Marketing Food in a World of Global Identities

Food is a sensitive subject in many ways. It’s more than sustenance, it’s how we define ourselves – and others. In a more global world, cultural and ethnic boundaries are increasingly becoming more permeable. Food in particular is available in more ethnic diversity than ever before. And therein lies a paradox. As diets become more different, they also become more similar. As individual tastes find greater opportunities to explore, the world shrinks just a bit. I can find Ethiopian cuisine in rural Indiana even as I find KFC in Beijing.

One way of reading this paradox is to shift from thinking of food in terms of “model” to “style”. The consumption model is a concept that refers to a community, nation, etc. “Style” refers to individual behavior, which, while culturally bound in many respects, is increasingly untethered from tradition. The individual’s food patterns lose any reference to a sense of collective belonging; the family, the social group, their economic class, the local community. They become driven by their subjective choice and hedonistic or ideological nature. So style choices become subject to a diversity of options and contexts. Food consumption becomes an expression of self more so than an extension of cultural norms.

In this sense, self-identity is determined more by lifestyle where people are presented a diversity of choices in all areas of their lives. The self is a reflexive project sustained through the routine development and sustainment of a coherent narrative of self-identity. However, while we are more likely to identify ourselves as being individuals, as creative as we get, it is our social interactions that regulates this sense of identity.

This paradox makes marketing food increasingly complex. Do we tell stories about the myth of the food or the product? Do we sell to the masses or do we find points of meaning among subcultures, cultures of practice, etc.? Do we adapt messaging to specific contexts and to what degree? Programmatic and hyper-targeting have allowed us to narrow the field and message to potential customers and consumers with amazing precision, but there are limits to what these tools can do. They don’t adapt to the shifting contexts and psychological factors that govern our decisions. Which means the role of creative, strategy, and research become ever more complex and important as we work to resolve the paradoxes surrounding food. The data is comforting because it is fixed. It lends a veneer of scientific legitimacy to the things we create. But, we have an opportunity, not just with how we market food, to bring an more expansive lens to the collection, management, and curation of messaging. We have an opportunity to spark more intimate conversations and connections.  

The diversity of foods across the globe has made food a much more democratic facet of modern societies. As a style, it is something that consumers are increasingly food-literate and empowered to comment on. Contributing to this are the swathe of entry points into the world of food for the modern consumer: celebrity cooking shows, foodie magazines, websites and food festivals. Here everyone is invited to participate in a range of cuisines that we might never eat. Like sports, you don’t have to play to be a member of the club.

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Cultural Meanings and Breakfast

It is a frigid, snowy morning. I have a loaf of bread baking in the oven, a jar of blackberry preserves at the ready, and several slices of ham waiting to go into a pan. The dog is curled up at my feet while my wife and daughters are still in bed, though I’m certain the smell of baking bread will rouse them soon enough and this weekend ritual will begin anew. This is a radical departure from what happens most days. Most days it’s a matter of grabbing what you can.

Human beings have, of course, been eating something for a morning meal forever, but it hasn’t always been so defined by the foods we associate with breakfast. Indeed, it was often whatever was left over from the night before or could be prepared with a minimal degree of effort. Historian Ian Mortimer suggests the Tudors invented modern breakfasts in the 16th century. As people increasingly came to work for an employer, rather than working for themselves on their own land, they lost control of their time, and had to work long, uninterrupted days without sustenance. A hearty breakfast allowed them to work longer days. The Industrial Revolution and the move from farms to factories formalized the idea of breakfast further. But there is more to breakfast than its function. It is wrapped up in symbolism and cultural change.

There are foods that have probably always been connected to breakfast. Oatmeal and other porridges are present early in the prehistoric record, and their invention may have changed the course of human history. Analysis of stone age tools indicate pancakes have been in the mix for eons. In fact, Otzi, the world’s oldest naturally preserved human mummy, is thought to have eaten a wheat pancake as one of his last meals.

