Backtrack: How human universals help build great brands
Backtrack pulls stories fstill relevant today rom the archives of our predecessor, media.toolbox, which published media and advertising commentary between 1998 and 2008.
The insight: By understanding what humans across the globe have in common, marketers can begin to build brands that create meaningful connections between products and people. Jan Hofmeyr highlights the four most important factors that need to be considered.
The story: How human universals help build great brands
Date first published: 10|07|2006
In 1968 Paul Ekman, a psychologist, showed that human beings the world over smile in the same way. He identified six emotions – happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and surprise – that show in people’s faces in identical ways, no matter who they are or where they come from.
At the time, it was fashionable to believe that people are shaped almost exclusively by nurture and not by nature. Culture was thought to dominate behaviour. And since each culture had its own values and emotions – or so the argument ran – each culture was unique in special ways. Evidence to the contrary was treated as profoundly threatening.
We know better now; none of us is quite as unique as we like to think. We share something like 95% of our DNA with Macaque monkeys, fully 98% with chimpanzees, and more than 99% of our DNA with each other. This doesn’t mean there aren’t sometimes wild differences across people and cultures; it does mean that human beings the world over have an awful lot of stuff in common. And it is this “stuff” that makes global branding possible.
In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker reproduces anthropologist Donald Brown’s ever-growing list of traits that are found in all documented cultures in history. The implications of human universals for global branding are clear: If the purpose of branding is to create connections between products and people, then these universals are what make global branding possible. To establish a global brand, we need to know what humans have in common, and understand how these influence behaviour. To this end, four important universals and associated behaviours should be considered to see how they impact on branding:
1. Six most basic needs motivate people in all cultures and help to give meaning and purpose to our lives. Pinker’s succinct summary of life encapsulates the six basic needs that cut across all cultures and times: food, shelter, friends, mating, meaningful work, and social success.
The relevance of all this for branding is to understand that products only become brands when they connect to things that are important to people. These six needs provide the deepest foundations for marketers’ ability to create brand connections. In fact, let’s pay homage to just three – friendship, mating, and social success. I hardly need elaborate on the extent to which marketers use these three passions to create space for their brands in our hearts and minds. Here is just one example from Samsung.
2. To meet those needs, a global cultural convergence is taking place as people look for wealth and opportunity in cities. As much as we have in common, it is not hard to identify variations across people and cultures. We may all smile in the same way, but we can easily disagree about when it is appropriate to smile. Within our differences, however, our universal tendency is to strengthen our common bonds. Consider this in the context of urbanization: Worldwide, people are moving to cities in search of wealth and opportunity. And in the city they find a new culture. Cities break down rural patterns of life and extended family structures. They iron out the differences that exist across countries. And so cities combine with our universal aspiration to strengthen the things that we have in common.
There is no environment that is more tailored to the needs of contemporary global branding than modern cities. In the posters Apple used to launch the iPod, the second picture was probably taken in a city in Europe, but it’s impossible to say where was the first picture taken. It could be Shanghai or San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro or Melbourne. Furthermore, you can’t tell what the ethnic background is of the people in the visuals, where they live, or what language they speak. Yet, they are instantly recognizable as members of the young, modern urban elite. Their lifestyle trumps historical and linguistic differences.
3. We are making great strides in learning about how the mind works, both in terms of its social psychology and its brain structure. Pinker’s elegant definition of intelligence says it is the successful pursuit of goals in the face of obstacles. It is not just about knowledge; it’s about making a success of life. Creating a picture of what the world is like, and working out what we want from it, are two fundamental activities of intelligent minds, and are the context in which brand building takes place.
It takes time to develop a sense of what the world is like. We do so gradually over time as layers of information accumulate and our beliefs and images become firmer. The greater the accumulation of information and the longer the time it takes for an image to develop, the more intractable that image will be.
As for working out what we want, nature has given us a complex motivational system which constantly finds itself wanting to go in different directions. For example, our personal lives involve a balancing act between what we’d like to do as individuals and what we ought to do as members of a family or social group.
From the branding point of view:
- It takes time to create a strong image
- It may take even longer to change an image that’s already developed.
- It may be easier to change what people think they want from a brand, than to change what they believe about the brand.
At the time the Volkswagen Beetle was launched in the US in the late 1950s, many people would probably have wanted a car described as “big”, “powerful”, and “fast”. There was no way that VW could attach these attributes to the Beetle. Fortunately, they didn’t have to. Doyle, Dayne, Burnbach successfully took advantage of the capacity humans have to change what they think the want. By the mid-1960s, the distinctly un-fast and un-powerful Beetle had become the car of choice for the younger generation.
But, if you insist on changing your brand’s image, what are the requirements for an image-building campaign? Look at Marlboro, once regarded as a woman’s brand. The creative geniuses at Leo Burnett in Chicago came up with the obvious idea that, to give the brand a more masculine image, they should show pictures of masculine men smoking it. Endless repetition of engaging imagery was the key, but we also learn that, if you have to change an image, you have to give yourself time. Few people know that it took Leo Burnett five years to work out that the best masculine image for the brand was the cowboy, and 18 years for it to become the USA’s number one brand – 18 years of relentless use of the desired image in an engaging way.
How much time are marketers given these days to create brands? Embarrassingly little.
4. The processes by which we become attached to things – or withdraw, as the case may be. The key to understanding the way people become attached to brands is to recognize that it’s no different from the way we become attached to anything. People usually use brands with functional purposes in mind: laundry detergent brands to clean their clothes; cool-drinks for refreshment and for pleasure, cars to go places, etc… But what takes us to the next level of attachment – when we become so attached to something that we are willing to be forgiving when it lets us down? What causes this willingness to forgive? Involvement. When a relationship – human or brand – matters to a person, they will be willing to put up with a certain amount of disappointment. And the more the relationship matters, the more dissatisfaction they will tolerate.
Marketers know that people can become almost irrationally attached to brands, but only recently have we been able to see the brain mechanisms that cause this. These show that by repeatedly embedding brand consumption in contexts that resonate with meaning to people, marketers link the functional aspects of brand performance to the emotional contexts that give brands a deeper relevance. These links become involuntary.
In closing, having developed some insight into human universals and behaviour, it’s important to note that there is still plenty of room for variety and conflict. People differ as a function of their gender, their levels of education, and their generational cohort. Our common values are no guarantee that we will share the same social space peacefully. I’ll pay more attention to some of our differences in future articles.
— This article is an edited extract of the full version published in Synovate’s international journal. Jan Hofmeyr is developer or co-developer of measurement systems for marketing research including: The Conversion Modeltm; Brand Value Creator; Connections; True Customer View. He is also co-developer of the Intellection Reporting Platform.