The following is a trends piece written by the TBWA\Backslash Asia team about ‘Roots Revival’, a growing cultural movement in Asia of people taking more interest in exploring and evolving their heritage and roots – and what it means for brands.
Globalization’s fall from grace has sparked a rediscovery of our roots.
Being worldly was once a point of pride, but people are now turning inward and rediscovering their local and national heritage — gaining a new appreciation for the people, land, and traditions that came before.
Rediscovering our local surroundings has instilled a new sense of pride and interest in our cultural identity and roots. To redefine what progress looks like going forward, society is looking backward, not just to preserve our roots but also to evolve it for modern life.
In Asia, we’re seeing this trend manifest across the cultural spectrum, heralding a revival and reimagination of traditional food, fashion, music, and entertainment.
The Rise of Digital Hawkers
In 2020, hawker culture was inscribed into UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity – marking Singapore’s first-ever acceptance onto the list. This unique community dining experience stems from the mid-1800s when migrant populations sold quick, affordable meals from street stalls.
As the F&B industry struggled through the pandemic, there was a collective effort in Singapore from both the community and the government to protect its renowned hawker culture. This not only helped businesses survive but thrive as they became accessible through new digital channels such as delivery apps and digital payment options.
Furthermore, with renewed interest in local heritage and food culture, we’re seeing a wave of young hawkerpreuners starting up or carrying forward their family businesses, bringing new energy and ideas to the age-old trade, from modernized dishes to leveraging social media.
“Being worldly was once a point of pride, but people are now turning inward and rediscovering their local and national heritage — gaining a new appreciation for the people, land, and traditions that came before.”
For example, Kueh Ho Jiak has modernized traditional bite-size snacks known as kueh, gaining a sizeable following with instagrammable creations made no artificial colorings and only natural ingredients.
Hanfu Goes Global
In China, we’re seeing consumers celebrate their roots through fashion.
The use of traditional elements in modern interpretations of Chinese culture has risen in popularity over the last few years. And traditional styles of clothing worn by the Han Chinese, known as hanfu, have enjoyed a renaissance in mainstream fashion.
In 2019, tech giant Alibaba launched its Gutao (古桃) App, dedicated to hanfu shopping. In 2021 more than 20 million people bought hanfu via shopping site Taobao. From national museums like Beijing’s Forbidden City launching their own clothing and cosmetics collections, to Shanghai Fashion Week running dedicated hanfu shows, we’re seeing the trend grow and flourish while driving appreciation for traditional patternmaking, and the intricacies of embroidery.
Consumers are incorporating hanfu into their own unique styles, continuing the trend of pairing traditional elements with modern streetwear. Young bloggers and influencers are also making hanfu their uniform when visiting Western tourist destinations. It signals a desire to break away from homogenized western beauty standards, recognize their own history and heritage, and wear something according to their own cultural traditions.
Local Folklore Gains a Wider Audience
In countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, we’re seeing creators use ancient traditions and local stories to shape new content. Supernatural folklore is inspiring a new generation of horror writers, directors, and artists to breathe fresh life into a tired genre, delighting local fans. The unfamiliar characters and traditional settings exploit the region’s rich and largely unknown mythology, sparking the emergence of new kinds of monsters and monstrosities.
Last year, ‘Roh’ by Malaysian director Emir Ezwan, used a mix of Islamic folklore, Malay black magic, and old-world Malay costumes to create a uniquely terrifying film. It was chosen by Malaysia’s National Film Development Corporation (FINAS) to represent the country in the International Feature Film category at the 93rd Academy Awards.
“Whether it is incorporating traditional elements into new products, content, or experiences, brands need to recognize the deeper drivers of Roots Revival such as the desire for recognition, rejection of homogenous culture, or the comfort of traditional values.”
Similarly, ‘Impetigore’ by Indonesian director Joko Anwar, has received critical acclaim with six wins at Indonesia’s top film festival and was screened at the US Sundance Festival. The film is imbued with Indonesia’s ghostly folklore, and cultural traditions such as “wayang kulit” (Javanese shadow puppetry).
By tapping into their cultural roots, a new wave of filmmakers in Southeast Asia are turning the heads of industry players and horror fans around the world, bringing the region’s grassroots film industry international recognition.
What it Means for Brands
As consumers around the region reembrace their own heritage and roots, international brands are presented with both challenges and opportunities. While strong localized strategies underpin the success of any brand, the ‘Roots Revival’ wave will force marketers to work even harder to redefine their place in the lives of their consumers. In this new context, what role should they play?
Whether it is incorporating traditional elements into new products, content, or experiences, brands need to recognize the deeper drivers of Roots Revival such as the desire for recognition, rejection of homogenous culture, or the comfort of traditional values. The focus needs to be on true authenticity and value, instead of superficially jumping on the latest trends that spawn from this cultural shift.
It’s a dangerous line between celebration and appropriation. But when done right, consumers will take pride, and appreciate the brand’s participation in promoting, celebrating, or even evolving local cultural behaviours.
Roots Revival is one of 36 global cultural shifts identified in TBWA Backslash’s 2022 Edges Report. Get the full report here.
Featured image: Ethan Hu via Unsplash
TBWA\Singapore’s latest episode of Walking the Edges explores Roots Revival from the perspective of Elizabeth Chan, founder of Kueh Ho Jiak and recognized as a heritage hawker by UNESCO. TBWA joins Kueh Ho Jiak on a kueh-making workshop to learn how they’re giving the traditional kueh a new lease on life.