25 August 2023

It’s time to talk about feelings:
The impact of cultural differences in emotion on brand relationships

It’s time to talk about feelings:<br/> <strong>The impact of cultural differences in emotion on brand relationships</strong>

We live in a new age of digital brand engagement and increased globalization, with international audiences sharing information across borders more easily than ever before. Accordingly, it wouldn’t take much for companies to assume that campaigns which resonate with the target demographic in one region can be quickly rolled out to other locales with similar success. However, this assumption unfortunately fails to understand the nuanced role that emotional engagement plays in the process of convincing consumers and employees to engage with a brand, and how that emotional engagement is affected by cultural and linguistic differences.

To create successful content campaigns, all stakeholders involved in their planning, whether consumer or employee focused, need to understand the roles of emotional connection and rationalization in converting the audience into brand users and, ultimately, brand advocates. For content to be globally successful, production teams also need to understand how to adapt their content for international audiences, taking into account local culture and consumer expectations.

Traditionally, branded content, and advertising in particular, is designed to be as informative as possible, helping the audience to make logical, rationalized decisions about whether or not to purchase a product or become invested in a brand. While this approach can produce one-time purchases, it doesn’t typically foster the kinds of long-term brand-consumer or brand-employee relationships that result in brand loyalty and advocacy.

Rather than strictly informative content, it is emotional messaging that generally engages the audience and provides the foundations for brand relationships. These relationships typically begin with a decision on the part of the audience: whether or not to make a purchase or engage with branded content. According to recent psychological research, this is a decision that is heavily influenced by the audience’s emotional state (Lerner et al, 2015).

The importance of emotional connection in creating brand relationships

In their synthesis and analysis of over 35 years of research into the effects of emotion on human decision making processes, published in the Annual Review of Psychology 2015, Jennifer S. Lerner, Ye Li, Piercarlo Valdesolo and Karim S. Kassam identified that “many psychological scientists now assume that emotions are, for better or worse, the dominant driver of most meaningful decisions in life” (Lerner et al, 2015). The group specified several ways in which emotions can impact the decision-making process, and proposed the emotion-imbued choice model (EIC) as shown in the image below.

Using this model, it’s possible to identify several areas wherein emotion has had an effect on the rational thought process previously believed to power human decision making. The group’s findings, supported by numerous other items of research into emotional impact, identified that emotion can effect the ways in which audiences perceive certain content features, distort statistics, or set different goals. The group goes further, adding that “current emotions can also indirectly influence decision making by changing predicted utility for possible decision outcomes” (Lerner et al, 2015).

For companies planning content campaigns, the message is clear: while information is important, the emotional state of the audience will determine how they assess that information, and what they remember from it. But what kinds of emotions should content aim to trigger in order to drive engagement?

According to Lerner, Li, Valdesolo and Kassam, so-called “high-certainty emotions” such as happiness, anger and disgust will increase heuristic processing by placing focus on the credibility of the content source instead of the quality of its argument and content (Lerner et al, 2015). This could mean that an audience would be more receptive to the concepts being proposed, and less likely to doubt the information presented.

The EIC model shows how various different types of emotion can have profound impacts on the decision-making process, but it’s important to note that branded content cannot directly control some of the stages involved. Instead, when planning content, brands should focus on the ‘characteristics of options’ and the ‘expected outcomes’ areas of the EIC model, which are perhaps best modified through the use of tone. Incidental influences such as the weather are, in spite of how hard we might wish otherwise, beyond the brand’s control.

Research from Robert Heath, David Brandt and Agnes Nairn, published in the Journal of Advertising Research, draws parallels between an interpersonal communication axiom introduced by Paul Watzlawick, famed Austrian-American psychologist, and the relationships between a brand and its audience. One of five interpersonal communication axioms to be developed by Watzlawick, it distinguishes between “communication”, which is the factual, indisputable content of a message, and “metacommunication”, the emotionally charged qualifier which shapes a message’s tone. For brand content, this “metacommunication” is often known as “creativity”, and it is this emotional creativity, argue Heath, Brandt and Nairn, that builds brand relationships (Heath, Brand and Nairn, 2006).

One need look no further than some of history’s most popular advertisements to see proof of that theory in action. Cast your mind back to the sight of a purple wall as the opening notes of Phil Collin’s In The Air Tonight begin to play in the background. The camera pans and reveals a gorilla sat behind a set of drums, taking in the music. Then, as the chorus hits, the animal launches into a now-iconic drum solo. The Cadbury advert, part of the brand’s ‘a glass and a half full of joy’ series, has little to do with chocolate and provides no explicitly informative content, but is now intrinsically linked with the brand for many UK residents who were hooked the first time they saw it. It was so successful in fact, that the advertisement was cited as one of the driving factors behind Cadbury’s 6 percent year-on-year revenue growth in Britain, Ireland and emerging markets in 2007.

