Creating emotion-driven marketing campaigns across cultures

Posted: 11 Sep 2023

Marketers are well-versed in using emotion to convey a message—but does that emotional knowledge differ when our marketing spans multiple cultures?

When done right, the ability to harness universal emotions can build a hugely positive relationship with customers, but getting it right is no mean feat. If done distastefully, it can leave a brand open to major scrutiny.

In this article, we will discuss the power emotions have in international marketing, explore the seven ‘cross-cultural emotions’, and how you can use these emotions to connect with diverse audiences.

Aren’t emotions universal? How can they be different in different cultures?

Global marketers want consumers to feel positively towards their brand, no matter where they are in the world. Given that humans are emotional beings, it’s no surprise that we tend to respond well to emotionally provoking ads.

Similarly, advertisements that engage our emotions have higher conversion rates and do better at building brand loyalty. Campaigns that appeal to the human aspect of a product or service will most likely resonate with the consumer far more than those which simply push a hard sell. This in itself may sound obvious, but achieving this across diverse audiences is notoriously difficult.

Batja Mesquita, a pioneer in cultural psychology, has been researching the role of culture in our emotional lives for decades. When it comes to emotions and how they manifest themselves in different cultures, she believes:

“We don’t really know discrete emotions when we are born; we only distinguish between pleasant and unpleasant. In interacting with others, we learn to categorize and experience emotions in certain ways. People in different cultures acquire different emotions. For example, people in many Western contexts may think of shame as a bad emotion. But shame is considered a good emotion in other cultures—it is in one category with modesty and embarrassment and these feelings show that you have propriety, that you know your place in the world.” 

Essentially, this means that the same emotion may be perceived differently in different cultures. It’s this deeper understanding which can properly inform a brand about how best to use universal emotions to connect with global audiences. Experts have also developed ways to classify cultures, and by understanding their differences, we can better understand how our emotions are likely to present themselves. To learn more about this, read our recent blog Global marketing + cultural classifications = success.

How emotions can be used successfully in global marketing campaigns

There are many classifications of what can be determined as universal or cross-cultural emotions, but American psychologist, Paul Ekman, determined that there are seven basic human emotions that are universal. These are anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise.

After researching and reviewing facial expressions in both eastern and western cultures, these seven emotions were the most universal and readable expressions across the board.

However, how these common emotions manifest themselves in different cultures varies and it’s this variation that is crucial for marketers to understand. Proper research should always be conducted on a country-by-country basis to convert emotional responses into effective global marketing. Brands should try to align themselves with the deeper motivations of their consumers—always being aware that these may change across cultures.

For example, in some cultures, standing out from the crowd is something to celebrate, so you might consider demonstrating the uniqueness of your product or service and how it will make the customer feel unique. Another culture might place value on being seen as highly successful in life, in which case you may want to consider how you are adding value to or enriching their current lifestyle. Other emotional desires include the need to feel secure and to belong. In such instances, your campaigns could then focus on togetherness or affiliation. The same emotions exist in all cultures, but how they trigger purchase decisions varies—crucial to grasp for successful marketing.

Additionally, not every culture has the same view on emotions and how they are communicated. Masculine cultures, for instance, believe public displays of emotion are inappropriate, whereas in other cultures it may be acceptable. Best practice is to research these nuances to determine how emotions differ in terms of intensity, appraisal, experience and display in each culture.

Emotion can be a powerful way to engage a global market, however, emotional displays may not resonate in every culture, so research is always key.

Adapting marketing messages for emotional appeal

As we know, messages must connect emotionally with customers, but to do that effectively, the local culture has to be properly understood.

As an example, an advert for life insurance depicted a man being asked by his wife of many years ‘Who are you?’ This devastating portrayal of a happy life being forgotten due to dementia evoked happiness and positivity when shown in Indonesia. Their emotions were sparked by the love story that was brought to life. It hit viewers so emotionally that it was shared across the world.

Similarly, an award-winning advert ‘Father Lie’ (also shown in Indonesia) was also meant to evoke feelings of love and pride. Instead, the advert – which depicted a dad lying to his daughter to protect her from knowing about his sorry situation – came across as devastating and sad. The subtleties of emotions and how they are perceived can have a staggering impact on how marketing messages are received.

In Japan, where emotions are tied much more to logic and understanding rather than raw reactions, a series of successful life insurance adverts followed a Japanese man through his life from his twenties to his eighties focusing on the rewards of investing in life insurance early. This logic worked well in Japan, where raw emotion, the likes of which worked well in the Indonesian example, would not have been as effective in this market.

These contrasting examples show how, by having a deep understanding of how emotional responses differ across cultures, marketers can be far more successful when tapping into these powerful purchase drivers. Getting it wrong can have significant impacts for global marketers. Getting it right, however, can capture emotions and brand loyalty from all four corners of the globe.

We’ve created a free-to-download guide to support your next steps in multilingual marketing campaigns. It’s packed with tips and advice!

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