Marketing Pakistan: Know your product

Published: July 30, 2011

There is plenty of underutilised fodder to attract positive international interest, if it were only put to use. PHOTO: AFP

On the one hand, it seems that Pakistan doesn’t have much to offer travelers these days with the exception of expats visiting their families, Lonely Planet reading backpackers, Sikh pilgrims and cricket-mad Indians—many of whom have waned from the ‘insecurity’ situation. Then, on the other hand, the ‘Ministry of Marketing’ (let us suppose that one exists) has plenty of underutilised fodder to attract positive international interest, if only they would.

From an ancient civilization that’s older than the Pyramids (the Indus Valley along with Buddhist and Gandhara aren’t adequately promoted like the Mughals as they’re pre-Islamic), historical architecture (including pre-Partition buildings that have since dwindled into shoddy government offices and low-grade, paan-spittled apartments) and a rich, evolving ‘Popculturistan’ (that’s under attack by the conservative majority unfamiliar with the concepts of subcultures, postmodernism and organized tourism) we have much to offer:

Fashion: Pakistani bridal couture isn’t big beyond South Asia and expat communities, one but the rest have the potential to cross over: think elephant-god t-shirts from India and Arab scarf accessories from the Middle East that all made it to mainstream fashion channels. So too can ours; a pop cultural mix of indigenous customs and tongue-in-cheek humour works on the large scale.

Market kitsch: Truck art (Gulabo and followers), Lollywood art (Hot Spot’s Lollywood parodies, Uth Oye and other quirky T-shirts), Urdu and Punjabi calligraphy bags (though it is highly doubtful that Bulley Shah’s descendants will get royalties from the latter) all need Saks, Bloomingdales and Selfridges to show an interest.

Music: The universal language that goes beyond all kinds of barriers and Pakistan does very, very well. From folk to Sufi to rock and now hip hop (i.e. Adil Omar’s catchy Off The Handle and the upcoming Paki Rambo; our fingers are crossed for his future Grammy nomination), every music item that is released, written, blogged or tweeted, always surprised a sizeable number on the other side of the world, who begin to acknowledge that music in Pakistan is “bigger than Bin Laden” (Alan Cross, music writer from ). (THIS IS THE CORRECT LINK: )

Sardonic statements by musicians make a smarter impression than, say Korean Bieber-wannabes. Ali Azmat’s Bum Phatta (as in bomb exploding, not a rear end) is a great example of this—a witty take on the current plight of the country with a terrific music video.

Now, if only we could provide the security needed for international performers to hold concerts here, not to mention preventing a blatant infringement of intellectual copyright laws so that they have a sales incentive to include Pakistan on their tours…

Food: We may not have any Michelin starred restaurants (yet) but Pakistani cuisine is a heartening way of portraying our gastronomic zest for all things hot, spicy and meat-infused (to a level that makes Mexican food appear bland), our quirky palates that savour goat paye and nihari—(one imagines that goat’s feet, brain and testicles could also be fused with French cuisine famous for snails and frog’s legs), and our voluptuous, indigenous fruit superior to tropical regions the world over (like the mango family, phalsa berry or falsa, jambul or jamun), along with organic produce that is a fast dying breed in favour of carcinogenic pesticides. Additionally, organic halal meat products could be branded and exported to countries all over the world (if health standards can be met).

Female icons: In this silicone-infused world of ‘reality’ TV stars like Katie Price, Heidi Montag, Kim Kardashian, Shilpa Shetty and Veena Malik, the distinctively glamour-free Ms Mukhtaran Mai is a real-life hero who has done more to uplift the image of strong rural women in Pakistan than anyone in recent history. This lone woman has provided positive inspiration to downtrodden women around the world, whether they can relate to the suffocating folds of tribal ‘justice’ or not, and given a courageous face to standing up to gender violence. Despite receiving international accolades, it seems her image isn’t ‘soft’ enough for Pakistan’s Ministry of Marketing; no medals of valour for her from our government, nor has there been a domestic media campaign among major TV channels celebrating her like they do male cricketers for scoring a few runs.

Philanthropy: From Abdul Sattar Edhi (who runs the largest volunteer ambulance system in the world) to Imran Khan and his high-profile black tie fund raising for cancer (now building the country’s second cancer hospital in Peshawar), and the grassroots efforts of various NGOs to promote health awareness amid social taboos, there is plenty of underutilised fodder here, not just to propel Pakistan’s image from a crooked, self-serving nation to one that cares about its people, but to publicise worthwhile causes while encouraging local and international donors.

Atheletes: Where are Nike/Reebok/Adidas’ sponsorships for our female athletes in cricket, football et al? Sponsorship by multinationals can promote our growing breed of athletes on a regional as well as global scale.

