Walking In Asia

Posted on October 22, 2007

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This isn’t the first post on this blog about culture and cross-cultural brand communication and most probably not the last one either. But it’ll be the last one on the topic for a while. The primary reason it has occupied such large space on this blog lately is that it is something that concerns and affects my work on a daily basis. And it is an area which I believe most people in the creative communication industry – in the West and the East alike – either don’t comprehend or just choose to ignore for whatever reason.

For any Western brand with its target set on Asia, the greatest challenge facing it is to attune the brands to the fast-evolving socio-cultural landscape of diverse, modern Asia. We see many Western brands adopt a blatant brand export approach to Asian markets; brand positioning strategies and creative work developed in The West are exported to Asian markets where they may receive local language adaptation. This can work, but it can also be completely futile.

The striding man, Johnnie Walker is proof that it can work. Sort of. Apart from differences in tonality across regions/markets, Johnnie will always be Johnnie in terms of what he believes in, no matter where he walks. The brand is built on the platform of ‘personal progress’; an evolution from a one-dimensional thought of ‘success’. In Asia, the brand was initially expressed by BBH through an attitude of “progression through determination”, personified by Italy’s Roberto Baggio’s famous, redeeming penalty kick in the 1998 World Cup. [Baggio had missed a pivotal penalty kick in the 1994 World Cup which contributed to Italy losing the trophy to Brazil on penalties.]

While this original expression and arguably rather ‘lose’ interpretation of “personal progress” works in collectivist Asia [it’s about an individual pursuit that doesn’t challenge group norms and consensus], Johnnie’s stride could potentially be even more steadfast in Diageo’s favour should the brand explore tapping on the cultural meaning of progression as defined in Confucian Asia. Here, the value of progression concerns the continual progression of individual AND family on a set of cultural success metrics, such as education, wealth and reputation.

Now, these don’t seem dramatically different from what an Englishman or an American would use to describe success. But these notions mean rather different things across cultures. Perhaps the biggest differences lie in the relative nature of how we define these success metrics in the context of time. In the West, people tend to think of success and achievement as defined by what one has accomplished and amassed until today; what you have here and now [relative to others]. However in Asia, the perspective is distinctively more long-term orientated where the benchmark used to gauge success is one’s achievements today relative to the previous family generation’s level of achievement.

It goes without saying that the difference isn’t as black and white in reality as it may seem here, but I think you get the point. I believe this cultural insight and understanding could quite possibly open up for new creative avenues for the Johnnie Walker brand in Asia and make the brand even more resonant. Now, I make my living from identifying these things and coming up with relevant ideas so I’ll wait until they pay me handsomely to share with them what I think they should do.

Cultural adaptations of global strategies don’t have to mean seismic positioning shifts that terrify brand custodians in global head quarters. They shouldn’t. We all know that it’s often the little things that make the biggest difference.

Brands that and are able to smartly identify and harness cultural insights through their brands, as opposed to being blinded by category-conditioned modus operandi, will be tomorrow’s winners. Selling spirits only on luxury, exclusivity and premium life-style cues isn’t going to cut it in tomorrow’s market. Brands have to be able to understand their consumers on a much deeper, cultural level in order to be able to connect with them and stay connected.   

Posted in: Planning-related