For many, if not most Americans, the combination of bacon and eggs forms the basis for the archetypal hot breakfast. Eggs have long been a popular breakfast food, perhaps because fresh eggs were often available early in the day, but their partnership with bacon is a 20th century invention. In the 1920s, Americans typically ate fairly light breakfasts, so public relations pioneer Edward Bernays persuaded doctors to promote bacon and eggs as a healthy breakfast in order to promote sales of bacon on behalf of Beech-Nut. And so it was that the iconic breakfast combination was born. The American breakfast landscape was again altered in the latter half of the 1800s. In 1863 Dr. James Caleb Jackson invented granola. In 1894, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg accidentally created a flaked cereal when a pot of cooked wheat went stale. Kellogg tried to save the wheat by putting it through a roller. It dried in flakes and corn flakes was born. That little mistake changed our breakfast traditions forever. Cereal was  convenient. It didn’t need to be cooked and it had a relatively long shelf life. Packaging made it simple to transport and to store. It saved time and effort. It fit in with a modernizing world. The larger breakfast of bacon and eggs didn’t disappear, but it was largely relegated to the weekend when time was less of a pressing factor.

And it is this shift to the weekend that is important because breakfast has become less of a way the family starts the day, and more an ideal, a representation of a life most people haven’t the luxury to take on.  Quite simply no one has time to sit down to the table and eat, let alone to cook breakfast. There are buses to catch, cars to get started, errands to run before work. There is the early-morning trip to the gym, the walking of the dog, the flight to catch. Breakfast  has become either a necessity we deal with or, and this is to my mind the interesting part, a celebration. It might be a celebration of “slow living” or bringing the family together on the weekend, but the deeper underlying element is that the meaning of breakfast changes. It is something to be savored at specific points in time.

Breakfast is now a liminal space between the chaotic pace of the weekday and the equally chaotic pace of the weekend. And that has a huge impact on the food we prepare and how we prepare them. The Saturday or Sunday breakfast is a clear space, a point of calm. The morning roles we perform throughout the week (parent, teenager, etc.) are dropped and replaced with something more egalitarian, in many cases. Rather than breakfast symbolizing the start to a busy day where actions and behaviors are strictly kept in order to get specific things done, everyone is involved in the “performance” of breakfast and the duties are less strict. Alternatively, the celebratory breakfast sees us take on roles specific to the moment – dad the baker, mom the storyteller, boyfriends become expressions of romantic fiction made real as they prepare the perfect avocado toast, etc. The point is that breakfast provides a time for us to explore alternative identities that are fleeting and therefore precious. The act of making becomes as important as the food itself.

The rethinking of what breakfast means in this particular context ultimately has an impact on the ingredients we choose to cook with. As we allow ourselves to slow down and drift into moment largely outside of time, our ingredients can become more indulgent, more refined, or more experimental. We buy organic bacon from the local farm and break out the Irish butter that sells for $8 a pound. We crack open a box of Fruity Pebbles (an unhealthy product we might refrain from during the week) and add them to our waffle mix simple because it’s fun. We make huevos con chorizo to go with the bread our Swedish friend taught us to make. There is a purity to this, a sense of personal transformation, even it’s only for an hour out of the week. From a marketing perspective, this opens up a world of creative opportunities.

But is there a level of relevance beyond breakfast? Of course there is. Culture isn’t static, it is subject to change. That means your product and your brand are reflections of that cultural and symbolic give and take. In marketing and advertising, reaching the deeper elements of meaning play a key role in determining the success or failure of any campaign, strategy, or innovation. Through proper, thoughtful deployment of verbal, visual, and performative elements, companies can strengthen their reach to their customers by expressing the deeper elements of what a product, an action, an activity mean. The catch is recognizing there’s another layer of meaning just below the surface. What people tell you they believe isn’t necessarily a reflection of the “truth”, but rather a series of “truths” that are shaped by context and time. Regardless of whether you’re brand makes organic oats or auto parts, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is there synergy between what you’re trying to convey and the underlying system of signs,  symbols, and actions that govern interpretation by the consumer?
  • What elements of culture influence the way different combination of images and words are perceived?
  • Are there stories and archetypes that can be directly associated with your product of brand?
  • Are the different symbols and signs used in your communications coherent?
  • Have you considered how deep metaphors could influence the way your idea is perceived and acted upon?
  • Do you foresee any clashes in meaning between what you seek to project and what your audience may perceive?
  • Can customers associate your visual, auditory, olfactory, and tactile stimuli with your product or service?

Sending the wrong signals can be destructive to your brand. It negates whatever intent you may have. But getting those signals right gives you a leg up over your competition. It drives innovation, creativity, and more effective strategies.

And with all of that, it’s time to pull the bread out of the oven, rouse the family, and celebrate the day.

