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The New Interface – The brand and cultural identity

In the previous column, I described the various facets of identity and image. If you did not read that, you will need to read it in order to understand this one. You can find it on my blog.
The brand establishes a relationship between the consumer and the product or service. The relationship factors in various aspects of the consumer’s self image and how he or she sees the brand. If it is a successful brand, it will affirm the consumer’s beliefs about himself or herself. However the brand cannot rely on the relationship between the consumer and the product or service alone.
The consumer exists within a context of a family, a group of friends, a neighbourhood or community, and various groups that make up a sociological landscape. These groups can range from nationality and geographical position (including the city) to language, living standards, ethnicity and so much more.
The consumer relies on a sense of everyday belonging to the various groups. For instance, during the day, the group may comprise colleagues in a specific area of the organisational hierarchy. In the evening, the consumer may identify with family. When watching television, the consumer may fit best with the soccer clan.
The cultural facet of the brand is vital. If the brand does not recognise the culture, adoption of the brand may cause the consumer to feel cut off from one or more groups. If the brand can assimilate the specific culture, it can, in many cases, cement the consumer to the group, and increase his or her sense of participation.
Use of culture in the brand is not just limited to the individual though. The individual consumer may, for instance become a brand ambassador if he or she feels that the brand sits well with the group.
The question is, which culture?
In the wave of patriotism, after independence, Namibian brands closely associated themselves with nationality. However, a question about the .na domain on a networking site led me to think about this for a while.
The brand should create a relationship differential. To illustrate this, a hypothetical example of tea can be constructed. If one hypothetical brand positions itself as Namibian tea, it will attract those consumers who are particular about drinking a Namibian tea. However, that group of consumers is a finite set, limited to tea drinkers in Namibia. If another brand claims the same, the number of possible Namibian tea drinkers reduces in proportion with market share. As another brand with the same cultural proposition is added, the market is split even further.
At the end of the day, adoption of a single cultural facet used by others is not a convenience for the brand manager: it is a threat to the bottom line. It also leaves the brand at the mercy of others within the same product or service category, who find new ways to position their brands’ cultures.
If you accept that a brand is a bottom line proposition, it is critical to find the culture that best fits with your consumer, ensure that it is unique, do your best to take ownership of the culture and defend it as best possible. This is not an easy proposition, given Namibia’s propensity to ‘borrow’ and rejig based on convenience.
Research seems one way to go, but it has its challenges. In many circumstances, when a consumer is asked about the cultural facet that best fits with the brand, the answer is automatically ‘Namibian’. Due to overuse of the catch-all, research needs to be smart, and probably to do field observation as well to identify which culture will actually be the selling proposition.
Namibia offers a huge amount of diversity, in ages, group behaviour, common interests, languages and even for tactical deployment of regional differences. There is still room for break-through thinking on a national level as well.
It’s a bottom line proposition, and there is no reason for brand managers to slouch.

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