This is a paper presented by Maren Baetje-Mbaye, a graduate of the Global Digital Marketing and Localization (GDMLC), and Global Branding and Marketing Certification (GBMC) programs. This paper presents the work being produced by students of The Localization Institute’s programs. The contents of this Paper are presented to create discussion in the global marketing industry on this topic; the contents of this paper are not to be considered an adopted standard of any kind. This does not represent the official position of Brand2Global Conference, The Localization Institute, or the author’s organization.
Storytelling, as part of brand marketing, works globally. Everyone seems to agree on that. There are universal patterns in a narrative that resonate with all people around the globe and make a brand story, if told “well,” a success. But what does “well” mean? Why and how does storytelling work? And how come it works globally? What are the universal traits that good stories have in common and where do they differ when it comes to serving cultural preferences? Where are the challenges one should bear in mind when intending to use the same story for a truly international audience and expecting it to resonate with audiences which are culturally shaped in different ways? Some of the answers can be found when we connect the learnings of different disciplines: psychology, neuro-marketing and intercultural communication.
Storytelling – what is it?
We could call storytelling an ancient human art. Some psychologists believe that our appetite for stories may have developed out of the evolutionary advantage it gave the human species as it allows humans to learn from other’s cautionary tales without going through the pains of learning the hard way from their own mistakes and through their own physical experience.
Neuroscientists state that creating stories is an attempt by our brain to create meaning and satisfy the need we have for it. It’s the principle of cause and effect that searches for and finds context and aims to make meaning, make the inapprehensible understandable and explain the unexplainable. Driven by this principle, our brain tries to make sense of what it experiences and reduce complexity by using patterns to reduce inconsistencies.
Storytelling is also a school of empathy because it creates understanding of thought and behavior patterns of others and enables real connections. Storytelling fosters bonding and solidarity; it encourages, inspires, motivates, shocks, scares and comforts. We memorize stories which are linked to emotions. Our brain stores important information as “emotional data packages” in a narrative form. When assessing a new situation, it refers to these data, compares them to the current events and makes suggestions on how to act.
Basically, storytelling is about learning to make the right decisions to solve problems and conflicts. Learning something new activates the same reward areas of the brain as do drugs and gambling, which explains our affinity for stories.
Psychologists talk about two different types of memory that we use to make decisions:
- Slow analytical memory, system 2 as per Kahneman, and
- Fast, biographical memory, also called the epic or narrative memory, which Kahneman associates with system 1 and which composes a story out of the experience we have and categorizes them emotion-wise
The narrative memory comes into play when we need to make decisions, such as buying decisions and which brand to choose.
How does brand storytelling work?
Identification is key when it comes to making the brand story resonate with consumers – make them live the tale. If people can identify with a character, it’s easier for them to imagine how a product might fit into their lives.
For the consumer, experiencing the value of a product is closely tied to emotional engagement. Consumers need to be drawn into the experience (story) and feel like they’ve gained something. Appealing to consumers’ interests by being engaging, immersive and memorable, and by making an emotional connection, can consequently encourage brand discovery and/or continued loyalty.
What makes stories successful, and why does it work universally?
Just like traditional stories, successful brand stories are composed of the following ingredients: theme, plot, character, setting, conflict and resolution.
The seven most popular themes in traditional storytelling are universal and apply also to brand stories:
Due to their universal character, consumers will recognize each one of them. When seeing a familiar story theme, the message is more likely to trigger an emotional response.
The seven traditional plot techniques, along with familiar examples of each, are:
- Overcoming the Monster — David and Goliath; Dracula
- Rags to Riches — Cinderella; Harry Potter (first books); The Princess and the Frog
- The Quest — Odyssey; The Lord of the Rings
- Voyage and Return — Alice in Wonderland; The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
- Comedy — A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Bridget Jones’s Diary
- Tragedy — Hamlet; Macbeth
- Rebirth — A Christmas Carol; Beauty and the Beast
How come we share these themes and plots globally?
Even researchers of the human brain kept believing until the late 1990s that humans were rational beings – despite the many irrational incidents caused by humanity like apartheid, religiously motivated wars, and so on. But when researchers started studying the effect of the brain stem and the limbic system on decision making, it turned out that even rationality is an emotion triggered by the need for control.
The revelation that our consumer behavior is influenced by a fear and reward system, hunter-gatherer instincts and sexual and ludic drives, led to a revolution that resulted in a new discipline: neuro-marketing. It uses insights gained about the limbic system to pilot consumer behavior. The knowledge of sensual experience, images and emotion can be summarized as “No emotions – no money.”
The universal storytelling themes and plots outlined above mirror and awaken our needs and values and the emotions related to them. That’s why services, products and companies connect with customers on an emotional level using storytelling. However, it’s not only about the demand, but about needs – and values. To understand the impact of storytelling on emotions, also in a global context, let’s quickly reflect on the relationship of emotions, needs and values and their universality.
How do emotions arise?
Emotions are important information. They represent intense mental activity and a certain degree of pleasure or displeasure. And they are there constantly and change at least every 40 seconds. Whatever we decide or discuss, our emotions are involved.
So, the relationship between emotions, needs and values becomes clear. Emotions help us identify whether our needs are met or not, and whether our values are respected (or violated).
Storytelling addresses our needs and values and thus evokes emotions, which consequently connect consumers to a brand in a positive or negative way.
