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India Brand Building | Bridging Cultures

Cultural insights and relevance can save brands time and money

By Ganapathy Balagopalan

Senior VP Planning



The difference between the East and West is a much-discussed topic, and most of us agree such differences exist and they impact marketing. Yet all the literature and understanding on the subject often goes unrecognized and unused in practice. Instead, most efforts at cultural relevance are superficial at best and usually relegated only to packaging iconography and/or a flavor variant.

When large global brands look at new geographies to conquer, many habitually try to change and even transform local tastes and behaviors – usually unsuccessfully. Despite two decades of investment, Kellogg’s still struggles to capture a major share of the Indian breakfast market.

Others undertake expensive product re-engineering to be culturally acceptable in new markets, but that approach is time and capital consuming, and risky. McDonald’s and KFC eventually attracted Indian fans, but not before generating public protest about cultural or environmental insensitivity.

Our experience with Cadbury Dairy Milk shows that there is a middle way between these two extremes that’s less costly in time and money, but requires deep cultural insight.

Solving a cultural mystery

Cadbury Dairy Milk started out in India by selling to kids. The brand believed, correctly, that kids would be more open to new tastes than their tradition-bound parents. This approach had unanticipated consequences, however. Cadbury became perceived as an occasional foreign treat for kids. And as people grew up, they grew out of chocolate.

In fact, adults rejected chocolate. If cross-cultural acceptance seemed to happen naturally for tea, cricket, even the English language, we wondered, why did the average Indian respond so coldly to this innocuous sweet?

Our efforts to understand this phenomenon led us to explore cultural differences more deeply. We discovered that contrasting perspectives of happiness was the crucial link that explained differing Eastern and Western attitudes toward consuming sweets.

The West has a strong belief in independence and autonomy of the self (individualism). The self is the center of thought, action and motivation; and happiness is found in personal striving and fulfillment of desires. In this context, eating chocolate is a personal pleasure that satisfies a private craving. A lot of chocolate advertising inevitably reflects this individualistic cultural perspective of happiness.

In East Asian cultures, the self-in-relationship-with-others (collectivism) is the locus of thought, action and motivation. In contrast to the West, eastern cultures define happiness in terms of interpersonal connectedness and realization of social harmony.

From alien treat to Indian sweet

Consequently, Indians connect the consumption of sweets with occasions celebrated collectively, and often ritually accompanied by meetha, a traditional sweet made from apricots that’s never in short supply at festivals and major life cycle events, such as school graduation, marriage, or the birth of a child.

One could argue that it’s not as if people in the West do not celebrate such happy occasions together, but surely there is no ritual mandating sweet consumption. Only in India does sweet meetha perform the role of a happiness ritual.

This insight about how meetha is culturally distinct from chocolate formed the heart of our new strategy. We re-purposed Cadbury chocolate as meetha in order to get a share of meetha occasions.We made this strategy more actionable by signing off all communication withthe traditional greeting, Kuch meetha ho jaaye! – a call to have something sweet.

Over the years, our executions have spanned many traditional meetha celebrations and shubh aarambh, new beginnings of all kinds, such as journeys, new jobs, new purchases and forming new relationships.

The consistency of the Kuch meetha ho jaaye! proposition over the last decade has helped Cadbury Dairy Milk assume the role of meetha and it has delivered a massive fillip to the brand’s growth trajectory and the Cadbury bottom line.

Lessons for brands

Despite globalization, local customs and tastes are as distinct as ever. Ignoring these distinctions is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. We also learned that tokenism doesn’t work.

Delving deep into Indian culture informed our strategy, It helped us become relevant and, by transposing culture codes, we persuaded a new target audience to view an unaccustomed product experience in a new light. With this new cultural fit, the product became familiar and loved, generating a desire for purchase.

Our experience also shows that aligning a brand with the local culture does not always need a new product, but often merely astute positioning in a culturally relevant way. Happy cultural branding!