Advertising Creating Positive Social Change

Advertising often gets a bad rap. It promotes over consumption, It promotes negative stereotypes. It makes us dumber. And while there’s some truth in all of this, there’s an argument to be made that advertising, in all its many forms, has also worked for the betterment of humanity. Advertising over the last two decades has created an environment where inclusive portrayals of society have actually benefited our culture, not only a company’s bottom line. 

Early in the history of advertising, the message was almost exclusively on the product. Features, benefits, and promises defined the messaging – get whiter teeth, have a greener lawn in half the time, etc. Those messages are still there, but there’s been a shift. As the battle for consumer dollars and attention have intensified, advertising has become more focused on brand. Michael Phelps pushes us to be not just a better athlete but a better human being.  Google shows us how inspirational we are through our communal search. Features and benefits don’t even factor in, as the message hones in on what it means to be caught up in this mortal coil.

Companies have shifted from delivering monologues to engaging in conversations and this dynamic has made brands more human in the process. Take Always’ #LikeAGirl campaign. Never referencing feminine hygiene, Always focuses purely on the issue of female empowerment, using the ad to begin “an epic battle” for young girls everywhere by “showing them that doing it #LikeAGirl is an awesome thing.” But Always goes beyond what a brand says about you; it’s about identifying shared goals and contributing to a higher purpose – for everyone. You care about empowering girls? Great! You can tweet the “amazing things you do” with #LikeAGirl, and “stand up for girls” confidence at Always.com. Now it’s a conversation, and that’s exactly what Always, and the other companies joining in this form of values-based advertising, are looking for. Very few people care about tampons, but equality and female empowerment? Now that’s topic people get excited about. And this isn’t just about the target audience. It’s about grandmothers, dads, everyone. It help drive a conversation that has resulted in helping break down gender-biases and shifting cultural perceptions.

Cheerios is another great example. The brand didn’t realize what it was getting itself into when it  first featured an interracial family to promote the heart-healthy cereal during the summer of 2013. A topic we take largely for granted now sparked a great deal of discussion then. The racist backlash to the ad was so intense that Cheerios disabled the comments section on their YouTube channel. And this offered the public a glimpse into the prejudice mixed race families have to contend with, sparking a national conversation. Cheerios also saw an outpouring of support from consumers applauding the commercial, and a passionate defense against the backlash with people standing up for interracial families everywhere. What began as a simple cereal commercial ended up leading to a national discussion on race relations.

When advertising focuses on empowering people and accepting groups that are less accepted, it doesn’t just reflect culture, it shapes it. When brands paint a different picture of society, they play a role in redefining what is considered mainstream. They play a role is redefining our collective worldview and thus reshape culture. This isn’t to over-inflate the role of advertising in cultural evolution. Advertising will never act as the central agent of change. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t an important part of the process. We consume massive amounts of advertising every day. When this content promotes an inclusive picture of society and positive cultural change, it can work as an accelerator for social progress. It’s value is not in starting the fire, but in fanning the flames.

Millennials, Motorcycles, and Marketing: The End Is Not Nigh.

CNBC ran a story yesterday on the slow demise of Harley Davidson that caught my eye. It began with the statement, “The supposed millennial penchant for ‘killing’ industries gets thrown around a lot, but it could really be happening to one American icon: the Harley-Davidson  motorcycle.” The reasoning is that in addition to a decline in sales (which are admittedly significant) and behavioral data suggest a considerable generational divide in attitudes toward heavyweight motorcycles. There’s little question that this American icon is dealing with difficult times, but there are two distinct problems with the article. The first is the fetishizing of data and the inability to interpret it in a broader context. The second is the obsession we seem to have as a society with blaming Millennials for crushing industries.

The Data Problem. Survey data suggests that the reasons for buying a bike differ fairly dramatically for older and younger generations. In response to why they buy a motorcycle, 21-34-year olds state that it’s a matter of ease of transportation, while older buys (the article doesn’t really qualify what “older” means) are buying because bikes are “cool” or as part of a hobby.  Younger buyers, so the story goes,  appear to be more motivated to consider motorcycles for practical reasons, which means it is likely they will be more interested in less expensive bikes that bring in lower margins for manufacturers. However, potential younger buyers cited the second most common reason to buy a motorcycle was that it “goes with their self-image”. That is, they’re buying them, or considering buying them because they are “cool”. So, from the outset there is a bit of a contradiction, or at least a misinterpretation, of the data and what appears to be a complete disinterest in exploring the findings with a critical eye.

