Careful planning and deep analysis are the most effective ways to use culture to a brand’s advantage, particularly in Asia, according to Fiona McNae, CEO of cultural and semiotics insight firm Space Doctors.
Speaking to Campaign Asia-Pacific in Singapore, McNae said the great diversity across the continent means brands have to pay careful attention to cultural nuances and tweak their messaging accordingly to ensure it resonates in the way they want.
Simply taking a global campaign and changing the language won’t cut it, McNae said. “The core thing is meaning,” she explained. “We see a lot of difference sometimes between what’s intended [from brand messaging] and what’s actually received.
“Arming local market teams with the frameworks and ways of communicating their local market nuance to a global team who are determined that you’re going to take the global execution, is very important.”
While McNae said pop culture is significant, brands often conflate this with social media, and the two are not the same. The latter often spikes on issues that “just fizz up and then fizz away” but are mistakenly taken for cultural indicators.
“Those are not things we want to invest in,” she said. “You have to be very clear about what you’re trying to communicate by the use of a particular influencer, otherwise you generate noise and confusion, and you dilute the meaning you’re trying to hold on to in an ever more crowded marketplace.”
McNae said that all brands exist within a cultural context, and unless they understand that culture, they can’t build brand value within it. That cultural meaning goes beyond just advertising and marketing, into the very packaging, smell or shape of a product.
“All the elements are bringing their own part of the meaning, all need to be working coherently,” she explained.
McNae highlighted motherhood, a key theme for many brands but understood very different depending on a country’s culture.
“How do women want to be represented? What are the most compelling and modern representations of motherhood? For brands that are all about being a great mother, the representation of what a great mother looks like plays out very differently in different cultures.”
Educating people on the importance of semiotics is a large part of Space Doctors’ work, and McNae said demonstrating its value in terms marketers are familiar with is a key step. “We need to surround semiotics with quantitative validation, so that people new to the subject feel much more confident about it,” she said.
In Asia specifically, McNae said, there is a “real awareness” of semiotics, primarily due to the diversity of languages and cultures. Space Doctors is particularly seeing growth in markets including China, Indonesia and Thailand.
Moreover, given the vast youth population in several Asian countries, and their importance to brands, keeping on top of the so-called “emergent codes” they are observing and creating is vital.
“It's the ideas that are starting to build sufficient traction that will come through and influence the mainstream, how consumers talk about things like freshness, or authenticity, or femininity, for example,” she said.