For the past several months we have happily witnessed increased diversity and inclusion in advertisements. This is a welcome change. The challenge for all of us is to ensure that these positive changes are not simply “tick the box” efforts. It is easy lifting to add diverse talent to advertisements. It also makes a lot of sense as it is simply a reflection of the reality on the street. While this satisfies a preliminary need for diversity, it does not necessarily qualify an ad for being inclusive and “in-culture”.
“In-culture” is where we need to get to. We need to ensure that culture is an integral part driving messaging so that the audience watching it can relate to what they are seeing.
So what does it mean to be “in-culture”? Perhaps it is easier to understand if we refer to ads that are not. One example of that is ads that utilize humor. Humor is often rooted in experience and culture. Certain communities simply might not “get the joke”. This is particularly so with newcomers to the country — the largest segment which are Asians. Another example would be utilizing a double-entendre. Here is an example: Imagine a discount fitness chain taking its mainstream advertising and translating it into Chinese, in an attempt to market to that specific community near a location where Chinese are a dominant group. The ad graphically features weights. The headline reads: “Only a dumbbell would pay more for a gym membership”. The cultural challenge here is that describing weights as dumbbells is not known across cultures. As well, the fact that dumbbell can refer both to weights and also to an “idiot” would also be unknown. True story.
We were once facilitating “Inspiration Sessions” which are a form of ethnographical focus groups, that are more suited to ethnic communities that are reluctant to speak out in public. A client asked us to play a mainstream spot that they had run in the previous year, which they had translated with a voiceover, into perfect Mandarin and Cantonese. We observed four different groups watching the commercial. Their responses were unanimous – “We completely understand the words but we don’t get the ad at all”. The ad from a content perspective was an allegory – culturally, they couldn’t relate to the allegory.
As the above example illustrates, when it comes to allegories, it’s not a question of language. Even though many South Asians and Filipinos speak English, because that was a second language in their home countries. Even though English was a second language in their home countries, they simply won’t understand what the ad suggests.
All of this supports our mantra of “Google Translator isn’t a smart multicultural marketing strategy”. We laugh at this but one of our staff recently sent us an ad which was a translation of a restaurant ad that was featuring jerk chicken. When they read the ad in Chinese and “back translated” it into English, it read: “obnoxious chicken”. Not all translations are as obviously incorrect. One of our clients had a wall in their retail branches saying: “Welcome” in dozens of languages. They received a complaint about one of the versions, and reached out to us to say: “Have we said ‘Welcome’ wrong?” The answer was no, but yes. The translation wasn’t inaccurate but it wasn’t the way someone would say ‘Welcome’ in common parlance. It was more like the Queen’s English.
AIMM research has clearly demonstrated that being both “in-language” (of course, properly in-language) and “in-culture” can yield dramatically improved results across all metrics from awareness to actual sales.
So does that automatically mean that every multicultural marketing campaign needs to be separate and distinct from mainstream campaigns? Our view is no. The key question is whether the strategy will resonate with the specific multicultural community or communities. Often ads do, because they are based on universal truths. In those instances, it is simply a matter of translation or imagery. In others, the strategy makes sense — the versioning needs to be different. An example of this is one of our clients whose products include facial tissue, paper towels and bathroom tissue, during the pandemic they deviated from their traditional separate brand advertising and their individual brand positioning, and created a tri-brand video spot named “Unapologetically Human”. This was a very powerful and moving ad, with strong imagery, lyrics and music surrounding the central theme of life isn’t always perfect and we’re all human, and it is okay to be unapologetically human. It is a universal truth. It is a message that resonates across all ethnicities. In this particular instance, while the strategy was bang-on, we felt that in order to capture the power of the ad, we had to go beyond imagery. We changed the imagery to be more reflective of the particular groups being targeted – being Chinese and South Asians – but we also went to Chinese and South Asian creative talent to have new lyrics and new original music written so that it would have the same cultural power as the original mainstream English ad. Versions were created in Hindi and Urdu for the South Asian communities, as well as in Cantonese and Mandarin for the Chinese communities. The response to these ads was great.
But sometimes the mainstream strategy for a given year or campaign is simply not going to work with a targeted ethnic community. That is when being “in-culture” requires net-new creative. An example of this utilizing the same client was a series of facial tissue ads, targeting the Chinese community. The underlying insight for these ads was the fact that Chinese are hesitant to say “I love you” out loud – even to family. In the three vignettes, the facial tissues are utilized as a vehicle to express “I love you”. We had done a completely different ad for a telco a number of years back, utilizing the same insight. It involved three Influencers calling their parents and saying “I love you” out loud for the first time. We were able to capture the oral reactions. Because of the power of the “in-culture” insight, the video went viral and was watched by Chinese consumers around the world.
So there are three possibilities when looking at creating “in-culture” marketing materials – one is that it is steeped in a universal truth, and it may require minor modifications in terms of language and imagery – or not at all, particularly if language is not a barrier. The second option is where the strategy/insight will resonate but a culturally specific adaptation is required. The third is where you require net-new advertising.
So what is the secret to avoiding, whenever possible, having to do completely original creative? (not to say that this is a bad thing and if you want to win the hearts before winning the wallets of consumers, sometimes ethnic-specific creative is definitely the best way to go) – the answer is “table stakes”. This is one of those expressions that does not necessarily translate cross-culture. It relates to gambling and is a minimum entry requirement. It’s like a minimum bet in poker. In order to ensure that marketing campaigns and strategies have universal truths that transcend ethnicities, it is important to have a multicultural voice at the planning table. When there are several solid options, sometimes it makes sense to eliminate one because it won’t resonate with important ethnic communities. With a seat at the table, multicultural experts – either an Agency or internal staff – can provide suggestions as to which options might be eliminated or how an ad might be modified so that it is culturally appropriate when it is originally shot. It is when the question as to whether something is culturally appropriate is asked as an after-thought that it is too late.
As we shift to a reality where the visible minorities are becoming the majority, it is even more imperative that brands have mastered not only being diverse and inclusive but also “in-culture”.