain an India specific understanding.  That is what I set out to do in a study that I presented at two semiotics conferences, Semiofest at Mumbai last year and the International Semiotics Congress at Buenos Aires last week.

Culture change can be a tricky area to study and identify change processes, especially in India, where in many cases, it can look like the more things change, the more they stay the same. We have anti-dowry laws and news reports of retired Judges whose family tortures their daughter-in-law in the name of dowry. We have many progressive laws that are routinely subverted in the name of social practice. So, what really has changed and what are the processes that have brought this about are difficult to determine when studying contemporary issues.

It takes the long view of history and the study of a closed system to identify culture change processes and how they are catalysed. My study looked at the encounter between the British and the musicians attached to the Southern Indian courts, at a time when the British changed from being traders to rulers. This shift in the status of the British set up a cross-cultural encounter between Western classical music and Carnatic music in the Tanjore courts. Based on a meta-study of many research papers published by cultural historians from many countries and from India, I was able to discern some significant patterns and theorize culture change in India, which is relevant to the current day as well.

I was able to identify 7 distinct change processes at work, that bring about significant shifts in cultural practices and beliefs, in the Indian context. These 7 change processes with contemporary examples are:

a.      Imperial Emulation: This is about people wanting to copy and follow only those with the greatest power in a socio-political system. The brightest sun in the firmament is the one with the aura to command the largest number of followers. It is only imperial emulation that confers prestige and higher status to followers.

In the modern context, we see the same process at work when Indians want to emulate the USA the greatest Imperial power of our times. Indians could easily use many other wealthy countries as reference points be it Japan, South Korea, Singapore or Scandinavia. But we don’t. We use only the USA as the reference point and indulge in imperial emulation.

b.      Adaptation: This is about people adapting products used by the outsider group in the cross-cultural encounter in order to make them widely accepted by the insider group. Adaptation is a necessary process for the ‘outsiders’ products to gain acceptance among the wider populace of ‘insiders’.

In recent times, we can see cultural adaptation processes at work in the modification of the Italian pizza to the Indian pizza, in the range and types of toppings used.

c.      Fusions and Hybrids: This is about experimenting with the new, by blending it with the old to create new experiences that are still familiar to the populace at large.

In contemporary times, we find fusions and hybrids to be very common in many arenas – from Sufi-Rock to Kurti-Jeans and Gulab Jamun-Ice cream.

d.      Partial Assimilation: This is about the new product/practice learnt from the outsiders being accepted only partially by the wider populace. Some groups accept the new whole heartedly and without reservations, for the gains that the new product/practice brings. Other groups have reservations and either push back/protest or don’t adopt it at all.

In contemporary times, we find partial assimilation when we consider the adoption of Western attire by Indian women. While one segment of consumers are comfortable wearing only Western attire, there are other segments that reject this ‘westernization’ of Indian culture.

e.      Resistance: This is about either the elite segments or the mainstream populace resisting the adoption of the products and practices of the ‘outsiders’ because this is seen as a threat to the age-old traditions and culture of the ‘insiders’.

In contemporary times, we find cultural resistance movements in various forms. The Southern states resist the imposition of Hindi as the language of ‘outsiders’ and a threat to Southern identity and power within India. When IPL was launched, there was resistance to the use of ‘cheer leaders’ until their costumes and clothing were adapted to the Indian context.

f.       Complete assimilation: This takes place when a product / practice that is learnt and adapted from the ‘outsiders’, becomes imbued with an ‘insider’ identity through the creation of suitable legends and myths.

Cricket is the example par excellence of complete assimilation, when the outsider’s sport has become India’s national game with popularity way beyond the official national game of hockey.

g.      New Movements: This is when the outsiders’ practices and beliefs are just too different to be directly adapted, assimilated or absorbed into the mainstream. The entry of the foreign cultural practices/belief systems requires the creation of a new group of followers who evangelize the same to the broader populace and acquire a select following.

Harley bikers and global IB schools are contemporary examples of sub-culture formation around American/International products, practices and belief systems.

The relevance of these 7 culture change processes to marketers, who are working to grow established or new categories, is that these provide a framework with which to think about how to catalyse more rapid adoption by the mainstream population. Those who want to grow sugar substitutes or digital payments or online lending platforms would find it useful to frame their marketing effort as a culture change process and think of initiating or catalysing some of these change processes.

And that’s where semiotics comes in. How do these change processes get initiated, during the course of a cross-cultural encounter? It all depends on what the ‘outsider’s product/practice’ represents or symbolizes to the ‘insiders’ and how they interpret and assign meaning to the cultural shift that they are undertaking. More about this in Part 2, next week.