Business Times

Sri Lanka's new mod-tradi consumer

We have a new Mod-tradi, postmodern consumer emerging in particular segments of our market space. Do we know her?
By Prof. Uditha Liyanage


The seemingly opposing socio-cultural forces of traditionalization and modernization have to be clearly recognized in our attempt to profile the emerging Sri Lanka-consumer. The force of traditionalization gathered momentum in the post-1956 period, while the impetus of modernization was felt particularly in the post-1977 period. Escaping the attention of many, the two forces of traditionalization and modernization have been converging, over the recent past, giving rise to the post-modern consumer.

File photo shows a consumer purchasing vegatables. Discerning the fine line of fusion between the traditional and the modern impulses of the consumer is the challenge that the Sri Lankan marketer encounters.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes tradition as, "customs, opinions or belief handed down to posterity, especially orally or by practice". According to Cook, (1993), tradition, "paves past practices and beliefs which have a certain moral or spiritual prestige, and it would also link at least three generations, providing a sense of connectivity". Modernity is defined as "belonging to the present or to recent times, and not to the old or ancient, contemporary, current, present day, often a deliberate departure from tradition" (Cook, 1993).

The chief implication of the emergence of the post-modern consumer for marketers in particular is to find focal areas of fusion between that which is traditional and modern, and avoid an attempt to either hark back to the past for its own sake, or become overly modernist, and thus address only a small and alienated group of consumers, at best.

Discerning the fine line of fusion between the traditional and the modern impulses of the consumer is the challenge that the Sri Lankan marketer encounters. He also needs to identify the disparate socio-cultural and urban-rural groups that are variously impacted by post -modernist tendencies, which the marketer can ignore at his peril. Indeed, postmodernism appears to be a megatrend that has begun to unfold itself across the Sri Lankan market place at varying levels of intensity.

The Compact Oxford English dictionary defines postmodernism, "as a style and concept in the arts, characterized by distrust of theories and ideologies and by drawing of the attention to conventions.” Webster's dictionary defines it as "… movements in reaction to modernism that are typically characterized by a return to traditional material and forms (as in architecture), while not totally abandoning elements of the modern form".

In architecture, for example, in Sri Lanka, one witnesses the growing tendency among the SEC A groupings, in particular to use cement floors and old, traditional benches and such furniture, typical of a pre-modern era. Interestingly, the lower SEC groups are attempting to upgrade from cement floors to glossy floor tiles, while the upper SEC groups in a rather strange way are attempting to upgrade through a return to, say cement floors in the design and construction of their houses. However, there is of course no attempt to jettison the modern equipment and paraphernalia that provide the conveniences and comfort of modern living.

The coming together, indeed the confluence of the forces of traditionalization and modernity brings forth a third distinct, "stand alone" force of postmodernism and with it, the emergence of the postmodern consumer. The force of postmodernism is a synthesis of the forces of traditionalization and modernity discussed earlier, but, importantly, it transcends both and has an identity and force of its own.
Drivers of Postmodernism:

The emergence of postmodernism is a reaction to modernism, as was first witnessed in architecture. It was a reaction to the blandness, hostility and utopianism. Definitive postmodern architecture such as the work of Michael Graves rejected the notion of "pure form" or "perfect" architectonic detail; instead, conspicuously drawing from all methods, materials, forms and colours available to architects. The emphasis on personal, subjective preferences and variety over the objective, ultimate truths and principles is characteristic of postmodernism. (Wikepedia, Postmodernism)

Similar drivers as those described above, bring forth a behavioural consumption pattern that has the features of both tradition and modernity. Indeed, it is a fusion, a confluence of forces and the postmodern consumer can and must be seen as distinct from the traditional and modern consumer. The key driver here is the avoidance of the possibility of being uprooted and alienated from the deep-going social programs and processes on the one hand, and the avoidance of being stuck in the past and old fashioned, on the other. This struggle to embrace the "new", but not abandon the "old", altogether, provides the consumer with the psycho-social energy to spawn a combination of the two, not one sitting next to the other, but an active inter-play of the two - to produce a single core.

