Reading Generation M recently (review here) made me think long and hard about the relationship between religious or spiritual beliefs and brand values. TapestryWorks’ research on Asian beauty has highlighted the gap between international brands and the aspirations of many Asian women. This gap is nowhere clearer than Indonesia, where many local brands “feel” much more in tune with local culture, a culture which is very strongly informed by Muslim values.
Brand esSense argues for the importance of brands starting with “Why?” (following the lead of Simon Sinek), from which the “What?” and the “How?” of the brand become clear and easy to develop. In brand terms, why is analogous to a brand’s core story or purpose, what is the meanings that are attached to this story and how is the brand’s execution of those meanings.
Dove is an example of an international beauty brand with a very strong identity and execution that builds from the heart of the brand’s story, going far beyond the need for soap and hygiene (the origins of the brand). Why does Dove exist? The brand’s purpose is help girls and women gain more confidence in their own beauty. What does that mean for the brand? Dove has recognized that low esteem is a huge problem around the world and they use the brand to nurture the self-esteem by talking about the real beauty of all women. How do they execute this? Dove uses real women in situations that often expose the challenges of low esteem and the beauty that they have and have designed a product experience and communication strategy that connotes the feeling of nurture.
The Body Shop is another beauty brand, founded on a very strong principle, “Enrich, not exploit”, which is why the brand sells only all-natural products without using harmful chemicals and without testing products on animals. Coincidentally, both Dove and The Body Shop are among the more popular international beauty brands in Indonesia.
As Sinek and others have argued, “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.” More importantly, research shows that the most financially successful brands are built on a strong ideal and focus on improving lives in a very tangible way. In Grow, Jim Stengel says that such brands have been 400% more profitable than an investment in the S&P 500 over a ten-year period (based on an analysis by Millward Brown). Do the same arguments apply for brands that appeal to those with religious and spiritual beliefs?
Wardah is an Indonesian beauty brand that has become hugely popular since its founding in 2006. Wardah has many explicit references to local culture and beliefs, most notably being one of the first beauty brands to focus on the importance of halal and religious principles. The brand also explicitly uses hijab wearers in its advertising, although not to the exclusion of others. Wardah notably recruited Inneke Koesherawati as its original celebrity face, a local film star who very publicly moved to a more strongly Muslim identity.
In Generation M, Shelina Janmohamed describes Wardah’s advertising as, “soft, pure, elegant and modest, in pastel colours, but with the clear faces of the models, a modern picture of Muslim beauty”. The fusion of religious values with the principle of modesty and a focus on natural ingredients reveals how the brand also leverages on implicit symbolism in communicating its core values.
Another sign of the brand’s implicit values is the name Wardah. Flowers are a very common symbol connecting female beauty and nature, and Wardah is the Arabic word for ‘rose’ (Arabic words are common in bahasa Indonesia). Roses have long had strong symbolism, being associated with God and miraculous love at work in the world in all the major religions. Roses are intricate and elegant, offering a glimpse into the wonder of creation.
The strong sweet scent of roses represents the sacredness of the soul and roses are involved in many miracles and encounters with angels in religious literature and mythology. Muslims view roses as symbols of the human soul and smelling their scent reminds them of their spirituality. Although the brand uses the visual symbol of the rose very sparingly (it is very common in the category and used by other brands) brand names are hugely important symbols of what they stand for. What more perfect symbol could there be for Muslim beauty?
How does this relate to Wardah’s brand purpose, “to encourage women to feel good about themselves and care for others. Some people see it as inspiring, others see it as beauty, we call it inspiring beauty.” Their core value of “inspiring beauty” reminds us of a very well-known quote from the Quran, “Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty.”
The brand states three core principles on their website. Firstly, the importance of pure and safe products, being made with only premium all natural, halal and safe ingredients, helping women feel cherished and comfortable. Secondly, they are a beauty expert, believing that beauty is universal and designing products and colours that bring out the unique beauty of Indonesian women. Thirdly, Wardah want to inspire beauty and state that cosmetics are not just for the body but also for the soul, helping women to love themselves as well as the people around her. As their website says, “Being beautiful is easy. But an inspiring beauty comes from the heart.”
The links between spiritual beliefs and brand values are very clear for Wardah, with its local roots, and while other brands have tried to follow its success by using many explicit cues of local values, they are often much weaker on the implicit symbolism that local brands understand much better.
Perhaps the one international brand that “feels” most like a local brand is Sunsilk, who have long used local models in their advertising. Sunsilk were earlier than any other international brand to spot the opportunities for product variants targeted at hijab wearers, with new product innovations and launches in recent years in Indonesia and Malaysia. Some of their advertising has been considered breakthrough, featuring no hair at all and focusing on hijab styling rather than hair styling, More recently, they launched a National Hijab Hunt contest to find a Muslim woman role model, seeking “to inspire local women to take pride in the natural beauty of their lustrous black hair”.
Will Sunsilk continue to remain competitive with local brands with a much deeper connection with local women? Another completely different category may have lessons for local and international brands. Kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) is a very important category for Indonesians and the basis of many of the most popular local dishes. The category is almost exclusively dominated by local brands and increasingly by Bango. Bango is now majority owned by Unilever and is one of their strongest brands in Indonesia. While the soy sauce market is very competitive, Bango has continued to thrive and grow share rapidly with a mission to help people make traditional dishes taste great and a focus on communicating local family values.
Bango’s most recent advertising tells the story of Malika, black soy beans, being nurtured by local farmers to create a high-quality sauce that helps mothers make great tasting food that the whole family enjoys (the brand also supports empowerment schemes to improve the living standards of farmers). The focus on farming scenes and family harmony gives Bango’s advertising a very distinctive local feel and draws on the brand’s rich heritage. The brand also holds an annual cooking festival and have launched a mobile app, helping Indonesians learn about their culinary heritage and giving them the opportunity to find the best restaurants serving local cuisine and the best recipes to create traditional dishes at home.
The implicit symbolism of the brand is rich and revealing. Bango’s packaging appears more premium than other brands (and commands a price point to match). The packs are dominated by Tosca colour (a form of turquoise with 70% blue and 30% green) that is unique to the category and premium in look and feel. More importantly, this colour is associated with purity and long life. Green is a colour strongly associated with Islam while blue stands for water, sky and heaven.
The name Bango is the word for a crane, a bird that symbolizes long life, faithfulness and happiness. In some cultures, cranes symbolize immortality because of their long life spans and they are known to mate for life (hence faithfulness). Cranes also have a significant symbolic association with Mecca in pre-Islamic times. As with Wardah, Bango tells a story of naturalness, simplicity and authenticity, supported by a recipe containing only four natural ingredients (sugar, salt, water, soy bean).
Purity is an important aspect of Islamic faith along with wholesomeness and integrity (in local language called tayyab, a deeper and broader concept than halal – read more here). Bango, Wardah and other local brands build these values into their core purpose and express them in their implicit symbolism as well as their more explicit execution. They use their underlying values to build meaning and experience for users. These are brands that truly understand the importance of brand esSense.
Brand esSense: Using sense, symbol and story to design brand identity by Neil Gains
Generation M: Young Muslims changing the world by Shelina Janmohamed
Start With Why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action by Simon Sinek
Grow: How ideals power growth and profit at the world’s greatest companies by Jim Stengel