The Human Universals That Make Global Branding Possible
Is it possible to create global communications campaigns as long as you identify motivations that apply to all people in all cultures? Are there any such motivations?
Be global, act local’. This is the mantra of multi-national marketers as they seek to build global brands. But just how ‘local’ do you have to be? Is it possible to create global communications campaigns as long as you identify motivations that apply to all people in all cultures? Are there any such motivations? In this brief article I show that the answer to both questions is ‘yes’. Human beings differ less from each other and share more in common than is often supposed. As long as we focus on these deeper aspects of human nature, cultural differences can be overcome, making global branding possible.
Three themes that are common to all people
i). What all people care about
When we think about what people really care about, we tend to make the mistake of looking first at religion and culture. Religion, after all, is where we are supposed to find the answers to life’s biggest questions – questions like ‘what happens when we die’, or ‘why are we here in the first place?’ Yet, it takes only a small adjustment to the question, to achieve a big adjustment in perspective. Suppose we rephrase the question along the following lines: What do most people devote most of their time to? Asked in this way, the answer to the question becomes obvious. There are five great themes that underpin daily life. They are: food, shelter, friends, family (including, of course, finding a mate), and meaningful work. This is not my list. It’s the list of Steven Pinker, a Harvard-based neuro-linguist who wrote ‘How the Mind Works’. I would add a sixth universal motivation and that is: self-esteem i.e. the need to feel good about yourself – which usually involves a need to feel that you are doing better than your peers on at least some dimensions.
It’s not hard to find advertising which taps into these motivations to create universally understood views of ‘the brand’. Worldwide, motorcar advertising is probably the most obvious. People the world over aspire to own the high-end brands: BMW, Mercedes, Lexus, Audi; or the super-sports brands: Porsche, Ferrari. The extent to which a simple message ‘expensive car catches beautiful woman’ still works, is rather startling but worth remembering. Expensive cars are one of the most visible ways in which people can make a statement about how successful they are. And the world over, it’s how they do.
For a more prosaic example of the use of these themes, take a look at the advertising that was used to recreate the image of Motorola cell-phones, including here in South Africa. Motorola is a brand from the United States that used its expertise in military communications to launch into the cell-phone handset market. For some years they made the mistake of thinking that handsets were about effective communications. ‘Get the technology right’, they thought, ‘and the brand will sell’. It took them years to understand that design was as important as technology. The ‘hello moto’ campaign signaled the fact that they were finally ‘getting it’.
But what, you may ask, does a scantily clad picture of half a woman have to do with cell-phones? The answer: ‘she’ (the generalized ‘she’) is one of the most powerful images known to humans – of both genders! She makes a statement about who uses the Motorola. But more than that – her elegance and sleek beauty reinforce the design characteristics of the handset. She lends the handset her aesthetic appeal and humanizes it at the same time.
ii). The seven universal human emotions
In the late 1960s, the social anthropoligst, Paul Ekman, caused an uproar in academic circles when he showed that there are seven universal human emotions that show up on people’s faces, worldwide. It was an age of cultural relativism; and so, for reasons which are hard to understand these days, academics felt threatened by the notion that there may be human universals when it comes to emotions and facial expressions. Ekman went on to do very well for himself as an advisor to the movie industry; and over time, academia has caught up with him. He is right – and our increasing appreciation of evolutionary psychology has helped to move his (and Darwin’s) theory of the emotions back to centre stage.
So what are the seven universal emotions and what is their relevance to global branding?
Take a look at the photograph (above right) of one of the tribe’s people on which Ekman based his original research in the early 1960s. The pictures come from what was then a remote stone age tribe in Papua New Guinea. Both are pictures of men smiling. No cultural artifact disguises this. It does not matter that these men may have had very little to do with modern urban culture when these pictures were taken – we know immediately how they are feeling. What’s more important: we know that when they are in that state of mind, we probably have nothing to fear. So it would have been a welcome sign to a stranger like Ekman. True smiles are one of the most important ways through which we communicate acceptance to each other.
The other universally recognizable emotions are: fear, anger, pain, surprise, sadness, and disgust. All play a fundamentally useful role in social communication. They appear to be hard-wired into all humans – so that there is a direct link between the way the brain responds to certain stimuli and what appears on our faces. No matter your culture, history, sophistication, or background, if you have one of those feelings, it will show up in a recognizable way on your face. With the benefit of an evolutionary perspective, we are now able to recognize why nature may have hard-wired these emotions into our constitutions. They have survival value. ‘Fear’ signals potential danger to others in the tribe. ‘Surprise’ signals to others that something unusual is going on. ‘Anger’ tells everyone that co-operation may be in jeopardy. And so on… With practice, actors learn to emulate these expressions; and in so doing, convey the universal emotions. But it is no accident that the most natural acting involves actors’ attempts, not just to pretend that they are feeling the emotions, but to try to replicate the state of mind that produces them.
