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Trends, symbols, and brand power in global market: the business anthropology approach.

"A serious cause of business failure is the common assumption that conditions in foreign markets - market preferences, distribution channels, intellectual property rights, and many other things must be what we think they are or at least what we think they should be." - Peter Drucker(1)

Brand image is no longer a marginal dimension of business, but the very core of business identity and strategy. With a world culture evolving, customers everywhere respond to images, myths, and metaphors that help them define their personal and national identities and relationships within a global context of world culture and product benefits.

For most firms, the problem of adopting a global customer strategy or developing the right corporate identity is not only their lack of specific information, but something deeper and more essential - the lack of a mental model that recognizes the power of the external environment to shape customer perception in cross border marketplaces.

Business anthropology is a new way of thinking about the challenge of keeping up with global change. It tracks the influence of technology-induced trends and cultural symbols on customer standards and perceptions of brand images. Business anthropology provides a set of advanced concepts for market strategy and branding. It can help a firm leverage knowledge of customer perceptions of the environment to enhance competitive strategy in transnational markets.

Television technology, Hollywood "Dream-Machine" movies, and advertising have created a world culture with implications for brand strategy, market intelligence, and management techniques in every business that becomes international. The subtle messages on worldwide TV are as responsible for the rapid development of the global economy as the expansionist activities of multinational companies. World culture lubricates and intensifies, through brand images, the rapid incorporation of international products into every marketplace.

Customer Perception

About 85 percent of all communication is non-verbal.(2) Customers absorb visual and musical symbols and images from their general environment and from several hours of television viewing each day. Much of the information influencing customers on television (as well as in movies, videos, and CDs) is expressed in coded form. The underlying messages are in images, text and graphics, symbols, myths, and metaphors - stories that come in through the eyes and ears, just as in real life. Customers absorb this coded information intuitively. Intuition is a gut feeling - knowing something and not being conscious of how or why you came to know it. A brand image is like a DNA code or a software icon - it is an encrypted message of benefits and methods of achieving them. The unique goals or vision of a company and its skills are communicated intuitively to customers via these nonverbal symbols.

The image doesn't sell a product, it is the product. Brand power and customer loyalty are shaped by the symbols a firm uses and the image it presents in the marketplace. A company image is created in the minds of consumers by a configuration of symbols - its product designs, logos, logotypes, positioning, packaging, advertising concepts, and themes. A brand image is conveyed in messages embedded in a communication style, a configuration of symbols, and content. Customers use the differences between brand images to make their choices among products that are essentially alike in a material sense.

In positioning an international brand, the rapidity of externally induced changes in customer standards is often misunderstood or underestimated. In spite of familiarity with a local culture, or perhaps because of it, country managers tend to ignore the massive quantities of nonverbal information in routine, daily life that influence brand perception. To account for the interplay of global and local forces as part of the ongoing reality of markets and as part of a competitive brand strategy, the strategist must see, in a conventional sense, the invisible new world - a world of symbols representing intangible products and intangible benefits.

The U.S. is leading a general world drift to "brain" technologies - the augmentation of brain power and "mind" services. Even our tangible products are increasingly embedded with professional knowledge content as we move out of the older tradition of industrial, "brawn" technologies - the augmentation of muscle power. Our most profitable growth is now based on "mind" benefits. Movies and music, software programs, electronic communication, medical and biotech products, financial services and R&D, all offer more intangible than tangible benefits.

In every marketplace, similar high-quality products and services at or near price parity are available. This drift to intangibles is changing customer perception worldwide. Awash with new goods and services, global and cultural imagery, symbols and metaphors, customers are increasingly making their decisions in the marketplace by applying current ideas, signposts, and icons, rather than by concrete facts alone. Customer needs and desires are no longer limited to "real" benefits. Customers want intangible benefits - the myth and magic that satisfy the mind and imagination. These intangible benefits are undreamed of by managers caught up in the older, more physical and material models of customer expectations. A shift from concrete to abstract, from tangible to intangible value-added products and services has created an altered world in customer standards and perceptions.

To understand what influences foreign customers' perceptions of product and service value, we need to decode the two powerful cultural ecosystems of which we are hardly aware - our own culture and the culture of the global village, born of television.