First, these assessments don’t take into account that the economy into which this population into after leaving college, and the bulk of them are indeed college grads, is one of the most hostile times in U.S. History. Even with a booming stock market and labor market, this generation is mired in debt and jobs simply don’t pay what they did. Because of these tough times, they were forced to change the outlook or the norm in key areas such as ownership. Like their great grandparent who weathered the depression, their outlook and buying habits are more frugal, more pragmatic. This has affected other industries including the motorcycle industry, and as such we’ve have seen the rise of smaller more “urban-esque” style motorcycle in recent years. This presents a problem for brands like Harley-Davidson, but it is one they are addressing. The problem is, innovation and change take time, so the current decline in sales doesn’t necessarily indicate the death of the brand.

Second, there’s that point about bikes being cool. Motorcycle culture exists on the margins of mainstream culture as both a social community and a mode of transportation, and the cultural stereotype imagines all bikers to be rebels, socially as well as sexually. The motorcycle is much more than a means of transportation; it is a symbol of freedom, a life that breaks through the norms. To put it briefly, the motorcycle culture implies being one with the bike and living by the road’s unwritten rules. The degree of freedom, individuality, and adventure found in motorcycle riding and culture distinguishes it as nontraditional in contrast with cars, the bus, etc. In other words, while the technology behind a bike may have to shift to accommodate changing interpretations of technology and the economic realities of a younger generations, motorcycles still have a cultural allure that can’t be overlooked. And the Harley-Davidson brand is still the heart and soul of the motorcycle mystique.

The Millennial Problem.  Quite simple, Millennials haven’t destroyed industries any more than they’ve brought plagues of locusts. Piling up on a generation is divisive and counterproductive. American institution is declared dead, the news media like to haul the same usual suspect before the court of public opinion: the Millennial generation. But based on analysis of economists at the Federal Reserve, this idea is pure fiction.

When researchers compared the spending habits of Millennials with those of young people from past years, such as the Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, they concluded that “Millennials do not appear to have preferences for consumption that differ significantly from those of earlier generations.” They also found that “Millennials are less well off than members of earlier generations when they were young, with lower earnings, fewer assets, and less wealth.” So, the fact that young people are buying fewer motorcycles doesn’t prove that they don’t want them. It might mean they simply can’t afford them.

It’s typical for Millennials to bear blame for dramatic cultural and economic changes when their only crime is behaving like everybody else. For example, last year The Wall Street Journal published a report that cited young people for killing grocery stores. The data show consumers ages 25 to 34 are spending less at traditional grocers than their parents’ generation did in 1990. But here’s the rub: Americans of all ages are relying more on convenience stores, pharmacies, and superstores, for food to eat at home, and those institutions aren’t typically counted as grocers in government data. Furthermore, the same holds true for etailers, like Amazon. Also, Americans of all ages are eating out at restaurants more. The group shifting its spending toward restaurants the fastest? It’s not 20-somethings. It’s people over 50. In other words, whether it’s motorcycles, cars, groceries, or nearly anything else, the woes of these industries can’t be pinned on Millennials. Millennials have simply become scapegoats and tired tropes for unimaginative reporting.

What It All Means. Harley-Davidson’s reaction to the article from CNBC sums up everything about it quite nicely: “There’s nothing new here”. Blaming millennials for the failures of various industries, including the motorcycle industry, is rather asinine. Indeed, it might make more sense to thank them for forcing the motorcycle industry to go back to their roots of innovation, rebellion, and coolness. Manufacturers and marketers ultimately have a responsibility to work with dealers, influencers, etc. to create new riding opportunities and messages that breath life back into the industry. Brands like Harley-Davidson are making terrific bikes that people want to ride. But weak marketing communication efforts around their overall value have allowed the price-to-ride value equation to slide. Add to that a fixation on data over creativity and reflection on the cultural significance of the motorcycle and you have a tremendous problem. Millennials aren’t killing the industry. The industry, like society, is simply changing.

Grey Salmon and Building A Brand

A few years back, people were left reeling after ABC revealed in a piece on farmed salmon a widespread use of chemical coloring in the industry. Following the report, much of the public voiced concerns, outrage in some cases, over the chemicals used and a general feeling of deception about the practice’s existence, even though this is hardly a trade secret. Even so, the notion of farmed salmon having the color of their flesh altered in any way was disconcerting to many and there are countless websites and journals calling into question the products stemming from salmon farming specifically and aquaculture in general.

