Anjali Puri
Jul 11, 2014

Making culture work for you: Evoking the hero in China and India

Effective use of a hero figure can be like adding superpowers to your marketing. The trick is doing it in a way that resonates. Here's a guide to why heroes are heroes in India and China.

Anjali Puri
Anjali Puri

Everyone loves a hero. Like all timeless, universal ideas that powerful brands are built on, the idea of a hero is one that is intuitive and compelling around the world—challenging status quo, proving one’s worth through courageous action and bringing about change.

But the way this idea manifests itself and is shaped by culture and circumstance, and it can be tricky for brands to get it right. TNS Qualitative research on heroism around the world reveals several different avatars of the hero, from the larger than life, protector-of-life American version, to the understated, self-effacing, ironic English hero or the anarchist, openly challenging French one. Closer to home, there are stark differences across Asia, with Chinese and Indian heroes often seeming the opposite of each other.

Hitting the right cultural notes can forge deeper and more resonant connections. By the same token, getting it wrong can sometimes convey the opposite of what was intended.

The hero is alive and kicking in Asia in these times of change, but history and culture have given very different meanings to heroism in these markets. Consider these examples from China and India.

Playing by the rules vs. challenging them

The Chinese hero upholds the rules and wins by working with the system, not against it. He does China proud by taking on a larger rival and winning against the odds.

Liu Xiang, the Olympic gold medalist hurdler and national hero, is a classic example of this since he won in a competition that was not a Chinese strength. The same is true Li Na, who won the French Open in tennis, not a sport China has traditionally not been strong in. Both of them have been used over the years by Nike—a classic hero brand—as brand ambassadors.

The Indian hero fights the system. Breaking and challenging rules is fundamental to heroism here, since the ‘system’ that has created the rules is itself seen as corrupt and inefficient. The results of the recent elections in India are an example of this desire to break the cycle of corruption and inefficiency. Many brands have tapped into this need over the years. Tata Tea inciting people to ‘wake up’ is a good example.

The means vs. the end

While winning is always important, perseverance, hard work and going the distance irrespective of the outcome are much more admirable traits in China. Haier is a brand that epitomizes this quality, having climbed from the verge of bankruptcy as a state-owned enterprise in the early 1980s to establish itself as a world-renowned brand and the world’s largest maker of white goods.

In India, winning is all-important, the means less so. ‘Jugaad’ is an often used Indian word, which means clever work-arounds and inventiveness. Much Indian advertising celebrates inventiveness of this kind. This is a quality admired far more than diligence and hard work.

What does this mean for communication strategies?

Here are the dos and don’ts for evoking the hero archetype in China and India. Clearly, a brand may have to do almost opposite things to communicate the same idea in the two markets.

Country Communication codes What to avoid
  • Playing by the rules
  • Diligence and perseverance
  • Hard work rather than work-arounds or clever thinking
  • Open confrontation
  • Selfishness (prioritising self over community or ideals)
  • Being confrontational, in-your-face, openly challenging
  • The end justifies the means
  • Celebrate the smartness of the underdog
  • Principles or effort overshadowing reward


What we shouldn’t forget, also, is that both these markets are evolving. Therefore these codes will change. An example is the emerging theme of independent thinking and autonomy in the Chinese hero, brought alive by bad-boy blogger Han Han in recent years. To tap into contemporary and resonant expressions of universal themes, brands need to keep in tune with cultural shifts both within and across markets.

Anjali Puri is Head of Centre of Excellence, Global Qualitative Practice, TNS


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