The World Television Culture

The customer world was once narrowly defined by tradition, neighborhood, culture, and material reality. Now it is defined by a consciousness of world culture as well. Today, decisions are arrived at with the help of symbolic messages, modes of presentation, and patterns of discourse embedded in programs, movies, music, and commercials. Seductive advertising extorts customers to "live their dreams" through the purchase of goods and services. Customer needs, hopes, and expectations explode in a wealth of alternatives created by the self-consciousness induced by a worldwide TV culture.

The influence of worldwide TV culture on the perceptions of foreign customers is enormous. It begins with the profound effect of the visual and auditory images of American culture on the small children of other cultures right in their own living rooms.(3) Through these images and sounds, children of other cultures actively experience the thoughts and feelings conveyed by the images and participate in the messages they bring. Images and symbols, hidden in the subtext of movies, music, and commercials are being diffused without regard to time, geography, or national borders. Worldwide TV culture carries American myths and assumptions around the world, capturing the minds and imagination of people everywhere.

One billion adults have already been raised on worldwide TV culture and the American Dream Machine. They are global consumers in that they have been changed in childhood by television. They learned that independence rather than obedience, initiative and optimism rather than passivity and resignation, bring rewards of mobility and wealth. They learned that products and services create an "experience" or a fantasy of an experience. Particularly in the second- and third-world countries, they learned about "the inalienable right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness," the right to choice linked to desire, marriage linked to love, and the right to expression of one's identity in the marketplace. American movies and music unite all television-raised consumers in mutually shared beliefs, worldview, and symbol-clusters of desires, images, and expectations.

The human mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions. The American culture code has successfully invaded half the world by persuading children and teenagers of a new set of beliefs or assumptions about life goals, products, and services. More recent international political events - the breakup of the Eastern European bloc and the modernization of many South American countries - are characterized by an increasing passion for American products, capitalism, and democracy. Multiple scenarios of hope and dreams conveyed through movies and American or American-style commercial television advertising have enlarged possibilities for people all over the globe.

America has acquired power not by outright territorial expansion but by colonizing the future - by defining and monopolizing the modernization process itself. The territorial spread of the American cultural code by means of entertainment content and its half-hidden subtext of beliefs and rules, myth and symbols, is so powerful that it is creating an Americanized world.

The Hidden Depth of Local Culture

In spite of the forces of homogenization, however, consumers also see the world of global symbols, company images, and product choice through the lens of their own local culture and its stage of development and market sophistication. France, among others, has objected to the American invasion of its culture and the replacement of its own cultural code with that of America. French prisoners, for example, keep asking to have their "rights read to them," even though this is not part of the French legal code.

Every national culture has its characteristic myths. These myths are the controlling pattern of a culture its DNA - and pervade every element in the system. The myth of the frontier, for example, lives in the mentality of Americans. The physical frontier is closed, but we are excited by the unknown, which for us is the continuation of the frontier. Contemporary Americans see themselves as pioneers on unknown and exciting frontiers. Now the frontiers are "outer space" and "inner space." We are world leaders in "outer space" - the aerospace industry, space research, and now the World Wide Web. We are world leaders in "inner space" - the software and biotech industries, brain research, mental health drugs, and (illegal) recreational drugs. Japan, on the other hand, has a historic tradition of frugality and eye for detail. Its striking talents are expressed in world leadership in miniaturization, product quality control, consumer electronics, and microchip production.

Dr. Joseph Stillman is president of Cognex, the world leader in machine vision technology. Cognex does 50 percent of its business in Japan and earns 50 percent of its profits there, with net profit margins running at 30 percent. Stillman says: "If your Japanese customer complains that the boxes in which the product arrived were dented, don't think like an American. When a customer complains about a product in a way that sounds unusual, listen! It may take some time to figure it out, but it is a piece in understanding how [the system] operates. Speak their language. Know their agendas." Stillman doesn't mean speak Japanese - he means you must understand the way a culture operates if you want success in its markets. You have to understand customers' assumptions - their unquestioned beliefs - and figure out the rules that are implied in the local culture.

Difficulties arise because customers have deep and complex commitments to their own national cultural codes as well as the global cultural code. Younger international customers have two lives - the local and the global. The contradictions between them and the exaggeration or overstatement of first one, then the other, are inevitable consequences of the emergence of this new, embracing, powerful American DNA-like code that is embedded in worldwide television programming.