But while many consumers and consumer groups, were and are shouting for more transparency in the industry around the labelling of synthetically colored salmon, the question remains: is colored salmon actually bad for us to eat? And should we be encouraging the industry to abandon the practice in place of a chemical-free farmed salmon—one with a decidedly less appealing grey flesh? There are a couple of overarching themes that need to be explored when thinking the problem through.

Biology. So what is it that makes wild salmon pink? The chemical in question can be found in nature. Astaxanthin is a naturally occurring antioxidant, meaning that it helps to protect cells from damage and happily turns wild salmon pink. Functionally, synthetic astaxanthin used by aquaculturists is the same. The synthetic compound will have exactly the same effect in the body of the farmed fish as it does in the wild. In the wild, it is a natural process which occurs when fish consume a diet of algae and krill. The same process is mimicked with farm salmon, meaning they are receiving the same nutrients they would in nature, and their bodies metabolize astaxanthin as they would in nature.

The process, as it turns out, is about more than visual appeal. Astaxanthin is essential to the salmon natural reproductive cycle and functions as a provitamin, being converted to vitamin A. Salmon are unable to make astaxanthin themselves, needing a dietary supply for these vital functions. It just happens to have a pink pigmentation to it, which in turn impacts the salmon flesh. So the notion of “dying” is something of a myth. Ultimately, there isn’t a lot of difference between wild-caught and farmed salmon, at least for the more reputable farms, simply because farmed salmon are fed a diet that seeks to maximize the fish’s natural nutrition and mimic what they would eat in a wild scenario. Major farmers will give their fish a diet that keeps their fatty acids as similar to that of wild salmon as possible – it’s a matter of flavor and, in turn, profits.

To be sure, there are ample arguments why NOT to eat farmed salmon, all of which are open to debate. Contaminants in the water, the types of feed used, and a host of other issues are all relevant, and I’m certainly not advocating one position or another. But color is hardly one of them.

The Ick Factor. Beyond biology, there’s also the matter of how we respond to foods that don’t fit out psychological frame.And grey salmon falls into that category. A study by DSM showed that shoppers are more attracted to darker shades of salmon. And that added color can be priced higher in part because of its resemblance to wild salmon. Not dying farmed salmon would make it more affordable, but only if people would actually purchase salmon that’s not pink, which doesn’t seem likely. We have a cultural understanding of how ingredients and dishes are “supposed” to be. These reflect notions of cleanliness, nature, purity, and an array of other norms. Consequently, eating grey salmon would be reminiscent of eating blue bread – beyond the potential novelty, it simply doesn’t fit our understanding of what’s “right”. Furthermore, grey is a color often associated with decay or blandness in our society. So in addition to grey salmon falling outside our idea of what salmon “should be”, it also signals associations with unhealthiness and death. Pretty heavy, yes, but relevant if you’re farming or selling salmon for a living.

We learn from those around us what’s worth eating and what should be avoided, and those categories vary between regions. But somehow, the reminder that taste  is so very relative, and so very learned, never fails to shock. The same holds true when we think about how food should look. Ultimately, visual appeal is just as important as the tasting experience of the food. Before we even take that first bite, we’ve already judged the meal in front of you. How that food looks makes an impression, even a promise, with the viewer. Pink salmon promises delight. Grey salmon promises disappointment.

Putting Pink Into Practice. So if your goal is to sell more farmed salmon, you have to convey that its pink hue isn’t detrimental and that it keeps the buyer from freaking out. Great. Those are fairly straightforward tasks, assuming you can get people to stop long enough to listen to what your brand has to say. This holds true of nearly any product – features, benefits, and fact are all necessary to make your brand’s case. But they hardly win hearts and minds. And that requires digging a bit deeper and connecting bigger cultural truths to what you make or do.

In the case of farmed salmon, one path may be to speak to the higher moral truth of climate change and consumption. Wild-caught salmon is commonly available but under current rates of spawn and catch, it is not sustainable. The ability to make an identical version of this nutrient increases the ability of the industry to sustainably grow without depleting naturally occurring, but limited, resources. Therefore your brand stands for something bigger than fish production, it stands for a healthy, sustainable future. Adding astaxanthin using the current methods, while not perfect, helps maintain and preserve the planet and wild fish stocks. Of course, there is a simple reality that in a polarized, digital age you will always be a target. Taking a position means taking on risk. But responding to criticism strengthens a brand’s relationship with its customer base. Some negative commentary is short-lived, some is continuous and reflects a specific world view. In either case, it requires having a plan in place to diffuse the situation.