The universal aspect of storytelling – addressing the needs and values we all share
Choice theory teaches that we are all driven by four psychological needs that are embedded in our genes: the need to belong, the need for power, the need for freedom, and the need for fun. Prof. Manfred Max-Neef, professor of economics and recipient of the Alternative Nobel Prize, found that all humans share nine fundamental needs, independently of gender, status, age, culture or religion. A very compatible approach was undertaken (independently) by Marshall Rosenberg and both tried to cluster them and put order in the complex list of human needs. S.H. Schwartz investigated whether there are universal values and developed ten types. The details on each of these approaches are listed in the table below:
Emotions show the way to needs and values. Fundamental needs and values are shared by all humans and correspond with our momentary emotions.
The table above shows which traits of storytelling are universal and explains why storytelling works globally as a strategy. The question is, does it work the same way?
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While we share a set of fundamental needs and values, the cultural differences vary in:
- the level and intensity of the needs and values pursued in a culture
- how we express or do not express emotions, which relates to different behavior accepted for specific contexts in a culture
- underlying culture-specific values and related norms, e.g. individualism versus collectivism, where the expression of autonomy may clash with the expectation of adaption to the group
In storytelling, as anywhere else, problems arise when we violate expectations and create contradictions for the audience. These contradictions can impair identification with characters of the story and the positive emotional connection with the brand.
Standardization versus cultural customization
Let’s assume we would like to create a brand story that can work with all our consumers around the world. What would be the challenges and considerations?
According to the Saphir-Whorf Theory, language determines perception and thinking. Per this hypothesis, the individual can only think what the language allows to think. So, the question is: Can the story and its script or its transcreation into a new language deliver the message? Is the concept we are targeting known and the message relevant, or is the idea too new or foreign to be received and understood by the consumer the way it is intended?
This also relates to the terminology used in the story’s script: Even supposedly “global” concepts like culture, democracy and freedom, and their respective equivalents in other languages, are interpreted within the respective frame of reference. They differ and have different (positive or negative) associations and connotations in other cultures.
Consider aspects representing values: e.g. masculinity versus femininity; affective versus neutral orientation; time orientations; relationship with nature; power distance; etc. which may not be on the same scale.
Behavior of the character: Is the behavior representing the accepted cultural values? Each culture has its own understanding of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. There are culture-specific patterns of behavior which means that the same behavior can mean different things in different cultures. Human behavior is extremely complex and multiform. Weeping and tears may cause embarrassment in some cultures, and laughter may be ill-perceived in culturally inappropriate situations, which again vary between cultures.
Setting of the story: Make it relevant to the consumer’s everyday life and facilitate identification.
Perception: Shapes, sizes, color perceptions and categories, ecological perceptual styles, spatial orientation, and differences in visual input processing have an impact on how a video is perceived in different cultures.
Ethnic representation: If the characters are physically very different from the audience, the level of identification will be lower.
Culturally specific allusions (also symbols): Without further context, the message will not get through to the international audience due to lack of understanding.
Beware of political, religious or behavioral taboos.
Play: As highlighted in Homo ludens by Hogan Huizinga, play demonstrates common motives and patterns, but the concepts of play differ, e.g. play in Europe and North America is often characterized by competition. In other cultures, participants are not focused on winning but giving their best.
Social relationships: Individuals and groups intercorrelate. In some cultures, the focus is more on the individual and autonomy, while in others the focus is on collectivism. For example, a lone hiker, detached from the stresses of working life and happily climbing a mountain may seem appealing to Northern Europeans, but may seem sad and discomforting for African consumers.
Humor: Research theories on humor and why we find things funny, such as superiority theory, relief theory, incongruity theory and benign violations theory, have something in common: They are strongly influenced by values and norms, and thus do not provide a universal solution to how to provoke humorous moments in storytelling that are perceived as funny universally. Humor is a serious matter and should be tested with the target audience. 😉
Storytelling – works for all cultures, but differently
Like any other art, the narrative art takes place in a cultural context (tribe, nationality, language, institution or a company). There is much complexity and many correlations between accepted behavior and values, and their influence is too big to make exact predictions on how a story’s success will evolve. However, there are general obvious criteria to be checked:
Always keep in mind that all humans filter and interpret information based on their cultural imprint and personal experience, so it’s worth trying to find out who they are and how they may perceive a story.
- Know the audience you are targeting. How “global” is your audience? Will it be easy for them to identify with the character in the story? How much cultural adaptation do they expect?
- Generate positive moments that stick with your brand and are perceived as positive in the market’s cultural group(s) you are targeting.
- Provide a happy ending that works cross-culturally. A girl marrying a rich man and becoming a happy caring housewife abandoning her professional career may work in some parts of the world but not necessarily in Northern Europe where work is an important part of personal identity.
- When choosing photos, or making videos, select individuals that reflect the diversity of your customers.
- Appeal to emotions (pathos) by connecting to fundamental and universal needs and values.
- Present culturally neutral surroundings, unless a culturally specific one would be key to the narrative.
- If you’re unsure what would work for customers in a specific market, make them co-creators and they will let you know what they like. Alternatively, have them vote on different story drafts.
- Consider cultural adaption of a story if the market is promising enough. It may be the more cost-effective option.
Maren’s comments on the Global Branding and Marketing Certification
This course was very inspiring and provided lots of new useful insights to me. It’s a huge time saver for those wishing to dig deeper into the topic with only limited time available.
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