The relevance of this to communication is obvious: global campaigns are possible because people recognize these emotions worldwide, no matter where the adverts may have been shot, nor who was in them. If there is a source of difference, then it has more to do with what emotions people feel are appropriate for different circumstances, than with the emotions themselves. Some cultures may not deem it appropriate to cry, even in very sad situations – as was the case with ‘men’ in the West some decades ago. But if we do feel, for example, that a person is laughing inappropriately, or is unnecessarily afraid, then we seldom question the emotion itself. We only question whether or not it is appropriate in the given situation.
iii). It’s not about globalization, it’s about urbanization
These days people often talk about ‘globalization’; usually in the context of an argument about whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. All this talk about ‘globalization’ detracts from what is a much more important process and that is ‘urbanization’. On a scale never before seen in history, people in poor countries are moving into the cities. This is an unstoppable process and it should be welcomed. It is unstoppable because it is much easier for people to find opportunities and to create wealth in the cities than it is in the rural countryside. It is easier for governments to deliver services when people are concentrated into smaller areas as they are in cities. And it is easier for people to find work, trade, and support each other, when they’re concentrated in cities. So we should welcome the urbanization process.
Naturally, when poor people move en masse to the cities, it creates many social problems, for example, where are the rates and taxes going to come from to support infrastructure development in their areas? Where will land be found to house them? And so on… Usually, people who are already established in the cities are unwilling to pay extra to develop infrastructure for the new urban poor – with the result that a gangster or warlord culture naturally develops.
But for advertisers, urbanization is a boon, particularly if you are trying to establish a global brand. Take a look at the following two cityscapes.
One is in the Middle East and one is in the Far East. I don’t know what cities they are. They could be anywhere. What is clear is that neither of them is in the United States. Yet nestled comfortably in the midst of these ‘foreign’ cities, is McDonald’s. It would be hard to find a more ‘American’ brand. McDonald’s stands for the most popular fast food of the United States, the hamburger. How less Far Eastern can one be. Yet the brand is obviously at home. The point is this: you could not have created a better ecology for global branding than the modern city.
For a great example of the use of urbanization to launch a global brand you would be hard-pressed to find a better example than the iPod. Ask yourself the following question: In which city was the picture of the iPod billboard taken? (Below) The answer is: who knows? It could be Shanghai, San Francisco, Cape Town, or anywhere…
Ask an even more difficult question: What language does she (for it is a ‘she’) speak? What is her culture? What is her history? The answer is: neither you nor anyone else has a clue. Yet – we know exactly who this person represents. She represents a young ‘switched on’ person in the modern urban environment.
From the branding point of view the lesson is momentous: the modern urban environment strips away local culture. The young people that iPod advertising captures are more like each other than any of them are like their grand-parents. Whether they be the little ‘princes’ or ‘princesses’ of the contemporary one-child family in China; or the newly educated generation of Africans whose grand-parents live in the rural areas of South Africa and cannot read, these people have more in common with each other than they have with their grand-parents. That’s not to say that ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’ aren’t important. It’s just to say that in very important ways, when people get into cities they move on – and become more alike. The combination of urbanization with modern communication have made it easier than it has ever been, to build global brands with a global identity.
Pulling it all together
In this article I have tapped into just three themes to show how they create a platform for global branding. They are:
• The five or six core goals that govern most daily human activity
• The seven emotions that show up in a universal way on all peoples’ faces
• The process of urbanization which strips away local tradition and culture.
While it’s important not to exaggerate the importance of these forces, it’s also important to recognize that we humans are more alike than unlike each other. By tapping into the things that all people care about, marketers are able to create motivational foundations for their brands that are recognized worldwide. By tapping into the universal emotions, they are able to communicate worldwide. And by taking advantage of urbanization, they’re able to create global brands.
Jan Hofmeyr (Ph.D.) is currently the International Director of Innovation for Synovate’s Brand and Communications practice. Before joining Synovate in 2006, he spent fifteen years marketing the Conversion Model internationally, a marketing research tool he developed in the 1980s. On joining Synovate, Jan developed Brand Value Creator, a ‘next generation’ brand equity and communications tracking system which combines measures of brand equity with measures of market circumstances to provide a consulting level approach to brand tracking.
Jan has taught at Universities and presented papers and seminars on matters of branding and commitment in most countries of the world. He has consulted internationally to the world’s best known companies, among them Intel, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, IBM, Nokia, Qantas, Telstra, SingTel, etc. He has won international awards and written four books including Commitment-Led Marketing (Wiley and Sons, 2001). Jan teaches at the Universities of Stellenbosch (where he is an Honorary Professor) and Cape Town.