Urdu: Urdlish may be very well as verbal slang but it’s downright annoying when advertising copywriters start using it in a cheesy way. Also, people who can’t speak fluent English ought to speak in Urdu/Punjabi/regional languages and get an interpreter, especially athletes and politicians who end up sounding unimpressive because they are struggling for words and not expressing themselves with confidence. You won’t see any Brazilian footballers or French Presidents speaking in English. Express eloquence in your native tongue.

Creative industries: The facilitation of fine arts and film is essential for growth. Instead of shoestring projects by film school graduates that are either banned from screening here or are documentaries that TV channels don’t buy, try to attract investors and focus on promoting talent instead of being hung up on censorship. Inviting international filmmakers to hold film premieres and hosting large-scale international film festivals would open up a great deal of intercultural and commercial interchange. Invite international co-productions and make it glamorous and safe enough for major studios to shoot Hollywood films here.

Promote local film facilities for an international community by setting up production and post-production outfits and cut the red tape to get things done. The more backward a country is, the more red tape is involved to carry out the simplest of tasks. Use people’s endless conspiracy theories to write spy thrillers, film crime movies, and promote constructive work that makes the country mysterious and alluring instead of a nation of depressed lunatics. Even the culture of corruption could look more palatable to an international audience if a Bond movie was shot here. TV producers could stop copying Indian soaps and reinvent original genres like in the 80s. Subsidize and promote in-house productions for film, TV, publishing including children’s writers in Urdu and get them translated.  Promote Pakistanis in Hollywood—actors, character actors, producers, writers and comedians.

Teamwork with neighbours: Although it was annoying to be dominated by a much larger country and economy, we miss the days when we were called ‘IndoPak.’ Calling us ‘AfPak’ indicates our downward spiral.

A celebration of subcultures: From remote tribes and religious minorities to the transgendered community, celebrating diversity and aiding representation, expression, and involvement in mainstream media and society says a lot about the country–as does bigotry.

Reverse brain drain: Publicise the success of immigrants and people of Pakistani origin who have excelled in their fields and offer them incentives to return. Expats tend to be fiercely loyal and patriotic, yet refuse to live here and do everything from a safe distance. Let’s give them reasons to move back–ones more lasting than the real estate bubble of the last decade.

Ingenuity and entrepreneurship: The brilliance of scam artists and hackers can be redirected to develop interesting new patented technology, if only they could be recruited.

Tolerance: Nobody wants to visit a country to be bullied or thinks highly of it if it has narrow-minded views.  Promote the rights of minorities even while the rights are being throttled, don’t stop. Encouraging social acceptance and interfaith dialogue within and outside of country would have far reaching positive consequences.

Shopping destination: ‘Branded’ in Pakistan literally means ‘not Chinese.’ Popular local items and brands could be redirected, like lawn could be stylised into beachwear for international markets. An annual shopping festival might encourage tourism from around the country as well as overseas, and should not be on the lines of the typical ‘industrial exhibitions’ at Fortress Stadium of a crusty array of mattresses and mediocre china. Exported styles of leather products, textiles, and home interiors should also be made available locally as an incentive for shoppers.

Preservation: More funding is needed for heritage sites as well as more respect from the public who scribble graffiti on its walls. Endangered animals should be respected, appreciated and protected.

Subtlety in TV news and newspapers: Local media often has an agenda (for example, Fox News is neo-Con). Local news is either anti-government or pro some political party depending on the vested interests of the owners, or in sensationalising horrific imagery without warning that it’s inappropriate for children. Let’s make it at least slightly objective.

Change the definition of education: Being educated is more than being able to scribble your first name. So what if our statistics get lower, they’re a joke anyway.

Humour:  Capitalize on what’s really here and make it quirky and interesting. ‘Sell’ brand Pakistan as a fascinating country. Since Pakistanis have a great sense of humour and the ability to enjoy ourselves, let’s laugh and laugh some more.

Cultural intolerance: No more ‘East’ vs, ‘West’; ‘our culture’ vs. ‘your culture’, ‘Islamic’ vs. ‘unIslamic.’ If it’s here, it’s part of the melting pot. Accept that.


