Serena Jacob
Aug 22, 2018

How to stay relevant as cultures evolve

While broad archetypes are handy as mental shortcuts, brands must keep pace with changing cultural symbols and nuances to form a deeper connection with people—and avoid looking foolish.

How to stay relevant as cultures evolve

I recently read an account of the launch of Apple. The simple logo which is now ubiquitous across the world was designed to convey a meaning – knowledge. Despite its simplicity, the logo is loaded with associations. At the time, cultural anthropologist William O’Barr commented that the logo evokes a biblical story. “Taking a bite of the apple signifies challenges to divine authority and submission to the forces of nature. As with Eve’s apple, Apple computers offer humanity a means of taking control of its destiny.”

Symbols like this have always been incredibly powerful tools of communication and their intrinsic value is well known to brands. Semiotics is the art and science of decoding these signs and symbols, in every form. Its relevance in marketing has never been more important as we move from the world of broad-brush, multinational advertising campaigns to the realm of relatable and personal marketing that brands now need to use if they want to connect with consumers across multiple markets.

Nuance is key. The symbol of an apple may trigger dramatically different associations depending on where you come from. Through a Christian lens, it might be seen as a forbidden fruit, connected with sin. A Buddhist might see it as a ‘bilva’ or wood apple, and be viewed as the fruition of all virtuous activities. A business that uses the symbol needs to understand these shades and tones to make sure that it is speaking the right cultural language. There is no one truth, and it is the discovery of these many truths that cultural semiotics strives for.

When creating branding and campaigns for local audiences, marketers need to appreciate not just the symbols used by the brand but also the wider setting—the layers of cultural context that feed into the symbols used.   

This cultural appreciation can help avoid marketing blunders, which can be as simple as linguistic errors. For example, the motorbike brand Baja dropped the mother brand name in South America after it discovered that it translated roughly as ‘grave’ or ‘deficient’. Cultural gaffes can also be more complex. The failure of the Kendal Jenner Pepsi ad is an example of how a well-meaning idea on paper evoked a huge consumer backlash because of the execution and the symbols it used. It failed to tap into the right cultural cues in order to trigger the desired emotional response.  

But understanding culture is much more than just a safety precaution. It gives brands a powerful edge by enabling a deeper connection with consumers.

A personal care brand that wanted to refresh itself in a culturally relevant and authentic manner across Asia used the symbol of flowers to connect to consumers and express the brand’s message of beauty and femininity. The nuanced approach was seen in the choice of flower for each market. In Indonesia and Malaysia, the symbol of beauty and femininity is the rose, also an Islamic symbol of perfection and struggle (thorns) that flowers into something mysterious, beautiful and elegant. Chinese beauty is the orchid: delicate, exquisite, complex and strong. While in Vietnam and Thailand, it is represented by frangipani, delicate, fragrant and symmetrical.

Culture and evolving archetypes

While understanding cultural truths is critical, brands also need to accept that in this fast-paced world, these truths are evolving at breakneck speed. Marketers need frameworks that allow them to adapt their brands and narratives as culture changes. Archetypes work as a simple universal language to convey emotive meaning​. They are symbolized by personalities like you and me, not by abstract principles. We recognize the archetypes. They are familiar, part of the human family. They speak to us. They connect with the ‘collective subconscious’ of consumers, enabling brands to convey their message effectively. They serve as mental shortcuts, allowing brands to express their values, not just at a functional level, but at an emotional level too.

Many brands use archetypal Hero images, for example the iconic Marlboro Man. The hero is brave and bold, one who has accepted the challenge and conquered. We can make assumptions about this man based on what we know about other hero figures we’ve met in the past—in stories, films and popular culture. As Jessica Jaffe puts it in her study on the cigarette’s most successful marketing symbol: “The Marlboro Man represents all that is masculine, rugged, and free. When the cowboy looks out onto an open field, he sees an escape from the stresses of everyday life; when he is alone riding his horse, he feels a sense of independence and autonomy.”

Different elements of brand concepts can be explored through archetypes – take beauty for example. There is the glamorous motherly beauty of Victoria Beckham on the one hand, to the fierce allure of Jennifer Lopez on the other side of the spectrum (see main image, top).

Global brands today often operate with a single brand communication idea that needs to be translated into locally relevant communication. Limited budgets often mean that a single piece of video content has to serve multiple markets, and yet resonate with each culture. This challenge can be overcome with an appreciation of how the local nuances affect the interpretation of an archetype. For example, washing powder brand Rinso decoded the Mother archetype in Asian cultures to guide its ad localisation strategy. They used the same video portraying ‘dirt is good’ but with a different voiceover to affirm the mother’s aspiration for her child. In Vietnam, where personal growth is key, the mum wants her little boy to ‘grow up’ through playing football. In Indonesia, where there is a greater focus on community and socialisation, the mum tells her son to ‘make new friends’ through the game. 

The Rinso ads didn’t just leverage the Mother as a symbol, they used the nuanced archetype of the Mother to express the cultural associations that play into it.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

However, expressions of archetypes are not static; they evolve in the same way that culture is changing. It’s important that brands don’t just use archetypes as shortcuts, but instead refresh and contemporise them. The perfume brand J’adore has done this well by using variations of the Goddess archetype to express femininity. Tracing the journey of the campaigns, the Goddess moved from a dark, Hecate-like depiction in the 2000s, through a searching, hunting Artemis and finally in absolute femininity to a Venus-like goddess. In the final ad, she is stripped down to a sheer, shimmering dress, comfortable in her skin and connected to nature. Dior has contemporized what it means to be a Goddess without losing the identity of the Goddess over time.

In our globalised and fast-changing world, marketers must factor in culture and pay attention to both the latest trends and the deeper, more abiding values that change more slowly. This provides brands with a better understanding of how the marketplace for their products and services is shifting when consumer contexts and assumptions change. It helps to point out where the opportunities for growth lie and facilitates greater authenticity and meaning for our brands.  


Serena Jacob is regional managing director of Qualitative at Kantar.

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