It was a typical Friday night. My dog, Indiana, and I were settled in to decompress with Netflix close at hand. The recommendation engine suggested that I stream a series called The Magnificent Century, based on a predilection for historical drama. As the first episode came to life on the screen, turbaned warriors thundered across the screen in pursuit of their quarry, and I was hooked. By the time the dialogue began, I didn’t care that the show was in Turkish—I was off on the first of many multi-hour binge watches that took me to the heart of Sultan Suleyman’s court.
As I got pulled more deeply into the show’s world, I started to wonder about how cultural constructs influence storytelling—especially when creating cross-cultural or global communication. In particular, what can marketers learn about effective marketing by looking at the storytelling approaches of foreign films and television?
When marketers talk about storytelling, we tend to speak in universal terms. Some traits, it seems, cross the boundaries of culture and resonate on some deeper human level. Oral traditions and storytelling, mythic structures, and Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey have been brought to life across time and geography. You find stories among the Inuit of the Arctic to the Seminole of Florida to the heart of Europe’s Germanic tribes. The human capacity for story seems to be in our DNA.
What varies, however, is how we tell stories. The cultural frameworks that influence our lives—and by extension, our storytelling—fascinate me. As anthropologist Rodolfo Maggio wrote on the anthropology of storytelling, “Storytelling is the act of telling a story, and the anthropology of storytelling should consider it as such and look at everything that happens around it. In the same way as looking at an individual human life as separated from the context of its own development would not produce an anthropological understanding of that particular life (Eriksen, 2004), looking at a story as the creation of a particular individual rather than the intersubjective creation of experience would deprive the study of its anthropological value.” In other words, the contexts of our stories are as important as the stories themselves. The experiences of the people who create stories, those who participate in them as actors, and the people who consume them all help to give stories their meaning. For marketers, this underscores how absolutely critical it is to understand cultural influences, even when working in universal story forms.
Image attribution: Mike Erskine
What kind of impact does culture have on storytelling? Recently, Missouri University did a study on how cultural perspectives influence the way that we tell stories by looking at media coverage of Pope Francis’ trip to Cuba. They honed in on the photography, but the lessons from visual storytelling can be an indication of the way that we perceive the more general issue.
As the researchers conclude, “It is important for media members to realize how their cultural predispositions can have a profound impact on the nature of their reporting on international events. This specific example of the pope’s Cuban visit showcases how differently people in different countries receive the news about international events. While none of the photos taken of the pope in Cuban [sic] were the ‘wrong’ way to cover the story, the framing and intent behind the photos can change the way news readers understand the news.”
Image attribution: Alex Klopcic
Effective storytelling at a global level or localizing stories for different regions requires some soul-searching. As marketers, we should always seek to bring authenticity and honesty to the work that we do. But this kind of internal work can get uncomfortable. Do you hold biases that could influence your storytelling in a particular way? Are there elements of the local cultural framework that you need to understand better in order to tell a story effectively? Do you understand the culture well enough to make allusions and metaphors work? If the answer is no, spend time diving into the market. Work with a local advisor. Conduct an assessment where you frankly outline what you need to know in order to achieve your goals.
When I worked in the Caribbean, I was struck by the vibrancy of the outdoor advertising market. It was a hotbed of local creative thinking. Tropical beverage companies and telecommunications providers warred for customers on billboards along the highway, with highly visual ads featuring lots of bright color. The style of communication was different from the restrained, efficient ads we often see in the US. The angle seemed to be different: it said “our brand is easy to work with, our brand will add quality to your life.”
When I later worked with a Jamaican bank whose core message was “love,” I had to further shift my perceptions of the way that brands in a specific industry—or in any industry—employ creative thinking to communicate with their customers. Be open to the fact that there’s much that you don’t know. Some of it will be significant, some will be subtle. The more you can decode the cultural norms of storytelling, the more effectively you’ll be able to reach different audiences.
Back to my Turkish soap opera addiction for a moment. As I spent hours digging deeper into the layers of The Magnificent Century, I was captivated by the mix of domestic intrigue, romance, politics, and adventure. In the US, we seem to segment our storytelling modalities more—one story is a romance, one is an adventure. The blend of these different elements was intoxicating. However, it was the presence of very universal storytelling mechanisms that I realized kept me coming back for more. They were elements that I could relate to, and that I cared about:
When told through the unique lens of Turkish television, which was more comfortable with a blended genre approach, these elements came to life in a whole new way.
As digital marketing opens up wider expanses of customer communication, the anthropology of storytelling is increasingly important. For brands looking to bridge major divides, it is critical to understand how cultural lenses shape stories and influence the way audiences consume content. By clarifying what biases you bring to the table, diving into local communications trends, and unifying your message with universal story arcs, you can create content that will perform well in markets across the globe.
Featured image attribution: yns plt