Laaleen Khan

An international columnist and media consultant who Tweets @laaleen

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • M Khan

    Actually where fashion is concered, a major untapped market by international designers is our hand embroideries and embellishment, the quality of hand-work in Pakistan is unparalleled, and cannot be found anywhere in the world, not India not anywhere else. That is where focus should be brought. Designers abroad should collaborate with Pakistani designers for hand-embellishment of couture gowns and accessories. For factory machine embellishment, tee shirts, mass produced garments there’s enough of China but our skilled labour is of high quality and can possibly be to the world of embroideries what Italy is for hand-made shoes.
    The only thing one should be careful is (because labour rates are already too high in Pakistan due to recent economic crises… and is causing most designers to employ more machine work) is to ensure that foreign investment IF IT does take place, doesn’t drive rates up so high that hand embroideries become completely inaccessible or unaffordable for the local market.Recommend

  • Shahrukh kazmi

    Pakistan Zindabad! yaar, love my country, Thank you Laleen.Recommend

  • bushra hanif

    it’s more like day dreaming and building air castles. its really a retarded nation (oops not a nation but rather best be called as a crowd). for building up a nation ,you need education and educated mindset but this nation or crowd(according to me) have sickest mindset in all the third world countries of the world.Recommend

  • Fahad Raza

    A really good post..Recommend

  • Laaleen

    Well, we can still hope Recommend

  • Salman

    All the things that define the culture of this land are anti-Islam.

    And that includes everything you’ve mentioned.Recommend

  • parvez

    Good try but somehow it does not fly.Recommend

  • Fooz

    great blog laleen.. informative!Recommend

  • Kamran

    Great work Laleen, love you for your effort for our beloved Pakistan… We’ve a lot of potential and the ability to show the world that Pakistan is a great country with great peoples, and inshaAllah it will be… very soon. Keep up the good work and don’t let the hope die!

    Pakistan… Zinda baad…!Recommend

  • Irshad Khan

    Artcle is fine but confined to some personalities(singers particularly) and cuisines. Sight seeing is not less attractive in Pkaistan but only northern areas are mentioned while sindh has to offer a lot of attractions for local and foreign tourists; a colourfull culture, music, art, architecture, rivers/canals/lakes/deserts/hills and what not. Culture of Thar is very similar to Rajisthan which has become world renowned now and the whole world wants to visit there. But our part is not known neither so developed, safe and accessable. Fishing and hunting can be developed to a high extent in this region. This is the work of our culture and tourist ministries; But while marketing Pakistan, what our embassies are doing, it is a big question mark and has never been replied properly!

    . Recommend

  • Santoshouille

    @ Laaleen Khan : Perfectly sound !!! You got something in your master piece article . Here , i add , we have to clean up the gutters in which we are now walking . As far as “DEVELOPMENT OF PAKISTAN ” concerned , it will require a very imaginative , very raical form of Government str. Plan to right this . Few evelopment activities like : Metro services in Lahore & Karachi could be alternative choice . Think about it .Recommend

  • Tani

    I recently came across this page on Facebook. Please everyone take a few moments to look at these pictures. I promise it wont be a waste of time, after all that we have been going through as a country. When i look at these places, It reminds me why i love my country so much, I wish the world only heard of this, and not the usual everyday news.

    Pakistan Zindabad!Recommend

  • Mehdi Hasan Kazmi

    Pakistan can blow away Switzerland . But realistically I don’t us being able to develop our tourist potential and we all know the reasons. Recommend

  • Ali

    Pakistan just isn’t safe enough for people to come to visit at teh moment but some of your above suggestions are a good beginning for some of our industries!Recommend

  • F. Alam

    The suggestions are sound and analysis is good.

    We have some limits but the best way forward is to copy people like Imran Khan and ignore negative people. I mean did someone ever thought we can have Internal Campus of Bradford University (top 50 ranking in the world) in Mianwali?

    Best way is to ignore those who say its not possible and start our journey. Recommend

  • Awais Khan

    It is unfortunate that the image of Pakistan in the outside world is not good. As mentioned above tolerance is one of the things we will have to promote and I personally think that by promoting tolerance we will be rid of many ills.Recommend

  • Sohaib Aslam

    Brilliant !
    It looks like i found a set of guidelines on how and what to do !
    Our Pakistani is an example of a very grossly under-marketed or even de-marketed Brilliance.
    Somewhat like the west demeans China at every opportunity.Recommend

  • AN

    Great work Laleen… The article does make one wonder,
    with soooo many of the blessings that our country has,
    we can make it even better.
    Our tourism industry can be a huge source of revenue
    For us, but it needs to b developed. We have and had such
    Such amazing and beautiful places up north, it would take the
    place of countries like switzerland easily, but sadly not much
    has been done about that, only if our politition and media
    people start realizing that and they stop showing ALL the negative
    things happening around!Recommend

  • gp65

    Pakistan military tightly wants to control the visas given to foreigners. Further it needs NOC for foreigner who have a visa in Pakistan to move about within the country. Women get beaten up for wearing sleeveless clothes.
    With such rules and intolerance – even if the security situation wasn’t so bad, which foreigner would want to visit Pakistan?

    If Pakistan wants to become a tourist destination many things would have to fundamentally change – that includes intolerance, mistrust of foreigners etc.Recommend

  • rehmat

    Swiss couple kidnapped in Balckistan, US man kidnapped from his home in middle of night. Who would risk such insecurity to visit Pakistan?