Younger consumers adapt their decision-making to the global code initially, with tentative commitment to a course of action in consumption as a form of self-expression and self-realization. Yet if the ideas implied in a brand identity or corporate brand contradict some valued aspect of the domestic code, a depreciation in the value of the brand may take place, leading to customer confusion, loss of trust, and an unwillingness to buy the product. Global self-consciousness stimulates a new world of customer fantasy and confusion, as customers with destabilized perceptions grapple with old and new loyalties and promises.

As national cultural codes yield to the powerful influence of American films and music, consumers become uncertain. Unable to clearly substantiate differences in products or services and their claims, and focused on country of origin and their own self-identity, younger customers (and increasingly older ones as well) often use brand images to act out alternative fantasies or representations of experience.(4)

Transnational Brand Management

At present, the knowledge most firms have of how best to manage brands and relationships with customers in foreign marketplaces is rudimentary. Better brand management and a better comprehension of customer perception would clearly yield enormous rewards.

Brand power is characterized by the distinctive nature of the brand personality, by the appeal and relevance of its identity, by the consistency of its communication, and by the integrity of its identity.(5) Brand power is evolutionary so as to remain contemporary for each new generation of consumers. The impact of the communications revolution has created a chasm between generations since the '60s, influencing across borders with unimaginable rapidity. Brand power symbols must be simple and dense - that is, complex enough to convey subtly different messages to different groups within the same market and to work in different ways from market to market.

A first TV-connected generation must appear in any country before political and brand benefits can be fully realized. Once that generation emerges, new patterns of consumption, new industries, and new political agendas develop, as happened in Japan and Europe in the '80s.(6) New "idea spaces" accumulate in each TV-connected generation and are melded into national and local markets as the level of economic expectation and income bring these markets into the circle of "belonging" nations.(7)

Brand power and customer loyalty emerge from a brand image - a DNA with a controlled pattern of unique benefits from which every element of the marketing mix is cloned. Successful global brands often use the major themes of Hollywood films - equality, energy, optimism, and irreverence for authority.

Coca-Cola was the first American company to spread the myth of "global belonging" - a symbol of the equality of nations and races and the connection of cultures based on the shared belief in American values. ("I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.") This theme is directed to customers under 35 - those captured by the code embedded in American media.

Reebok, using this theme in a sports context, can hardly meet the demand of consumers in South Africa reared on African-American success in music and sports. Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, and Eddie Murphy symbolize the America of freedom and equality, diverse cultures, democracy, consumer culture, upward mobility, and wealth for nonwhite races in second- and third-world cultures.

Benetton's twist is to emphasize equality and irreverence for authority. The ad of two small children chastely kissing - a black boy with an impish smile and small raised horns of hair on his head, and a curly-haired blond girl - brought many complaints from the US, as did the one that displayed different colored condoms. Benetton's powerful news photo of thousands of desperate Albanians commandeering ships to take them to the Italian ports of Bari and Brindisi also made Americans uneasy, although it is a variation on an American myth. One reason for this exodus was that the Albanians had been watching Italian television - including commercials for consumer goods such as one in which a cat is served food on a silver platter.

The passage of new "idea spaces" in the minds of consumers moves quickly and market sophistication evolves more rapidly than many business leaders can believe or even imagine. The excitement of world culture increases demand for added stimulation and becomes more firmly embedded with each TV-connected generation. Consumer expectations and desire for new experiences escalate exponentially. As the world culture enlarges and consolidates via worldwide television, global symbols grow more abstract and complex and circulate more rapidly in the world community, and historic codes of culture alter.

Developing Strategic Insight

Customers in cultures all over the globe are at different stages of evolution and adapting to new conditions. Outdated mental models that ignore meaning and nonverbal communication slow down the process of company adaptation to customer definitions of satisfaction and to patterns in competitor images that influence customers in the immediate marketplace. Brand value in a particular market is determined by customer satisfaction as defined by the customer, not by the company.

Powerful brand identities and corporate branding will be the main engines of continuing international growth. However, building a positive corporate identity is not easy. A firm's identity and use of symbols reflect built-in assumptions about its organization, capabilities, plans, and way of doing business; and its beliefs about the assumptions of its competitors and its customers.

How does a company learn to act upon customers' needs, as the customers themselves perceive them, and effectively communicate its own authentic identity and that of its products at the same time? Obviously a common organizational perception of company reputation, brand identity, and communication strategy can be better achieved if team members share a common mental model and language for dialogue, just as they do for technical standards and finance.