And the clearer your brand’s cause, the easier it is for that plan to come together. The point is simple — dig deeper, whether you’re selling salmon or flea medicine. Uncovering cultural patterns of meaning leads to better branding, better campaigns, and better marketing.

You Are What You Brand

It sometimes seems lost on people, but consumers have begun to face an important problem: the increased uncertainty about various product attributes. This arises from various asymmetric information consumers have access to, regarding a specific product. Consumers tend to assess certain product attributes in a holistic manner rather than a case by case basis – bigger, faster, longer may still sell low-interest items, but it is increasingly losing its traction. Consequently, both extrinsic and intrinsic factors have to be accounted when trying to differentiate a product from its competitors. And therein lies the central distinction between products, campaigns, etc. and brands. Brands are bigger, richer, and drive us to act without always know precisely we we’re doing it. Brands can potentially play many different roles in the consumer decision process. That opens up a range of deeper questions about the role of a brand in the cosmic sense. How brands help us construct and reflect our identity is one way to think about it – and it’s a damn fine way, at that.

Often, consumers will choose a brand that are congruent with their self-image. In this particular way each consumer at an individual basis will try to reflect his or her own identity through choice. When part of a larger social group, consumer choices tend to converge to a certain pattern thus forming the basics of an individual social identity For example, a may choose to buy a pair of Doc Martens as an act of ubiquitous self-expression. If the buyer considers himself a post-punk soccer mom the boots are also a visual expression of being part of the middle-aged-once-a-punk tribe. Each individual lifestyle reflects a person’s values, life vision, and aesthetic style. It also reflects a shared set of ideologies, collective style, and sense of belonging.

Marketers tend to use brands to differentiate a company’s products from competitors and to create a sense of superior value to customers – this is frequently done by talking about product attributes. The most important step in creating and delivering a superior value to customers is by adding meaningful brand associations that create value beyond the intrinsic characteristics of a product. One of the most important characteristics of a brand is the self-expressive function, meaning that value goes beyond the immediate benefits of your stuff and imparts a sense of psychological and social well being. Brands have the power to communicate valuable information and can be used and perceived in many different ways by consumers, people with similar beliefs, and those closest to us. In other words, brands reflect our identities and a lot of folks tend to use brands as a mean to express their identity and lifestyle. Indeed, this is becoming more prevalent as peoples seek to break down the paradox of belonging to something bigger than themselves while aspiring to the American ideal of hyper-individuality.

In addition to serving as an external signal, brands can be used to create and confirm a consumer self-concept and unique identity. Individuals try to express their identity through all means they have at their disposal. By choosing a particular brand, a person reaffirms both his own and people’s perception about his desired identity. As a result, people use brands to reassure themselves and to signal others what kind of person they are. In particular, consumers tend to prefer brands that are convergent with their perceived ideal identity. As a result of that self-expression, a predilection for a certain brand is the result of only sociological factors because a person’s need for self-expression is the result of interactions with other members of the community. In other words, brands are used as a mean of expressing their own identity, brand predilection is the result of intrinsic factors, and brand preference is the result of extrinsic factors. What that means is that a successful brand must have a strong degree of resonance with both consumer personal identity and socio-cultural identity.

As a consequence, consumers’ needs for self-expression can be satiated not only be using certain brands but also by other available means of self-expression. This is particularly important when analyzing the correlations between brands and lifestyle because the lines between personal identity and everyday doings are becoming more blurred. Products are just things, but brands become beacons.

Why does it matter? It maters because brands can be used to create a unique social identity for each customer. Brands are more than just instruments of hedonic experiences because they have the power to harness and channel specific hedonistic desires in expressing a bigger sociological and psychological construct such as lifestyle. And this is where data and linear thinking fall flat (you just knew it was coming). Data get at the what and the why, but they don’t get at the richer aspects of the human experience, the why behind the what. Quantitative information isn’t relevant if it only gives you have the picture – the Mona Lisa can be broken down into its constituent parts but that doesn’t explain why people will spend hours in line for a glimpse at it. A John Deere cap does a great job of keeping the sun out of your eyes and that can be quantified. But those same data points can’t explain why the brand resonates with Midwest alternative kids to such a degree.

