• Abhijit Das

Are you in business with culture?

Every product is ‘a-product-of-culture’. Only the degree of awareness and action varies, from business owner to business owner.



Consumers always have an intense and intuitive awareness of brands and products as ‘products-of-culture’. It is quite obvious if you consider the fact that they have a very good ear for stories. But many businesses find themselves ill equipped to disseminate or deal with stories. Most businesses I had the privilege to work on, usually stood firmly on one of the three rungs of the brand ladder (in awareness and action) – Name, Identity and Image. As I have learnt across Asian markets, usually there is no tearing hurry on the business side to put their mind and money on growing a culture at the early stages of their name and identity. But when the 'Image' comes under a question, culture is called upon by the business side.


Culture is like a maze in the masks of myth. Walking inside that maze, with eyes fixed on the walls and math following the math unto the next turn - appears business as usual and a priority for most. But they do hope to fossilize their journey as culture, someday, one day, with a ‘once upon a time’ story, hoping to catch a better valuation and part with their product/business.


The business which does the opposite fares better through the cracks in time. And they would begin by laying out an intuitive maze from a bird’s eye view, before they open their business for the people to partake. This approach could be painful and time consuming but extremely rewarding in the long run. Pizza 4Ps in Vietnam is a great example of this approach.


Some businesses prefer to live in the shadows of the common, low hanging associations with culture and latch on to it in the name of security (safety in numbers, fast results and familiar actions). It is a valid strategy, but rusted and very easy to get busted with the next deep money bag looking for a gig. If you noticed, they've hardly fared well against the knock-on effects of the COVID Impact.


Identifying and articulating the intangible value of culture at the core of the business and product, from the word go, is critical. Playing along the price and place of things shows the lack of will and skill to go too far.


‘It’s just too complicated!’ ‘We don’t have time! Real artists ship, remember?’

Excuses. Eventually the business would arrested the brand in an unimaginative chase and add to the clutter - by topping up layer after layer of 'what's in' or 'what has worked for others'. It is a choice and one which is for the business owner to make. And it is also a lost opportunity.


Culture could be the spring and/or the sponge to push through the unprecedented with new connections. For a lot of businesses it has even been the last 'fall back option' on the learning curve of their business.


What makes brands come back to business like the Phoenix or get on on a new growth curve like the butterfly? It is culture. Disney to Disney Plus, The Queen's Gambit (Netflix) reinvigorating the sales of chess sets and books - are all good examples of having coded culture from the word 'go'. Appointments of new C-Suite or a multi-million dollar infusion of cash or turning to technology for a new lease of life with a frail grip over culture does not last. They are important but hardly the heart of the matter. They run out of steam faster than businesses could find their footing or the products could grow into habits.


When you hear about Paynearby you get reminded of the neighborhood grocery store, the friendly face who knows where you live, recognizes your family, you trust him enough to complain to, get help from at a random awkward moment or pick your grocery on credit and put the payment on flexible cycles or even ask him to pay the one off small cash when you forget or lose your wallet. That cultural connection existed even before the Paynearby app or service was born and its very clever for them to tap into it. Will it sustain the adoption curve? Depends on the Paynearby building its sweet spot as natural as the connection which exists. But the neighborhood friendly grocer would live on, much longer than many job change, alternative apps, salary raises, salary cuts, price rises and promotional offers. The breadth of intangible value of your neighborhood grocer far exceeds the 'utility' a single app could capture/offer. It is almost like the case of social commerce with crowding snapshots of an existing value in culture. An app. or an ecommerce platform is never adequate all by itself. Many have failed. And being the first is also not much of a relief. Anchoring the cultural connection deeply and sharply is.


The challenge for business owners is to be the 'real artist' under the pressure of becoming lumberjacks in being in business with culture. A business owner who views culture as a creative and a strategic blob which grows on people, giving them meaning, could grow their business with continuity in myriad forms. And they could live more than once.

So, if you were starting up, would you start at culture? What is your 'once upon a time' story going to be?


If you are considering it, I would recommend you to listen to a discussion on the believing brain which took place at the World Science Festival.


© 2020 Narrativ.Design. All rights reserved. The author is the founder of Narrativ.Design. He has worked in various strategic roles across Asia, on local and global brands for over 15 years. He is fluent in Bengali, Hindi and English. You can reach him at authors@narrativ.design. Image: ©Pathfinderabhi


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