Somewhat bizarrely, the UK wasn’t the only European market infatuated with a campaign prominently featuring a gorilla in 2007. An animatronic gorilla also starred in Italian drink brand Crodino’s iconic advertisements in a series of somewhat comical situations, each time ordering a Crodino at a bar. The takeaway here is unfortunately not quite as simple as “gorilla equals successful content”, but it’s clear that these advertisements, beloved by audiences in their respective countries, managed to forge an emotional connection that has endured in the fifteen years since they were introduced.

Indeed, Heath, Brandt and Nairn performed research on subjects in two markets (the US and the UK) to find out the effect that certain advertisements had on brand favourability. The advertisements were assessed with the Cognitive Emotive Power Test (CEP Test), which measures a campaign’s “emotive power” (relating to emotional content) and “cognitive power” (relating to rational content designed to inform) and then shown to an audience which confirmed whether they remembered the advertisement or not. The audience was then asked to rate each company on how positively they regarded it. The experiment showed that memorable advertisements with higher “emotive power” had a large impact on brand favourability, while the “cognitive power” rating had little effect in either market (Heath, Brandt and Nairn, 2006).

Interestingly, Heath, Brandt and Nairn identify research from Robert Bornstein, published in the Psychological Bulletin, which states that when nonconsciously processed emotional content is processed consciously, its effectiveness is weakened. This is to say that when the audience is able to identify the cause of its emotional state, it is able to rationalize it and dilute the effect. For content campaigns such as advertisement, Bornstein argues that “the less aware consumers are of emotional elements in advertising, the better they are likely to work, because the viewer has less opportunity to rationally evaluate, contradict, and weaken the advertising’s potency”. For companies preparing large, multinational campaigns, whether aimed at consumers or employees, this is of particular note. Any frictions arising due to issues such as cultural dissonance could result in one of two outcomes – an emotional aversion to something that doesn’t reflect the audience’s cultural identity, or a rationalization of the attempt at emotional messaging, and a weakening of the desired effect. Of course, neither option will lead to brand advocacy, which is why it’s important to consider the ways in which strategies for emotional engagement will need to adapt to different regions and target markets.


How emotional interpretation differs between cultures and languages

An increased focus on the emotional salience of branded content brings its own challenges for companies looking to engage their domestic audiences, which are then further complicated by attempts to appeal to globally dispersed communities.

While it’s always been known that global collateral has to be altered to ensure that language and figures are correct for each market, this relatively newfound need to connect on a subconscious, emotional level raises questions as to how human emotions may vary across borders, and how big an influence culture has on our thought processes.

In research for Emotion Review, Michael Boiger and Batja Mesquita from the University of Leuven state that “most of our emotions occur in the contexts of social interactions and relationships” (Boiger and Mesquita, 2012). It stands to reason then, that as culture and social norms change, so too should the individual’s emotional response to external stimuli and their understanding of the emotional valence of a given situation.

A 2008 study called Putting the face in context: Cultural differences in the perception of emotions from facial behavior, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, compared Western and Japanese understandings of a target person’s emotional state. The findings showed distinct differences in how the two groups understood the same situations. Whereas Western audiences focused only on the target person’s facial expressions to discern their emotional state, Japanese audiences took the expressions of other people surrounding the target into consideration as well. The target person wasn’t considered to be as happy when the people surrounding them looked angry or sad (Masuda et al, 2008).

This is potentially due to differences in cultural constructions of the ‘self’. In Culture and the Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion and Motivation, Hazel Rose Markus and Shinobu Kitayama distinguish between cultures which have an independent view of the self, and those that have an interdependent view of the self. Individuals belonging to cultures with an independent view of the self typically have “faith in the inherent separateness of distinct persons”, and are aware of a typical cultural goal to “become independent from others and to discover and express one’s unique attributes”. In contrast, cultures with an interdependent view of the self believe that the individual “cannot be properly characterized as a bounded whole, for it changes structure with the nature of the particular social context” (Markus and Kityama, 1991).

Individuals from these two distinct cultural backgrounds will, according to Markus and Kitayama, exhibit key differences in how they view their roles in society, and how they build their own self-esteem. In their study, Markus and Kitayama state that people with an independent view of the self will see a need to be unique, express themselves, realize internal attributes, promote own goals and be direct in order to fulfil their role in society. Their ability to express themselves and the validation they receive for their internal attributes would be the foundations of their self-esteem. Contrast this with people from a society with an interdependent view of the self, who will typically believe that their role in society is to fit in, stay in their proper place, engage in appropriate action for each situation, promote others’ goals and be indirect (Markus and Kitayama, 1991). Here, the ability to adjust, restrain oneself and preserve social harmony are the foundations of self-esteem.

As self-esteem and self-realization are often considered to be at the core of motivational processes, this core difference between how members of independent and interdependent cultures see themselves and their roles in society could have significant impacts on how international companies plan emotionally engaging content. In their research, Markus and Kitayama hypothesize that, while people from independent cultures might be driven by a need to achieve, self-actualize and avoid cognitive conflict, those from interdependent groups might be more motivated to fully realize their own connectedness and interdependence (Markus and Kitayama, 1991).