The answers lie in rethinking how we address brands and branding. By expanding the brand conversation to one of identity, longing, identity it allows us to penetrate the white noise and reach our consumers, turning them into advocates.

 

Translating culture and opening markets

Success translates well into narrative. Who hasn’t heard those wonderful stories of marketing campaigns gone astray when introduced into a global setting? Remember when Puffs tissue started marketing their tissues in Germany and it didn’t do so well because “Puff” means “brothel” in German?  Or when Bacardi launched a fruit drink named Pavian in France it translated into slang as “chick,” but when they promoted it in Germany the same word meant “Baboon?”

We’ve all heard of these mistakes and we all get a chuckle, but the business ramifications of not doing your cultural homework are tremendous. And this goes well beyond something as superficial as a mistranslation.  We are prone to imposing our way of seeing the world on others, but what we may see in the developed world as universal may be significantly different in developing countries. Culture shapes how we use, interpret and shop for goods and what US shoppers may see as simply, say, buying chicken for dinner may mean much more in another part of the world. In other words, retailers and manufacturers need to understand what matters and why it matters according to different cultural perceptions.

Returning to our example of purchasing chicken at the grocery in the US, take concepts of cleanliness and food safety. As a population that has had easy access to meat for longer than most of us can remember, our concerns revolve around the promotion of “health” as a means of reducing fat in the diet. Increasingly, we make decisions based on the sanitary conditions of the farms where chickens are raised and the ethical treatment of the animals.  We increasingly associate “healthy” with being “green” (another wonderfully loaded and vague word). That has led to a push for reduced packaging as proof of sustainability and healthy living.

Now, take China. In a place where access to meat was – until fairly recently – limited, chicken is associated with status and upward mobility.  In the past, the source of the meat itself was often suspect because you may have purchased it in less than uniform locations.  Consequently, what we would see as excessive packaging is understood differently – the factory setting implies progress, wealth and modernity, which in turn imply good “health.”  Meat is something you want to show off to your friends and family because it is associated with status, which is associated with good health. Add to that the fact that people in much of world (unlike the US) have traditionally seen the chicken as something other than a pure commodity.  Indeed, there are many poems written about chickens (He Crows the Morning by Hsieh Ling-Yun or The Most Noble Fowl by Mohammad Ibn Sina). The result is that if you position chicken in the developing world as you might in the US, as a low-fat, easy to prepare alternative source of protein, it won’t correspond to the local worldview and your brand won’t gain traction.  You will invest a lot of money and may get very little in return. And China is only one example; expand this to the BRIC nations or the Middle East.

Of course, this is only one example, but the idea cuts across all categories. Don’t believe it? Tropicana initially failed when pushing orange juice in South America because it was pushed as a breakfast drink, which in South America it is frequently not – our beloved breakfast icon is something for the afternoon, a treat and a snack.  Papa John’s, on the other hand, is doing wonderfully in Egypt by maintaining it’s “American” mystique while incorporating toppings and product names that reflect local tastes.

Understanding what it means to shop on a global, national and local level is central to developing successful new products, sales channels and marketing campaigns. That means going beyond the product or retail environment and asking bigger questions:

Question: How does shopping convey status and wealth?

Answer: Pabst Blue Ribbon is a premium brand in China and signifies wealth because it has been positioned as a classic American Lager rather than a hipster yard beer. In China, it conveys a sense of worldliness, refinement and cultivated taste.

Question: What cultural norms shape how people interact with you brand and your store? Answer: Victoria’s Secret can’t be promoted in Riyadh or Bangalore the way it is in London.  Attitudes outside the West about sexuality, exposure of the human body and gender roles are radically different, shaping everything from marketing content to store displays.

And this could go on and on.  So what does it mean for marketing your brand in the developing world (in fact, what does it mean for marketing your brand in Alabama vs. LA)? It means that before you decide to launch or even reposition a brand or product around the world you need to spend some time digging and learning why people live the way they do and how your brand can fit into that complex system of practices and beliefs.  It isn’t enough to make sure the language is translated correctly or the color pallet makes sense. You have to come to understand the population the way you understand your neighbor. That’s where you find new opportunities and that’s where you find growth, both in terms of brand equity and the bottom line.