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Why the ethnoscape is where brands need to live

ake a stroll down Sandringham Road in Auckland and then cross the bridge to Northcross. If you didn’t know better, you would think you were in two completely different cities. The languages spoken, what the shops are selling, the street signs and the faces you see on the street will all be completely different. The block of shops between Halesowen Ave and Haverstock Rd in Sandringham has been dubbed Auckland’s ‘Little India’, whereas Northcross has a thriving Korean community.

Auckland is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world. We’re more diverse than London or New York, with 39 percent of the population born overseas. We also have a relatively relaxed and non-interventionist approach to planning, and one of the consequences of this is that Auckland is a city of ethnoscapes.

The term ‘ethnoscape’ – coined by Arjun Appadurai, an anthropologist at the New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development – describes “the landscape of persons who constitute the shifting world in which we live: tourists, migrants, refugees, exiles, guestworkers and other moving groups and persons”, and by implication, the phenomena associated with them. Ethnoscapes allow us to recognise that our notions of space, place and community have become much more complex than they were 20 years ago.

Now, take a look around your office. If it’s a marketing department or comms agency, the chances are it does not reflect Auckland’s great cultural diversity. Like Auckland’s neighbourhoods, professions have their own ethnoscapes. And although things are changing, many marketing departments are still likely to reflect a primarily European face.

Does it matter? Of course it does. Understanding culture matters in marketing because it is culture that influences purchasing decisions. 

Looking at the ‘whole of life’

But how do you understand a culture if you’re not part of the ethnoscape? Sovereign Insurance, one of New Zealand’s leading insurers, have had the foresight to pose this question. Their market was changing, but their industry conventions were not. They knew they needed to change in order to become more relevant to the millennial generation, but they also knew that 8.8 percent of Aucklanders are Chinese and another 7.9 percent are Indian – it was key that Sovereign could speak with this large segment of the population in a way that was meaningful to them.

Unless Sovereign developed an extensive cultural understanding of these groups, their relevance problem with millennials would only grow with Auckland’s changing cultural landscape. Sovereign briefed TRA to provide an ethnographic and anthropological understanding of millennials in general, and also of Chinese millennials in particular.

TRA’s cultural team decided to deliberately contrast the two groups – Kiwi and Chinese-born millennials. This approach would of course give an in-depth understanding of both groups. But the process of contrasting also heightens awareness of the cultural differences in the two groups, and at the same time shows which values are similar – useful for bringing marketing teams outside the ethnoscape up to speed quickly. TRA’s cultural team used a ‘whole of life’ approach which looked not only at cultural influences, but also at social and individual influences. Culture is, of course, not the only variable at play in purchase decisions.

But knowing culture’s impact is important, because culture influences purchasing decisions sometimes but not others. Knowing when and where it will influence is vital for marketing and communications decisions. When will culture-based messages be most effective, and when should you take a broad approach?

A recent study by Stanford University set out to understand where culture matters in marketing messaging. Researchers exposed different cultures to different types of messaging for the same product and assessed when culturally-based messages were most effective.

Culture-based differences show up when information is processed in a cursory and spontaneous manner – like with billboards and banner ads. But when people are more thoughtful in their deliberations – for example, web-based research – culture has a much lower impact. This is because when pressured to form a quick judgment, we generally rely on cultural norms as a default. But when making a thoughtful deliberation, we’re more likely to engage in an internal debate and waver. Our social or personal biases come to the fore.

Capitalising on cultural cues

Combining Stanford University’s findings with what we know about how advertising works shows us that culture matters enormously. Emotive advertising that is processed in a non-rational way is more effective than that which requires deliberation. And this is where cultural cues can influence. 

Having used a cultural, social and individual framework for the Sovereign research, we were not surprised by Stanford’s findings. Chinese millennials have been raised and educated in a different cultural value system than Kiwi millennials – one with greater respect for hierarchy, authority and filial piety. Chinese millennials also tend to be more future- orientated, with a stronger savings and investment mindset than their Kiwi counterparts. Reciprocity in business relationships is highly valued, so emotive messaging and explicit cultural cues around these values naturally carries greater weight.

As well as having different cultural values to Kiwi millennials, Chinese millennials’ shorter time in New Zealand also means they have different social influences. Doctors, networking groups, and family mentors are all very influential – particularly when it comes to more highly researched purchasing decisions.

We can use this information to plan out not only how to use cultural messaging in communications but also how to influence people throughout the entire path to purchase – when rational communications become more important. Armed with this information, Sovereign has been able to take a more nuanced approach to its marketing.

Knowing how to use cultural cues should be part of every marketer’s toolbox. It requires getting outside your own ethnoscape to understand others, then using that understanding to communicate where and when it will be most effective.

Karin Glucina is a business director at TRA.  
This article first appeared in Issue 02 of TRA’s Frame magazineTo subscribe to the future issues of the magazine, please email [email protected].
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