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Cultural sensitivities: Do you dare to market around them?

In Asia, there is a myriad of cultures, all with its own eccentricities. And while global marketers are often prone to clubbing Asia as one, the truth is the cultures are very much different from one state to another. This cultural diversity often leads to different types of sensitivities. For some, it may be the topic of feminine hygiene, for others it may be religion or even skin colour.

Most recently, Ikea recently ran ad series that tackled the issue of divorce in Sweden. Rather than presenting a hunky dory family life that is brimming with happiness, the furniture brand went one step ahead and dealt with an issue with families face in real life.

In Asia as well,  P&G recently ran a campaign for SK-II addressing women in China who are labelled “Sheng Nu” or leftover women.  Titled “Marriage market takeover”, the video covers the pressure the women face from both their parents and society to marry young and chronicles their road to acceptance. Till date, the video has over 2,299,849 views.

And while these brands have done well in addressing sensitive issues. It is not nearly as easy for a brand to take this step. Yes, while these campaigns have resulted in fantastic ROIs for the brand, getting it wrong could potentially lead to backlash. As the saying goes, you can’t please them all.

We asked several creative directors and marketers what their fears are when talking about hard hitting topics. Unfortunately both P&G and Ikea were unable to provide a comment on the matter.  But when reached out to by Marketing, a spokesperson from Kimberly-Clark, said given the categories the company plays in, it often addresses topics such as menstruation, adult incontinence and bathroom habits in our communication. These are not always the easiest talk points with audiences but the conversation needs to happen. She said:

By being direct and honest, we are encouraging open discussion and normalising the issue.

“Authenticity and staying true to the brand positioning is the key. Our approach is to first understand the issue at hand – what matters to our consumers, raise the issue by asking the right questions, start the discussion and then let consumers drive the conversation from there,” the spokesperson added.

(Read also: Kimberly-Clark offers up a lesson on how to talk taboo)

However, it is one thing to talk about touchy topics and another to create a campaign around it. We asked some creative directors in the region what their clients are most afraid of.

For an Asian audience, said Chris Chiu, chief creative partner, J Walter Thompson Singapore, topics which address family dynamics works especially well.

“Whether it is death or the potential loss of a family member, or perhaps permanent separation in some form, it’s one of the more prevalent topics around which many of the Asian commercials have been conceptualised around,” said Chiu. However, Chiu added that in his career working with top advertisers in the region, there have been significant number of client who often sidestep the idea despite initially being on board.

“Clients are sometimes afraid of offending and excluding people because of sensitive/taboo topics. They want to stay away from potential backlash,” he explained. Chiu added that it is the agency’s task to help the clients understand that relevance of what is topical and what is of interest to people is needed.

Agencies need to have a genuine chat about clients being courageous. To associate a brand with something that isn’t sweet or safe will always draw the ire of some. The question is, does that make it wrong?

He added depending on the topic, the ad can either be incredibly culturally centered (for example, if it’s based on a local superstition) or extremely contemporary (say the idea revolves around a divorced family or gay couple). But the question to ask is, “Is it wrong to address this topic?”

Robert Gaxiola, co-founder and creative director, manghamgaxiola mcgarrybowen agreed adding:

Most of the controversial campaigns done in Asia are accidental and are deemed controversial only later. Advertisers remain insanely cautious when it comes to rocking the boat around here.

He added controversial topics are everywhere and of course, in a city with millions of people, not everyone will agree on everything.

“There are just too many variables to please everybody. Yet, all around us is an opportunity to get people involved in a lively conversation. As with most cases, advertising messaging is little more than a one way ticket. We could do a lot better ,” he added.

Don’t be controversial for the sake of it

Gaxiola added that if a brand has decided to take a risk by using or riding on a controversial topic, it must be sure it is still within the limits of the brand. Brands such as Ikea, Nike and American Apperal remain comfortable in this space, but other brands could easily find themselves feeling a little out of place, Gaxiola explained.

“You must have a reason to go there and also have something to say. You must know your audience well and you must also be dead sure you’re on brand. If those bases are covered, fire at will,” he added.

Primus Nair, executive creative director, BBDO Proximity said controversial or not, an insightful campaign needs to resonate deeply with the audience and must get people talking. However, while particularly working around sensitive topics there are a few touch points that need to be covered.

“With anything controversial, you want to make sure you really understand the argument. Whenever people feel passionate about something, it’s important to understand why. It not only makes your argument more powerful but it also lends substance,” he said.  Most importantly, he added:

At all costs, avoid doing something taboo for the sake of being taboo. You can smell it when something is being deliberately provocative and people will react to that.

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