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Putting the ‘I’ in collectivist Indonesia

Upasana Dua

Head of Strategic Planning

Y&R Indonesia Group Companies



Is Indonesia increasingly becoming an individualistic society, or does collectivist culture still prevail? Is it really that black and white?


Every category from automobiles to personal care, from food and beverages to tobacco, has built its insights and therefore its brands around the narrative of the collectivist culture. Anyone in the business of marketing and advertising has without doubt, heard and most probably said more than once that ‘Indonesians are a collectivist society’, ‘We believe in community rather than individual goals’, ‘We don’t like to stand out in a crowd and prefer to blend in’. These and other such truths have, over the years, come to define practically every Indonesian from every part of the land.


But is this still as true as it was even a decade ago? Is the “I” in Indonesia becoming a little more important than we are giving it credit for? And is this reflecting in people’s brand choices? My view is, yes.


According to Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory, Indonesia is very clearly a ‘Collectivist, less masculine culture with a high power distance’, all of which lead to a more balanced society with less gender inequality, low xenophobia and a community-oriented people.


What is also understood is that Indonesian collectivism refers to both vertical as well as horizontal collectivism. People feel good when they co-operate with others and celebrate a co-worker’s success, just as they believe in duty and responsibility towards family, or the need to respect the decisions of the larger group.


Behind the scenes

While this is all true and cultural shifts don’t occur overnight, it is also equally true that what you see isn’t always what you get in this part of the world. And one of the aspects where we can see this ring true is in expressions of individualism.


Take, for example, the younger generation. Entrepreneurship and the desire to be on the fast track road to success is a common theme across the country. Being part of a group, but having one’s own style within the group, isn’t uncommon either. Neither is the desire to ‘do good’ for the community but also wanting to make those individual efforts public. And social media is the quickest and easiest way to express it. “I will run a marathon to be part of the group, but I will share photos of my special diet plan and the accessories I choose, which are all unique to me.” These are all expressions of individualism. Subtle, but present.


This isn’t only true of the young. Categories like powdered growing-up milk are seeing the shift. Mothers are choosing to move out of the category and into liquid and condensed milk, even though their peers may still believe in powders. “I think my child has had her fill of it and I feel it’s time to try something else,” you might hear her say. She may not be very vocal about it at her Arisan, a regular gathering of friends, but she has chosen to do her own thing based on an understanding of her child’s needs. There’s no toeing the line for her, either.


And yet in advertising, we still see the friendly neighbor in detergent communication, the mother-in-law approving the choice of packaged water, and, it seems, the entire community that can benefit from skincare brands.


Talk to men buying cars, and while on the outside the decision is made around the family’s needs, a little probing will reveal the underlying motivation may be more about having a status symbol for himself, or simply an individual passion for a certain brand or feature. That may never be said in the group, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.


So, is it time for brands to start thinking of collectivist Indonesia in a slightly different light, if not as entirely individualistic? Is it safe for, say, skincare brands, to speak to the individual’s very own desire for success or admiration, or must they still play it safe by telling stories of the entire community shining brighter when the protagonist applies her SPF cream?


Would it be safe to say that we are a much more individualistic society, although still seeking permission? Quite possibly.