Expressions of Postmodernism:

Dress code of men, the traditional national dress-type top or shirt, and the western trouser is followed by many politicians. It is not uncommon among the business community too. The expensive sarong and shirt combine an acceptable form of dress in many elite social gatherings. The increasing preference for cotton and linen as opposed to the silky, synthetic clothing is also commonplace among the upper economic classes. It is increasingly followed by other groups.

The traditional saree is now reserved for special and formal occasions and many females, especially of the upper socio-economic classes now wear, instead, trousers and blouses, the latter being an improvisation of the western form. Many professional women now are also attired in a near unisex trouser-blazer outfit.

A vivid metaphor that characterizes and portrays the postmodern "Modtradi" consumer is a youth clad in a faded pair of jeens and a branded t-shirt, and the adornment of the conspicuous "pirith nool". The religious "pirith nool" thick and showy is a symbol of traditionalization and the pair of faded jeens is an expression of modernity. Both co-exist and are congruent in the eyes of the post-modern consumer. Paradoxically, the "pirith nool" now plays the projective "Me" role, and the faded jeans is no longer an imposition on the reflective "I", the private self. There is a fusion of the two symbols and they co-exist in harmony!

Musical preferences are another manifestation of the force of postmodernism. The local Superstar television events have captured the imagination of a nation and appeals to a wide audience, across all SEC groupings. These mega TV events are unmistakably modeled on the American Idol, but their localization is equally unmistakable. Interestingly, the judges of the events, unlike their American counterparts are wont to shower praise on the young and talented participants. Criticism is spared and an attempt to introduce a critical judge in one event to make the counterpoint, as it were, seemed contrived and rehearsed. The local feminine cultural ethos as opposed to the masculine American cultural values is another indication of an apparently western and modern behavioural orientation (ME) but a traditional attitudinal orientation (I). The new "IME" consumer vividly plays its role on the stage of the Superstar.

Interestingly, the stage and backdrop of the Superstar TV events are modern in their design and layout. But the songs that are typically sung by the participants belong to an era that many of the participants themselves were not a part of. This significant phenomenon can be evocatively described as the "reincarnation of Jothipala through the Superstar TV reality shows". The songs of Jothipala, Milton Perera, Milton Mallawarachchi, and Amaradeva were those hot favourites of many participants (traditionalization) fused with a rendering that is typically modern. The postmodern audience had no difficulty in appreciating the duality that is presented as one unified whole.

The popularity of the Bathiya-Santhush duo can also be largely attributed to the creative fusion of the traditional and modernist musical trends. The modern rendering of the traditional rhythms are a case in point in this regard.

Food habits of the postmodern consumer have a traditional base. The pol sambol and the Kiri hodi are very much a part of our regular menu, across SEC groupings. However, sausages at home and regular visits to the likes of McDonalds are not uncommon. This fusion is perhaps best expressed in the McDonald's Mac-bath.

Language and its use in particular contexts is another manifestation of the confluence of the traditional and modernist tendencies. The "Singlish" and Tamilish" expressions often creep into everyday conversation of especially the youth, across multiple SEC groupings. This tendency is reflected in many interactive TV and radio programs, where English words and phrases are liberally interspersed with the vernacular.

In casual conversations among many youth who may well express themselves in the English language in formal officials settings opt to speak in the blended "Singlish or Tamilish" format. The ease with which they do so is again indicative of the postmodernist IME and the modtradi consumer referred to earlier. Importantly, brands that have meaningfully fused the modern and traditional appeals to form a harmonious and holistic offering seem to fare well in the market place.

The inclusion of cloves (traditional) into a modern toothpaste as in Clogard has paid-off. Conversely, brands of toothpaste that have failed to include the modern dimension in a value-creating sense as in the case of Supiriviki has remained a small and insignificant brand. The number of herbal based products introduced by large multinational companies is evidence of the postmodernist tendencies that one has to ride, rather attempt to get rid of.

The market penetration of Samaposha breakfast products for example has a "modtradi" appeal. It falls between the modern cereals on one side and the traditional and inconvenient to prepare Kola Kande, on the other. The significant growth of alternative medicine and herbal products, in the developed world, in particular provides evidence of the mega trend of postmodern consumerist tendencies that have come to stay and grow.

