The Superficial Trap: A Reflection on Cultural Branding at Asia Pacific Media Forum (APMF) 2024

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The Superficial Trap: A Reflection on Cultural Branding at Asia Pacific Media Forum (APMF) 2024

My recent experience at the Asia Pacific Media Forum (APMF) 2024 in Bali left me with a sense of unease about how brands approach cultural branding. Some presentations felt like they were merely scratching the surface, using tangible culture as a superficial tool rather than digging deeper into the rich, nuanced intangible culture that truly connects with Indonesian consumers. 

One session, in particular, highlighted this issue. A company showcased their cultural branding efforts under the theme embracing brand value through art and culture. They featured traditional dances, art, and crafts from various regions of Indonesia to illustrate their brand value. While visually engaging, this approach struck me as a superficial execution of cultural branding. It felt like they were checking off a list of cultural symbols without understanding the deeper, intangible aspects of Indonesian culture. 

It's easy to be trapped in showcasing "hard culture" when discussing Indonesian culture because Indonesia is extraordinarily rich in these tangible elements. The country boasts a diverse array of traditional dances, music, art, and crafts that are visually striking and culturally significant. However, relying solely on these elements can lead to superficial representations that lack depth and fail to create meaningful connections with consumers. 

In stark contrast, I am deeply impressed with the presentation of Teges Pritha Soraya from NWP Property that owns malls across secondary and tertiary cities in Indonesia. They never claimed to utilize cultural insights explicitly, yet their strategies were deeply rooted in understanding the local "soft culture." The mall often serves as the only entertainment center in the area. Visitors frequently travel from nearby towns or villages, sometimes miles away, just to stroll around in a modern mall setting or try out escalators for the first time. Additionally, they adjusted their operating hours to accommodate Maghrib prayer time, showing a deep respect for local customs and practices. They know that in order for a mall in small city to thrive, they need to understand the habits of the locals and adjust their strategy locally. 

Another example – apart from the APMF presentation - comes from the story of an executive from a paint company who realized that home makeovers often coincide with festive seasons in certain regions – which creates an opportunity for a localized and targeted marketing campaign. This contrast highlights a crucial point: true cultural branding goes beyond the obvious. It’s about understanding the values, beliefs, and everyday behaviours that shape people's lives. By aligning their marketing strategies with these cultural practices, they created more resonant and impactful connections with their consumers. 

The term "culture" is often overused, misused, and misunderstood in marketing. Brands tend to focus on the tangible elements—art, music, dance—without delving into the intangible aspects that truly define a culture. This approach not only risks superficiality but also misses the opportunity to create deeper, more meaningful connections with consumers. 

Brands must strive to go beyond the superficial displays of "hard culture." They need to embrace the richness of "soft culture"—the underlying values, beliefs, and practices that genuinely resonate with people. Only by doing so can they craft branding strategies that are both authentic and impactful. 

To avoid falling into the "hard culture" trap, brands must prioritize obtaining deep cultural insights. This is where methods like semiotics and ethnography can be incredibly valuable. Semiotics, the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation, helps brands uncover the underlying meanings and associations that consumers attach to various cultural elements. Ethnography, involving the systematic study of people and cultures from the inside, allows brands to gain a profound understanding of consumer behaviors and the context in which they occur. By applying these methods, brands can identify the deeper, often unspoken aspects of culture that truly resonate with consumers. 

In conclusion, while the APMF 2024 highlighted the prevalent superficial use of cultural symbols in branding, it also showcased the potential for deeper, more meaningful engagement through an understanding of soft culture. Marketers must move beyond the easy, visible symbols and embrace the deeper, intangible aspects of culture to truly connect with their audience. It's time to rethink cultural branding and make it more than just a visual spectacle. 


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