Data, culture and context are changing marketing

The words we use to describe how we feel don’t translate well across cultures. In a world joined by instantaneous, always-on, asynchronous communication platforms (i.e. email, direct marketing, global ads and social media platforms) this should ring alarm bells for marketers, advertisers and writers alike.

I wish there was an easy way to explain all this in a sentence that read: “Write in this way, or speak like this and everyone will unambiguously understand what you mean” but there isn’t. So, I will unravel the complexity in the simplest way possible and ask you to consider just how you operate in your communication and marketing messages, today.

Language Is A Cultural Artifact

We need to start with language. Language is our primary means of communication and it always develops locally and is affected by culture. This means that there are emotions and concepts that are unique to each specific culture that don’t translate easily into other languages.

Greeks, for example, use the word “meraki” to explain the passion and engagement felt for one’s work or other activity. The Japanese understand that “kama muta” is the warm fuzzy feeling we get inside when we look at the picture of a kitten or when we find ourselves part of a social group with a common purpose. ‘Farsickness.’ Doesn’t even come close to describing what the Germans call “Fernweh” and the Norwegians say “Pålegg” which at best translates as “whatever you decide to put on the bread.”

At a superficial level all languages are more or less the same in their need to describe the physical world so that people can operate in it. There is however a deeper level of communication that signals a common understanding of concepts. These concepts arise out of local conditions which makes them unique to those who have experienced them.

Culture Changes Data

Culture is a construct. It is created out of the actions, reactions and pro-actions of those who live in a particular setting. These are the direct result of the stimulus provided by the setting. The environment then, as noted in The Sniper Mind, shapes us.

Culture, in turn, defines data by providing unique interpretations to what is being reported by our senses or understood by our minds. Culture is rooted to a specific location or a particular set of circumstances. Because of this culture creates context. Context changes data by adding fresh layers of interpretation on it generated by needs that arise out of the moment.

What we see from the diagram above is that essentially all three elements of decision-making: Data, Culture and Context rise out of behavior. Behavior reflects necessities that are the result of environmental pressures. Necessities that arise from the environment (and environment can be both physical and cognitive or emotional) give us our motivation. Motivation is emotional and, as a result, so is our decision-making.

To understand this better consider that in order for us to do anything we need to want to. The feeling of ‘want’ we experience in relation to an action comes from a difference in the potential charges between synapses in our brain that are activated as a result of a cocktail of three neurochemicals: dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline. These three activate the reward system in the brain that makes us feel better when we engage in an action or launch upon a course of action than before.

I am oversimplifying some things here but you understand how we go from things that are cognitive and hidden inside our head to actions that determine behavior and result in outcomes in the world outside. The pathway from axons to actions is created out of emotions.

Emotions In Data And Data In Emotions

This means that emotions are data and there is data in emotions.

A brand that has no emotional connection with its audience is nothing more than a label. A true brand lives in the intersubjective space where objective reality meets subjective beliefs. Beliefs give rise to context that changes the data that creates culture.

You can, I hope, begin to see how all this now plays out. None of it is new, but for the first time we have scientific studies that explain the underlying mechanism between what we thought to be true and what we now know is happening.

Which brings us to the study that shows how emotional concepts are not the same worldwide. Even ones as commonly shared and understood as “anger”, “love” and “pity”.

Intuitively we’ve know this forever. There have been notions of cultural stereotypes that mark the British as reserved, the Brazilians as warm and open and the Germans as humorless, for instance, for as long as there have been nations. Similarly, we’ve often used stereotypes to categorize age or genders.

So, what’s changed? What, apart from real studies that give us real data is creating this fresh new imperative on our marketing formats?

The New Marketing Reality

The change we are experiencing is driven by technology and a little more precisely: connectivity. Context collapse is a challenge because it destroys audience segmentation and marketing compartmentalization.

In turn, this destroys the identity construct that canny brand will create to appear appealing to its target audience. Now a brand has to truly be authentic. And that presents uncertainty and dangers that trigger risk aversive behavior just when we need its exact opposite.

The marketer’s arsenal now has a lot of soft tools that can be applied to branding. They also constitute the new marketing rules we play by:

As with most of the challenges we face today it requires a mindset shift.