Grace Astari, creative lead, APAC innovation of Diageo, speaks to WARC Asia Editor Rica Facundo about balancing the many intersections of culture for brand innovation.

This article is part of a Spotlight series on multicultural marketing in Southeast Asia. Read more

Key insights

  • The entry point for culture is to act as a unique amplifier, pivot, input or perspective into distinctive brand nodes.
  • To overcome gender and cultural biases, businesses and brands can drive inclusivity at all levels with all people.
  • Packaging communicates a product’s inspiration for recognition but tokenism in packaging is a tired stereotype of culture.
In the alcohol category, what are marketers and brands getting wrong about the region? How can we better prevent tokenism?

Personally, I don’t believe that Asia is looked at as a single homogenous market anymore, like it was of yesteryear – local business units, legal teams and creative across the category are proof of that. It is a very human trait to have inherent bias and it’s important to realise our own limitations if we want to overcome or recognise it within storytelling, design and partnership, no matter what market you’re working with. This isn’t just a woke priority – connecting with customers is the ultimate goal of marketing.

Since I work on multi-market innovations, I like to find the unity in our differences despite Asia’s unique and extremely individual cultural landscape. For example, finding the deeper drivers and shared behaviours within the region enables the brands I work with to spotlight a culture authentic to it and show how we can all relate on a human level.

One stereotype I’d like to see banished and still see so commonly in the category is the idea that “women don’t drink whisky” or that “sweet drinks aren’t for men”. Taste and flavour preferences aren’t gendered, they are culturally driven norms. Even if male drinkers were the dominant audience for a particular spirit, brands can lose the opportunity to grow because they are simply not connecting to the future drinker.

For example, in whisky advertising, you’ll rarely see women as the lead. She is often the friend in the scene. Yes, having an “inclusive” scene might signal to women that they can participate but I doubt that it’ll deeply charge or catalyse anything more. We can do better than perpetuate tired norms that don’t necessarily reflect the priorities of the current generation. You don’t grow a customer base by doing more of the same and we need to be braver by addressing the future and evolving with the times.

To overcome these biases, businesses and brands can drive inclusivity at all levels with all people. To ask the question from different perspectives when evaluating work, to ensure we have diverse teams and leadership, and to ask of that makeup from our ecosystem, our agencies, our sales teams, down to who the DJ is at our events.

When you're talking about “multicultural” in this instance, are you referring to how gender and race can overlap? For example, women may not drink whisky because of cultural connotations they grew up with?

Yes absolutely! There’s a great book by Rachel McCormack called “Chasing the Dram” which had a chapter that blew my mind. She described how British pubs were traditionally “male environments” and that it was legal until 1982 to refuse to serve women in these spaces. It would be hard to fathom this now but 1982 was not too long ago. When you understand this context, you can see how it has informed the aesthetics and narratives around drinking spaces. (Truth be told, women were the original brewers of beer or spirits for over 7,000 years, which you’ll discover in Viking, Egyptian or even American histories.) We can see some of these parallels in patriarchal societies throughout Asia when it comes to drinking rituals, particularly around business and political deal-making, where women can be excluded.

When I went to Korea on a project for Guinness a few years ago, we were exploring ways in which stout beer could capture the hearts of new consumers. We sat in several bars observing drinkers and I found it really interesting to see more women drinking stout over men. Now, this was just a limited observation but I wondered if women felt that they could pursue diverse or esoteric styles of beer because they weren’t expected to participate in the pervading lager beer drinking rituals.

Every social occasion can be articulated through a cultural lens and when we take the time to unpack it, do they hold opportunities (or limitations) for our brands and products.

We're talking about this intersection of culture to unlock a more human understanding of our consumers. Can you explain more about the importance of that shift?

Culture is defined by ideas, behaviours and customs that unite a group of people, whether that is, let's say, nation-based, race-based, region or interest-based. I come from a position where you need to be highly sensitive to multicultural inputs in order to bridge regions, groups and cohorts, especially if your products are available worldwide. Just as we have stepped away from defining a consumer by demographics, I believe we can step away from defining consumers solely by the country they are based in. Of course, when you have a really specific regional deliverable, then it’s important to stay authentic. But for global launches, it’s about a shared human nature. Are we driven by the desire for social connection or the desire for escapism?