Management teams may need to learn to extinguish established but unadaptive marketing assumptions and practices, and develop new and different ones. For example, customer-focused, scenario-planning workshops assist in examining alternative customer models of the environment, survival strategies, and priorities of benefits from brand choice as filtered through the influence of their cultures and global influences. These models are biological and organic because they are based on ecological adaptation to new conditions. They challenge conventional wisdom by providing a holistic way of assessing and interpreting the environments to which customers adapt, and they can stimulate widespread discussion. By focusing on the context in which customer decisions are made, managers learn to trust in the logic of the decision-making process.

Business anthropology has developed tools and techniques that enable companies to use myths, metaphors, symbols, and images to address the inherently contradictory needs of global consumers. By identifying customer perceptions of their own and competitors' brands in key cross-border markets, companies can build a competitive advantage. By identifying specific, culture-driven myths and symbols that are important to customers in a local culture, and by identifying worldwide trends that influence customer perceptions, they can create strategic global advantage. And by viewing customers' need perceptions within a holistic framework, and by examining their own national and corporate culture assumptions, companies doing business around the world can gain the advantage of a vast and useful knowledge base. This knowledge edge can help them forecast believable alternative customer trends, identify market-share opportunities, and develop an unbeatable communication strategy.

Notes and References

1. Peter Drucker, "The Information Managers Truly Need," Harvard Business Review, Jan.-Feb. 1995, pp. 54-62.

2. E. T. Hall, The Silent Language (New York: Doubleday, 1959); A. Mehrabin, Silent Messages (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1971); M. Knapp, Essentials of Non-Verbal Communication (New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1980); and the works of Charles Saunders Peirce in Richard J. Parmentier, Signs in Society: Studies in Semiotic Anthropology (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995); John E. Sherry, Jr., ed., Contemporary Marketing and Consumer Behavior: An Anthropological Sourcebook (South Salt Lake, Utah: Sage Publications, 1995).

3. Most national requirements demand that "foreign" programs be no more than 49 percent of daily fare. In 1993, the EEC sent out a directive suggesting that each member country try to reduce "foreign" broadcasting - as American broadcasting is euphemistically described - to below the 49 percent level.

4. Jeanne Binstock van Rij, "The New Tokyo Teenager" and "The New Japanese Singles" (the first multi-client anthropological studies of customer cultural psychographics of television-raised customers), McCann-Erickson, Hakuhodo, Tokyo, 1986; also "The New Young Turks," D.A.P., Direkt Marketing, Inc., Istanbul, 1990.

5. Paul Stobart, ed., Brand Power (New York: New York University Press, 1994).

6. Proprietary McCann-Erickson comparative studies of younger Japanese and European consumers over a period often years; also by Christine Restall, "The New Generation, 1977-1987," McCann-Erickson European Youth Study, 1989.

7. Japanese managers perceived cigarette smoking as a health hazard and unsociable act in business meetings about ten years later than the U.S. By 1987, business meetings in Japan were smoke-free and women were beginning to smoke, following the pattern set in the U.S. In that same year, Turkey was in rapid industrial development, but managers were smoking at their desks and at meetings and women had not yet begun to smoke. By 1994, however, meetings in business and government were becoming smoke-free and women were smoking as the standards of the "belonging" industrialized economics gained acceptance.



One of the most successful of the new global industries catering to women is the body-care industry based on natural herbs and scents. Using a "power of nature" theme, Anita Roddick, founder and chief executive of The Body Shop, has redefined body care and standards of women's beauty. The Body Shop theme is one of lighthearted fun and environmental repair, of political action, and of business social responsibility conjoined to active sensual personal care as an antidote to stress. It was made famous by newspaper publicity, without advertising, which helped Roddick not only in the American market, but in 45 markets in other cultures where the message and appeal of The Body Shop had spread to educated women who share a new self-consciousness and a common set of global concerns.

Natural herbal ingredients is a rich metaphor. It is an attack on the effects of industrial pollution and a magic amulet honoring the natural, renewable world and the source of life. The Body Shop theme of self-care, self-renewal, and environmental renewal is a metaphor for the domestic household writ large - active, informed women protecting their bodies, their children, their pets, and their orderly, frugal households. Animal protection is a beloved piece of the British cultural code. In the U.S., no testing on animals is a metaphor not only for the love of family pets but for protecting the world's endangered species. This theme has been picked up by many American companies that sell to women.

