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Bangladesh Musings

Getting Started We conducted a research for a youth beverage brand in
Bangladesh in late May this year. We had failed at trying to wriggle out of work with a
feeble refrain, ‘we don’t know Bangladesh’ and other dastardly options like reminding
the client of our competitors well established in Bangladesh. The client persisted with
simply, kindly and firmly saying, he was well aware, and can we please complete
fieldwork by 2nd June? It dawned on us that a swift Operation Sonar Bangla had to be
launched in the two-week window! We had to begin with finding a field partner,
organizing travel, resourcing two researchers and getting visas for their travel,
developing a country context, and finally concluding the multi-centre fieldwork before
the due date. Little wonder that I had recurring dreams around the ‘two’ theme!

The 360° Approach – It helps to be curious and fearless, realize one knows
nothing and have the passion to understand and absorb the cultural context, to listen
deeply and interpret what is being spoken. It also helps understand body language and
silence. Eight of us on the project, broke up into teams leading different project
management tasks. One team managed field identification and operations management,
one team managed travel logistics, the KM team pored over maps of Bangladesh, the
Tourist Handbook, Lonely Planet, and over twenty websites, pulled out links to films on
Bangladesh on the Net and put together a country understanding note for the
In Bangladesh along with respondents recruited for the research, we spoke with field
partners and their staff, concierges in the hotels, store staff; visited friends working
there, and read local newspapers. Like ‘ferret-sponges’ we hungrily collected every
visual, auditory and olfactory tidbits that came our way.
A cultural immersion warrants a look inside the soul of the people. Alongside fieldwork,
we read the poetry and literature. Case in point is a brilliant anthology, ‘Under the
Krishnachura’ of Bangladeshi writing. We listened to the amazingly soulful Baul music,
the popular Bangla band, James, who has scored the music for the Bollywood film, ‘Life
in the Metro’ and Maajhi songs which so inspired S.D Burman. There are about ten CDs
that speak of our musical journey.

Historical Context – Over 90% are Muslims and speak Bangla, and fluency with
in the English language is no where near an Indian metro. Linguistic tradition rather
than religion define this interesting society which has experienced much turbulence in its
social, economic and political fabric. The consciousness of the people of Bangladesh
deeply influenced by the three transitional life-stages spanning five decades – once as
part of a 5000 year civilization, then the ‘eastern wing of Pakistan’, and from 1952 to
1971, living a struggle to preserve ‘Bangla’ as the backbone of their unique culture.
Bangladesh is less ‘Muslim’ and more ‘Bangla’.
Youth & Change – The Bangladeshi youth has experienced a smattering of
modern urban living with an expansion of mobile telephony and communication access.
New malls in Dhaka like Basundhara City fuel aspiration, and a seemingly unrelated act
like relaxing of University hostel timings for girls in the past two years has meant more
possibilities for freedom and exploration. Young people tend to study till their ‘Masters’
and live with their parents. There is little opportunity and encouragement to earn while
they learn. The age for marriage is slowly rising from 18 – 20 years to 24 years for girls.
Careers in marketing and management are gaining in importance. Studying abroad,
especially in the US and in Australia is aspirational. The most highly educated people
hold positions requiring literacy and mathematical skills, such as in banks and
government offices. Contradictions abound and there is no mention of Mohammad
Yunus and the internationally recognized Grameen revolution.
Youth & The Family – Bangladeshi youth in Dhaka, Chittagong or Khulna, live in
a fairly conventional, duty and norm-bound society with strong kinship ties, where
obedience to elders is a virtue. Youth have a high sense of responsibility towards family
and clan. One is taught to trust ones immediate family. Though open to accept the new,
parental influence and even interference are evident. Key choices of education, career,
and marriage are strongly determined by parental influence. Filial ties are very strong
and immediate family members are the biggest role models cherished for their qualities
of hard work or their admirable character.

Youth & Dreams – An opportunity to study and work abroad or to work in a
multinational in Bangladesh is the family passport to a better life. They are as concerned
about the country and are socially conscious, as they are about their personal growth.
They take both as inter-linked. ‘Build yourself. Build your nation’ is the most
resonant sentiment. The youth is affected by the situation of political instability and the
resultant uncertainty. Politicians are mistrusted and traders are seen to hold the country
to ransom. Dreams of the future are built on idealism and hope touched by realism.
There is immense pride in the country coupled with huge concern for the economic,
social and political situation. The youth want to be free from the threat of vicious
inflationary cycles. They dream of working for the upliftment of the poor and
downtrodden. While there is aspiration for economic prosperity, they do not seek to
break away from the conservative social, cultural and religious system. Their aspirations
are, linked quite closely with preserving and promoting “authentic” Bangladeshi culture.
Societal Fabric: While Dhaka appears more open with greater freedom to study
and work, Chittagong and Khulna continue to be more strictly governed by familial
norms and codes of conduct. Women in Khulna come across as more self-reliant. They
feel education is a pre-requisite to change the current situation of inflation and political
instability. Khulna also faces natural calamities possibly building resilience in the people
and making them gritty survivors.
Youth Hot Buttons – There is large exposure to Indian television and youth
enjoy watching Hindi serials and movies. Sony is a favourite channel and ‘Jassi’ has been
a very popular. Watching Hindi movies, buying cheap movie CDs at taka 75 is a common
practice. Shahrukh Khan, Ritesh Deshmukh, Priyanka Chopra, Kajol, Katrina Kaif have a
big fan following.
Cricket and football are the main sports and watching and playing these is a pastime.
Sachin Tendulkar and Shoaib Akhtar are the biggest cricketing stars. A highly emotional
people, the personal highpoint is the enjoyment of festivals and reunion with family
members who visit during festivals. Getting together, eating and drinking, relating and
reliving happy times from the past are simple joys of life.

Conclusion – The warmth and gentleness in the Bangladesh spirit is unmistakable
and brand marketers who build respect that comes with understanding will succeed in
this market. The visit to Sonar Bangla leaves one feeling like one has gone back in time
where things outside are far from perfect, but the gentleness of the spirit preserved
perfectly. The warp and the weft of this cultural fabric may have a rent and tear here
and there, but the exquisite embroidery makes one want to hold in up to close
inspection and admiration.

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