By approaching culture with shared humanity, can we begin to connect the dots. It’s almost like “universal marketing”, right? Empathy becomes the ultimate creatiave superpower. And empathy enables you to deeply unlock and connect with your audience by understanding their needs and how your product resolves that desire or tension.

For example, we all watch Netflix wherever we are in the world. We loved Squid Game even if we didn’t speak Korean. Netflix showed us how borderless quality entertainment is. We're seamlessly moving through diverse, international narratives and we're connecting with it despite our differences because of the big human emotions they wrestle with: love, heartbreak, betrayal – universal themes that have a local manifestation. And we can all relate.

When you call out multicultural, are we inadvertently maintaining silos and divisions?

Are there different levels of local? Any pointers if brands have to adopt a more local approach?

I have never really codified “local” in levels but if I were to, I have this pyramid in my head because local can be so broad. It can mean drinking rituals, taste preferences, legal regulations, gifting behaviours, influencers, preferred channels, socio-political and economic contexts. The difference between the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand from both a local definition and its relationship with the alcohol category are wildly different. All these inputs impact how we design and communicate about our products, as well as the types of partners that we choose.

How can embracing cultural diversity be a catalyst for brand innovation?

In one of my previous roles, I co-created a “hardworking assets model” based on Byron Sharp's book “How Brands Grow”. I noticed that there wasn’t a practical or intuitive framework to apply brand strategy theories for designers or brand guardians. What the hardworking assets model did was break down the defining traits and elements of a brand, from purpose, colour, taste, culture, personality etc, so you catalysed from a rich palette of individual and unique brand nodes. Take this: If Guinness is a black stout, what would a Guinness cider look like? How might you play with the equity of black – to reverse it and make a clear product, or to lean into it and use chargrilled ingredients?

This is the entry point for culture – to act as a unique amplifier, pivot, input or perspective into these distinctive brand nodes. For example, we might amplify a rugged luxury positioning for a brand like Talisker and lean into the world of adventure, imbuing craft, design and partnership with the evocative spirit of wild whisky, as we did for Talisker 44 years old. Or how might rising Japanese flavours inspire a sakura-tinted Baileys?

Sometimes, the dots aren’t so easily connected. You might see signals across the cultural map that have faint resonance and no place in your category. That’s where the creative invitation also lies and magic can be found within. I would look at adjacent categories to fill in the gaps, the world where your customer lives, and trust that intuition.

The way you’re describing it makes it sound like culture is a signal that a concept will be sticky.

Yes, when picking up on signals or signposts, you might not always know how loud they are or can be, until you fully immerse yourself in multiple spaces. Often, with innovation, you have a consumer target and a blank page, so where do you start? You fill in the framework and start listening to their existing and desired behaviours. What is fueling their needs and desires? Where do they get inspiration from? Where can you look beyond the obvious, down the rabbit hole and outside of the box?

This begs the question of how do you prevent cultural appropriation?

I don’t work in advertising, so I can only comment on this from the product creation perspective. I think you need to respect and sense check with the origin of the concept, whether that’s an ingredient, person or a cultural expression, to ensure that you’re not being colourblind. Even the most well-intended messaging can be perceived completely different and we can’t take our biases for granted. To be respectfully crafted requires a dialogue with the culture you’re working with. Period. Put drafts in front of people within your organisation or research with consumers. Put it out there before the final version. Beauty lies in the draft stage.

Culture will inherently get remixed as part of the creative process, which means that sometimes it can go astray. So is it about making sure you have checks and balances throughout the process?


What’s the role of packaging in communicating cultural cues? How can brands do better?

Packaging is vital! It’s the visual and instant shorthand to storytelling. Let's use the example of Sakura Baileys. If we were inspired by this Japanese flavour and we know our consumers are excited by it, should we capture Japanese semiotics on pack? Yes, it’s a no-brainer. We need to communicate our product’s point of inspiration so that the layman can immediately recognise it. The role of packaging is to instantly communicate that USP, what the products is about or what it does for you.

Tokenism in packaging, however, can look like tired stereotypes of culture. It flattens a culture to its most basic symbols, without depth or considering alternative ways of presentation. If you want to do better, ask how contemporary creators (re)interpret their own culture. How are some of these symbols evolving locally? What stories have yet to be told? Who might you collaborate with to make these connections more authentic?

NB: The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect Diageo’s view or position.