Recognizing the underpinnings of postmodernism and how they shape the way consumers think and act, is indeed, key to the success of any organization that has customers to deal with. And who doesn't?
Implications of Postmodernism:

The post-modernist tendencies that are unfolding at present have the potential to become a megatrend that will markedly affect all sectors and classes of the Sri Lankan society. Postmodernist and consumerist tendencies have to date, and will in the future, impact different SEC groupings and urban-rural segments differently. Importantly, it is the challenge of the marketer to discern the varying impacts of postmodernism on disparate market segments, over time.

The Traditional Middle Class (TMC), on the one hand has become more westernized in some respects, while on the other, retaining some traditional values and customs. For instance, the emergence of the western bridal gown rather than the bridal saree, one would typically witness in a western wedding, is contrasted with the traditional customs such as the poruwa ceremony and the worshiping of parents by the bride and the bridegroom at the wedding. And the music played at these well attended high-profile wedding ceremonies of TMC is most likely to feature traditional local melodies.

Some sub-groups of the New Urban Middle Class (NUMC) who have benefited markedly from the liberalization of the economy, post-1997 and are exposed to overt western life styles and social values, have, it is argued, evince a deviant behavioural pattern that can perhaps be described as an aberration of postmodernism, in fact, a kind of vulgarization of it.

For instance, the musical forms which erode and distort the traditional foundations of their constructions is a marked contrast from the postmodernist incorporation of western forms and their fitting fusion with traditional musical forms. These attempts to remove and debase the traditional roots are clearly seen as an aberration.

The dress and attire of some of the youth who go beyond the modernist and the postmodernist genre belong to a small group of youth in particular who are not "rooted" in the mainstream social milieu. They spend large sums of money to tattoo their bodies and pierce their ears. These alienated youth may well be likened to the hippies of the eighties who represented a socially reactionary small grouping in some western nations.

In its less extreme form, one could witness tendencies that distort the postmodernist tendencies on our local television channels. Sexually overt TV commercials, programs that encourage young females to engage indulgently and in a rather flirtatious manner with male film stars, the debased dancing competitions that are devoid of our cultural underpinnings, are illustrative of the "vulgerization" of the post-modernist tendencies. Importantly, these attempts are repeatedly rejected by the larger mass of consumers as empirically evidenced in the study of Nilaweera and Weeratunge, (2005).

Postmodernism as it unfolds itself may have dysfunctional implications in so far as the Economically Alienated Groups (EAG) of the Sri Lankan society is concerned. Unemployed or under-employed but educated rural youth in particular will form a significant segment of this group. These economically disadvantaged consumers will be exposed to the postmodernist project undertaken by many social actors, and they will be influenced by it. However, their inability to participate in the consumption activities that will often form the pith and substance of TV commercials and the social symbolism of a "good life" is likely to frustrate them. This, in its extreme form can potentially give rise to anti-social activity and an attempt to usurp the very postmodernist project of the market place. The extent and magnitude of the frustration and the ability of the EAG to mobilize the physical and human resources to mount such an attack on the prevailing socio-economic structure is also dependent largely on the political power and clout they could and will wield.


The harmonization of the traditionalist and modernist forces gives rise to postmodernist tendencies in the Sri Lankan marketplace. A mismatch of the two produces either an overly traditional, and therefore, an old fashioned and obsolete proposition or a hyped rendering of an overt western and modernist proposition. The former lacks appeal in that, it may be considered to be desirable, at best but not necessarily, desired. The latter will be treated, other than by an insignificant minority, as an aberration; as one which lacks relevance and social acceptance.

The challenge of today's marketer is to sense the emerging postmodernist propensities of the emerging consumer and develop propositions and products that avoid the two extremes of being either overly traditionalist or modernist. Such an endeavour must be based on the recognition of the points of confluence and fusion that appeal to a new breed of postmodern consumers. This in turn would be possible only through the deep-going understanding of the psyche and the behaviours of the new and emerging Sri Lankan postmodern consumer.

References : (1) Cook D. (1994), Tradition and Critique, Telos Press; (2) Nilaweera U. and Wijetunga D. (2005), (3) South Asian Journal of Management, Vol. 12, Issue No.3. www.wickepedia, the free encyclopedia.

(The writer is a leading marketer and Director, Postgraduate Institute of Management).

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