In a Shrinking World, Marketers Need Cultural Insights to Combine Universal Truths with Local Values

Little by little, the past few years have seen a weakening of the dominance of multi-national brands in Asia, as local players win consumers’ hearts with greater understanding of local culture and its importance in consumer decision-making.

For example, beauty is big business in Asia, but in many countries local brands are the most popular, with the highest penetration and market share, while international brands are increasingly struggling to compete. In Indonesia, local brand Wardah has come from nowhere to take around one-third of the cosmetics market. Its secret? Understanding the values of Indonesian women (and halal certification, something that has now been legislated to come into effect in the coming years).

This rise is matched by a decline in global planning and increased localisation by even the biggest multi-national brands, like Unilever. They have seen the rise of local brands with more bottom-up strategies that reflect the richness of local cultures and are therefore more relevant to people. These changes are taking place against a backdrop of increasing local pride and a sense of local cultural identity reacting against the forces of globalisation.

So how can global brands compete in this fast-changing landscape where global brand identities matter less and local cultural insight is becoming increasingly important?

Recent years have also seen a rise in interest in semiotics and cultural analysis, an increasingly important part of TapestryWorks’ skill set. We have spent time trying to understand the relationship between universal human truths, expressed through motivations and emotions, and local cultural values. Does one shape the other and to what extent are category and brand motivations (and positioning) able to translate across cultures?

TapestryWorks has pioneered the use of implicit visual stimuli to capture the motivations and needs of consumers. Using our Story-Works Visual Think Cards we are able to understand consumers’ unconscious desires and map them back onto a globally relevant motivational model. But is this good enough? Do universal motivations like control, freedom, belonging, and independence ‘look’ and ‘feel’ the same everywhere?

The answer is, of course, no! Although motivations and emotions reflect universal human strategies for surviving and thriving by adapting to the environment, environments are different and therefore strategies change.

To test this out we recently developed a set of StoryWorks Visual Think Cards designed to incorporate Indonesian cultural values and cues while still being based on the universal emotions and need-states in the StoryWorks model. We have been testing them against our universal stimulus set (which has been validated).

The results are fascinating, and we are now conducting a quantitative validation of our qualitative findings. Overall, there is a lot of consistency in the card choices and motivational segments chosen by people, but we have found some differences which offer deep insights into cultural values.

First of all, the differences we have found in the emotional profile produced by global vs local stimuli reflect a key cultural tension in the category context and local country – in this case, the tension between the need for independence vs the need for interdependence (‘me’ versus ‘we’). Locally sensitive representations of independence can overcome this tension by normalising the depiction of the motivation and providing a locally relevant context.

This is a great insight for brands with global platforms. Nike’s positioning around empowering every athlete can feel alien in some cultures, but if you normalise it by placing it in a context where people compete together (and in a friendly way), it starts to become more acceptable in a society in which conformity is important.

Our recent work shows that all human needs can become more relevant if placed in a local context. That doesn’t change the basic fact that some motivations are more relevant in some cultures than others (as much cross-cultural work on human values has shown). However, importantly, it does show that global strategies can be successfully tweaked to make them more relevant, even in cultures which place less emphasis on a particular motivation.

We are genuinely excited by what our recent research has uncovered, and will be sharing more of our findings in the future. In the battle of global vs local, the only way for global brands to fight back is to leverage local cultural insights and adapt global strategies accordingly. ‘One size fits all’ strategies should be a thing of the past, and we hope our work can help global and local businesses to adapt and thrive.