Until recently, The Body Shop stood alone. Roddick is a revolutionary who created a new industry. The established beauty-care industry, which shared a techno-scientific approach that was centered on the masking of women's flaws, was caught off guard by customer response to The Body Shop image. Its leaders were not watching for the changes - inner changes in the perceptions of global customers who want to honor nature in product and practice. Their brand images have been weakened with the entrance of this industry revolutionary, The Body Shop, and its theme of herbal magic - nature's living magic. Well-established and financially able, the industry regulars are now trying to move toward a more natural image. Yet strong new competitors in the herbal and aromatic body-care segment have geared up in the U.S. market. If successful, they can move on to other world markets. Competitors range from Bare Essentials - a firm with a California image that focuses exclusively on the sensual-tactile benefits of massage, to Victoria's Secret and Crabtree and Evelyn - peripheral companies sucked in and stimulated by the arrival of this new industry, to rapidly expanding corporations such as Bath & Body Works and Garden Botanika - each with a slightly different brand icon.


Garden Botanika went public in May of this year. Its well-displayed statement of dedication resembles the now famous, but never clearly articulated, mission of The Body Shop. Garden Botanika states the essential points of The Body Shop mission, but without the urgency and sense of passion associated with Anita Roddick and The Body Shop.

The environmental movement - good works extended to the globe - is not as central in the American cultural code as Christian (puritanical) restraint on sensuality. Garden Botanika takes advantage of mixing the Protestant work ethic with Puritan containment of sensuality, an unexamined major theme in the American hidden cultural code, to focus on a mass market of working women between the ages of 30 and 45. Garden Botanika offers customers the "right" to sensual relaxation for work well done. Its motto is "Indulge your senses - you deserve it." Its image of stress-reducing and guilt-free sensual satisfaction contrasts with The Body Shop theme of sensuality as stress-reducing fun and re-creation of energy to accomplish tasks, a more powerful, but more narrowly upper-middle-class message.

No two competitors can be perceived as identical, and no two competitors can have the same market segment in a specific marketplace. Garden Botanika offers products identical to The Body Shop - shampoo, gels, and lotions arranged in ascending order according to size - but in softer, less riotous colors. The store has testers, choice of perfumes for custom mixing, refills, and only slightly different versions of small scrub and massage items. Yet the small but central symbolic differences can be simply observed in holographic display in every store.


In any particular market, customers can choose a brand only from within the configuration of brand images available in that specific cultural marketplace. The brand image risk in any particular market depends on the entire configuration of images in the market. The whole market alters when even one leading player enters or exits.

The competition between Garden Botanika, The Body Shop, Bath & Body Works, and other emerging players is grouped around one revolutionary idea but is conservatively clustered in the meadow invented by Anita Roddick. Will The Body Shop adapt its singular mission to regain its position as competitors in the U.S. market succeed in winning market segments? What will The Body Shop do if and when competitors move into its global markets?

Customer standards now depend on the filter of the indigenous cultural code and of the world cultural code, with segments cut from demographics - sex, age, social class - and national identity. Each geographic market of The Body Shop has a different combination of local and international myths, themes, and competition. Japanese customers - more concrete than Americans - like the theme of household frugality and neighborhood order embedded in The Body Shop mission of saving the environment. The Body Shop in Japan still refills bottles and endorses neighborhood campaigns. But The Body Shop in the Japanese market is also developing competitors, such as an Australian herbal and aroma body-care company with a brand image that appeals to Japan's older cultural code of rootedness. What will the global beauty and body-care "ballpark" look like in five years?




Natural Ingredients: Hundreds of years of use has proven that natural ingredients are safer, gentler and more effective.

Quality Products: Skin, body, and hair care products that work and work better.

Outstanding Value: Prices far below what you would pay in a department store.

Environmental Responsibility: Recyclable materials and products and practices that respect our planet and conserve its resources.

Minimal Packaging: Only one layer of packaging between the product and the consumer.

Cruelty-free Products: No animal testing and no animal ingredients.

Jeanne Binstock van Rij is managing director of the Lexington, Mass.-based Honeycomb Institute, a group of consultants offering workshops and research to companies that do business in global markets. She formerly served as research director for the Naisbitt Group. She has conducted market research studies in Canada, Japan, Europe, and Turkey.
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Title Annotation:includes case studies
Author:Rij, Jeanne Binstock van
Publication:Strategy & Leadership
Date:Nov 1, 1996
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