Growing up, I have seen ads changed over time: in the past, they were purely functional and focused on the quality of the product; a decade later, I found myself weeping over an ad about the eternal spirit and sportswear. Today, I see ads in Hokkien (a dialect that was once taboo in Singaporean media) about the latest government healthcare plan. From my experiences alone, I can see that brands want to tap into culture more than ever. Culture helps advertisers reach a wide group of people with relevancy. And now technology helps better target cultural moments. But can brands tell if a moment is actually culturally significant or just a fad? What exactly is culture and how do we identify it? Are our insights about consumers or are they about culture? How can we make use of culture to build an effective hyperlocal strategy? In this article I will attempt to answer these questions.
Being a Chinese Singaporean, I always assumed my culture is similar to the culture of a Hong Konger or a Taiwanese. After all, we all experienced the same level of economic development in our nations; we descended from a similar root; and we share a common language. However, after celebrating Lunar New Year with a native family in Hong Kong, I realised I was wrong and our similarities were only skin-deep. This is a common mistake that brands make as well when approaching APAC: they assume a homogenous culture when there isn’t one.
What makes culture? Arts, language, traditions or food might come into our minds when we think of culture. While these are important parts of culture, they are not the true definition of it. A culture is a collective form of behaviour or practice among a group of people. Aspects like religion, history and governance are large scale influences  in people’s behaviour and practices, shaping the culture as a society progresses from generation to generation.
“Small” and “big” culture: separating fads from tradition
Culture can be broadly seen as “small” or “big” . “Small” culture moves quickly (fashions, fads, slang words, etc.), while “big” culture is slow moving and underpins the way we live (traditions, customs, values, etc.). Dynamic influences from our surroundings shift these two types of cultures. Our mind adapts to the constant shift in culture and reacts according to the changes. Our brain is constantly conditioned by the culture we are in , shaping our behaviour and perception .
I recall IKEA’s previous agency ran an ad during Hari Raya (an important religious holiday celebrated by Muslims worldwide that marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting) that roused a reaction from the Muslim community in Singapore . The ad tries to depict the urban-ness of a Muslim family with “gangsta” poses and gold chains during the holiday. While urban-ness or hip hop music could be relevant in “small” culture, what it fails to do is recognise the taboos, traditions, and practices in the “big” culture: the underpinnings of lifestyle among mainstream Muslims in Singapore.
Responders to the ad can be categorized into 3 main groups: older Muslims were mostly against the ad, younger Muslims were lukewarm to it, and non-Muslims appreciated the “humorous” take on Hari Raya. The different responses among the groups reveals how culture conditions their responses to the ad.
The older group were concerned about the misrepresentation of Muslims in Singapore and the inappropriateness of “gangsta” poses during Hari Raya. While the younger Muslim group appreciated IKEA’s effort to introduce fun and relevance, they felt haram still needed to be observed. The non-Muslim group found it “humorous,” but then again, they do not celebrate Hari Raya and are unaware of the subtleties within the culture. One ad can be perceived differently by different cultures, even in a small nation like Singapore. This is why a hyperlocal strategy is important, especially in a cultural period like Hari Raya.
Getting more out of your insights with culture
I am sure you have come across insights such as, ‘Filipinos aged 18 – 25 engage heavily in social media and frequently share selfies on Facebook’. An insight like this is good to understand the consumers, but not people or culture. We need to examine the insight within a cultural context to gain deeper understanding. The “small” culture of this insight is the love of sharing selfies by Filipinos among their social network, proven by the fact that Manila is actually the selfie capital of the planet . But if we examine under “big” culture, we see that Filipinos have high value for friends, Amor Propio (self-esteem), and a need for expression . These could be the motivations for Filipinos to produce more selfies than any other country.
Understanding the cultural context of our insights prevents lazy stereotypes. In the west, it is common to view selfies as a sign of narcissism . But in the Philippines, the cultural need for communication, expression, and self-esteem are reasons why selfies are so popular. Over or misrepresentation could occur if we do not give cultural context to the insights. In the Hari Raya ad, we can see that there is an over-representation of the “small” culture of hip hop music which caused a misrepresentation of the “big” culture of Hari Raya practices.
Cultural context for a hyperlocal strategy
Having cultural context sharpens our insights which helps to create a hyperlocal strategy. A hyperlocal strategy is not just about having a well-defined target, it is also about tailoring the media experience. If we know the cultural context of why Filipinos love selfies, we can create conversations about expressions and Amor Propio on Facebook, YouTube, or TV. On Instagram, we can find ways to use selfies as a form of expression. Engaging people on a cultural level creates a collective impact on them. “Big” culture topics can be introduced on high reach media that is familiar and scalable to attain effectiveness, while relying on the latest trends in “small” culture to innovate activations. Always remember media should deliver the best experiences to the audience and to do that, cultural context needs to fit well with media context.
Culture has a huge role to play in our media experience. Culture conditions our minds’ responses and perceptions. Considering culture and using it to sharpen our insights will help us design effective media experiences and have the right content in the right context. In this economy where scaling is important, culture is the best way to engage people collectively. Recognising a fad from a tradition is important so as to show thought and tact from a brand. Ultimately, it is about how a brand can appreciate the uniqueness of cultures in this highly diverse APAC region and find opportunities to engage diversity effectively.
Jude Koh is the regional associate strategy manager for Carat APAC.
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