Content targeting Western audiences then, which typically trend towards the independent cultural model, might see more success if it highlights the ways in which it can help the audience to assert their individuality, and ‘break free’ from the standardized rules of society, separating themselves from the masses. Conversely, content aimed at more interdependent audiences, in markets such as Japan for instance, should promote the brand’s ability to help the audience fulfil their social roles, whether it be through the fulfilment of work or familial responsibilities.

Indeed, Markus and Kitayama identify that, in interdependent cultures, ‘positive feelings about the self should derive from fulfilling the tasks associated with being interdependent with relevant others: occupying one’s proper place and maintaining harmony’ (Markus and Kitayama, 1991). It stands to reason that without the correct motivation, audiences are not going to engage with branded collateral, and are unlikely to form long-lasting brand relationships. As audiences from different cultural backgrounds are motivated by different stimuli, brand collateral and content will need to vary tone, messaging and emotional valence in order to provoke the ideal response, while remaining consistent with the overarching brand identity.

In order to create strong emotional connections between brand collateral and the audience, the emotional narrative needs to be frictionless and aligned with cultural expectations, as previously identified by Bornstein. By tuning into the daily emotions that consumers and employees face, brands are able to cultivate a feeling of familiarity, one that helps close the gap between the company and its audience. As Boiger and Mesquita found, however, the most prevalent emotions seem to depend on the cultural background of each locale and whether it supports an independent or interdependent view of society. The pair identify studies showing that in Japan, ‘socially engaging emotions’, for instance shame or friendly feelings towards others, were felt more intensely than in American contexts, where ‘socially disengaging emotions’, such as pride and anger, were more prevalent. In short, the social background of a locale defines the emotions, interactions and relationships that the audience engages in (Boiger and Mesquita, 2012).

A new model for understanding interactions with branded content

In response to these findings, and to help companies understand the impacts of culture and emotion on audience engagement with branded collateral, this report proposes a modified version of the EIC model, titled the Branded Collateral Engagement model (BCE).

It is believed that by careful understanding of cultural motivation and subsequent development of tone and emotional messaging, brands can develop deeper knowledge of typical ‘characteristics of the decision maker’ and ultimately influence the audience’s perception of the ‘characteristics of options’.

In order to create brand advocates, companies need to leverage their creativity and produce culturally relevant, emotionally resonant narratives that appeal to the audience’s social background and motivate them to engage with the content. By exploring localized social constructs of the self, brands will be able to identify the stimuli that motivate audiences to engage, whether it be through the promotion of individuality and differentiation from the crowd, or through role fulfilment and the strengthening of social harmony. Playing to emotions more prevalent in local society should also help increase the feeling of familiarity between the content and the audience, removing friction from the consumer or employee experience and allowing for more direct engagement with the material.

Indeed, in the Journal of Market-Focused Management, Geok Lau suggests that a consumer will typically ‘examine a brand and judge if it is “similar” to himself or herself. If a brand’s physical attributes or personality are judged to be similar to the consumer’s self-image, the consumer is likely to trust it’ (Lau and Lee, 1999). Here then, expert local insights are needed to ensure that content is created from the ground up in each target market and can resonate with local audiences. Research from George Zinkhan and Jae Hong in Advances in Consumer Research provides further support for this statement, saying that ‘consumers buy or prefer those products which possess images most similar to the images they either perceive or wish of themselves’ (Hong and Zinkhan, 1995).

Lau argues that trust in a brand is also impacted by its predictability, stating that ‘a brand’s predictability enhances confidence because the consumer knows that nothing unexpected may happen when it’s used’ (Lau and Lee, 1999). Building on this idea, the ‘actual outcome’ step has been included in the BCE model. Whether it’s an employee interacting with training materials or a consumer purchasing a product, if the actual outcome is in line with the emotional ‘expected outcome’, it is likely that the customer will begin to develop feelings of trust towards the brand. Here, it is important that collateral remains tonally consistent and doesn’t overpromise in order to ensure the ‘actual outcome’ and ‘expected outcome’ are in alignment. Through repeated interactions wherein the ‘actual outcome’ and ‘expected outcome’ do not significantly differ, we can hypothesize that the audience should develop brand loyalty, making them more receptive to future branded collateral. In the BCE model, this has been identified as the ‘brand advocacy loop’.

While the current model of creating branded collateral in one language, and then adapting it for other locales can work, the BCE model, alongside findings from Lau, Zinkhan and Hong, indicates that companies would see stronger brand advocacy by concurrently creating content specifically targeted at each region.

Incorporating localization at the start of the content creation pipeline allows creative teams to design content with an understanding of local ‘cultural motivation’, which will shape the ways the audiences receive content messaging. Teams can then look at using ‘tone’ with greater cultural specificity, meaning they will be able to guide audiences towards positive interpretations of the ‘characteristics of options’ more reliably than before. This will result in branded collateral that is more likely to create favourable feelings towards the brand among the audience, and promote brand advocacy at a fundamental level, creating strong brand image and reputation.