Monday, October 19, 2009


One normally thinks that the answers that we are looking for are locked inside our consumers. However, our consumers are themselves locked into a wider cultural context. This context is different for each category in each country.

I have often observed that our preferences in music are be driven strongly by associations. For e.g. if some one has grown up listening to Hindustani classical music at a home where classical music was appreciated by the, say, father, say when the father was in a good mood mostly on holiday’s. Typically, the mood at home was very relaxed on such days. Every time this music was played, this setting repeated itself. This child is likely to grow up liking Hindustani classical music, you would agree. There is a good chance that his father was a normal adult father, with varying moods including anger, irritation, disappointment and given to stress on some days. There’s a good chance that in these not so good moods and occasions, the father did not listen to Hindustani classical music. Over a period of years, the association of classical music with “something good, something serene, something warm and secure and happy” got built for this child. Many years later when this child grows up, it can be argued that listening to classical music evokes the same feeling that it did like when he was a child – “good, serene, warm, secure & happy”. A child from another country with a similar father but listening to Mozart is likely to have similar types of associations when ever he listens to Mozart, but its unlikely that Bheemsen Joshi (or another well known Hindustani Classical Artist) will work for him in the same manner.

This means that we like a particular type of music because of the association we have with it – finally appreciation of music is an acquired taste, and that taste is acquired due to associations with very fundamental human emotions.

The same argument can be made for food. While in music this case can be argued very easily, in case of food, also I believe that this association theory is extremely strong. Why is every mother’s cooking the best in the world? Its definitely not because every mother uses the same recipes or the same quality of ingredients, but more because most mothers while feeding their children are at their loving best. For the child the whole experience is enhanced in the company of her mother. Watching her make the roti’s puff up magically, adding that pinch of salt in her characteristic style, wiping her sweat from her brow, tucking her pallu into the folds of her sari – all these things are amazing for the child to watch. More than the food the mother makes, it is these memories, symbols and the love and care for which the grown up child yearns for the most.

What is the implication of this for our brands? We spend a lot of time, understanding reactions of consumers to stimulus that we throw at them. Also we focus a lot on drivers of category choice and brand choice. However, if we can truly understand what the compelling set of associations and symbols and cultural codes for our categories are, immense opportunities can be unlocked. How we can leverage this understanding is another question altogether.