Post Thumb

When we talked about brands as initiators of change in our book, ‘Branded Content: What’s Culture Got to do With It?’, we said- “As an active participant in and shaper of cultural discourse, brands enter touchy territories and impact the sensitivities of many communities. Brands can easily be accused of hurting public sentiment or the sentiments of specific social groups or communities. The viewpoints they espouse can meet with public or even political resistance or push-back. Brands that take very strong, almost activist stances or positions can attract as well as repel segments of their user base/consumers.” 

Nevertheless, brands constantly attempt to find balanced approaches toward changing the established culture for both tangible and intangible gains of their own. At the recently concluded Cannes Lions, a number of Indian campaigns have been rewarded for their advocacy of cultural and behavioural change. 

So, what are we dealing with when we aim to “change the culture”? How does one begin to change an existing practice after identifying it as problematic or repressive? 

The very first step is awareness. Brands as shapers of new cultural narratives begin with increasing awareness among consumers and audiences alike. Increasing awareness is an explicit or implicit goal of all advertising and branded communication.  When challenging cultural practices, however, awareness building takes on new forms and colours.

Consider, the following Grand Prix winning entry:

Whisper’s ‘The Missing Chapter’:

Conceptualised by Leo Burnett, ‘The Missing Chapter’ shows a young girl distributing pamphlets of a certain chapter that is missing from school textbooks. Once caught, she is admonished and forced to read the said chapter aloud in front of the school assembly. The girl goes ahead undaunted and in doing so earnestly, creates awareness about menstruation among both her schoolmates and the audiences alike. 

When thinking of introducing a change, one is essentially mounting a challenge to the existing practice and more often than not the existing practice derives its legitimacy from a figure of authority. So, a challenge to pre-existing culture is a challenge to prevalent authority. For example, in ‘The Missing Chapter’, it is the school staff made up of the physical education teacher and the principal who threaten the young girl with suspension for having read out loud information which is supposed to be spoken in whispers. 

The campaign is also intended to serve as an inspiration to the younger generation to work up the courage to break taboos and speak up about the issues that matter.

Of course, while the young girl holds her own ground bravely, in the brand communication, this might not be the case in real life. 

When we move from reel to real, awareness building has to be followed up with consciousness raising. 

Two Silver Lion-winning entries, both by VMLY&R showcased approaches to consumer consciousness raising via ground-based experiments: 

Unilever ‘Smart Fill’:

Unilever designed an in-store experience wherein consumers could bring in old plastic containers and use a dispenser to fill those containers with various Unilever liquid products like the ones used to wash clothes, utensils, floor, etc. The customers then had to add a barcode to their bottles and pay for the exact quantity that they took. Unilever’s experiment was aimed at repurposing plastic containers and thus promoting sustainable packaging to reduce plastic pollution. 

In many ways, the campaign attempts to amplify what is already a prevalent albeit less fashionable Indian practice of re-using containers. As a multinational conglomerate producing tons of plastic every year, Unilever is undoubtedly a part of the ‘authorities’ on plastic. 

Therefore, it is notable that the push toward behavioural change is led by them. 

They root their attempts to change consumers’ consciousness in improved savings and novelty mechanisms. 

Unipads ‘The Adeli Movement’:

The second one called ‘Adeli’ by Unipads also dealt with menstruation like ‘The Missing Chapter’. It was to help several working women, especially cooks, who end up suffering professionally as well as personally due to menstruation myths. ‘Adeli’, meaning unclean, is used to denote a menstruating woman who as a result is banned from the kitchen, hotels, restaurants, schools, and a number of other places. Unipads organised a social experiment wherein the brand invited menstruating women to cook food which was then consumed by politicians, restaurant owners, and influencers. 

The beauty of such a campaign lies not just in breaking an age-old belief but also at the same time garnering the sanction from various other stakeholders. In the face of religious cult leaders who can be seen declaring the choicest of punishments for women who cook while menstruating, the campaign gets a myriad of constitutional representatives together. Since, the authority that gives legitimacy to pre-existing practices is countered directly by yet another nexus of authority - a consumer/audience member watching the film has a lot more acting on their perception in addition to the narrative. Hence, the efficacy of the film and the chances of cultural change increase manyfold. 

All behavioural and culture change is rooted in shifting the manner of one’s perception - how one sees the world and interprets it. A difference in viewing or changing the lens through which one sees the world, can eventually bring about a difference in the social consensus and hence in culture. 

This difference in perceiving is brought about through awareness and change in consciousness. But it is crucial also to consider ‘who’ is generating the said awareness, and ‘who’ is behind the information or experiments that affect the consciousness. 

Why? Because myth-busting is important but nevertheless just a step toward a larger purpose. It is at best a peek into the better world that is possible, when a different set of positive values take ground.  For e.g. equality, empowerment, opportunity, peace and harmony. After the initial support and hand-holding, consumers and other stakeholders need to find their own voices because the ultimate culture change requires a reclamation of the narrative. Case in point: 

Vice ‘The Unfiltered History Tour’:

The Grand Prix-winning entry by Dentsu makes use of what now is a well-established literary and cultural phenomenon - ‘the empire writing back’. Additionally, it picks up on both viral reels as well as sentiments towards the British Museum. With an increasing number of commonwealth students and immigrants residing now in the United Kingdom, the realisation that the British Museum more than anything else is a collection of artifacts from erstwhile colonies is not just limited to academic discourse but is part of the content produced by millennials. 

Vice takes this post-colonial consciousness and uses it to develop ‘The Unfiltered History Tour’ which ironically is a filter that when used enlightens the user about the history of a particular exhibit in the British Museum. The history so told is narrated from the viewpoint and in the voice of a person from the nation to which the artifact belongs. Thus, subverting the culture built around the Museum over several centuries. 


The positive goal of all culture changes, whether done for business-oriented profits or not, is to empower the repressed. Spreading awareness, shattering stereotypes, and getting people to participate in experiences or experiments are all the steps toward eventually owning the narrative.

Based on their respective industry, budget, and product - a brand chooses its own method to become the shaper of the cultural discourse. While there is always the fear of political or commercial resistance and more so in the volatile present-day atmosphere, a well-balanced approach is visible in the winning campaigns at Cannes Lions 2022. Not shying away from centres of power, they undermine and challenge authority in their own creative ways. While some do not exactly occupy the position of ‘initiators’ of cultural change, they do partake in the cultural movement - constituting its building blocks and helping it expand further.