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What’s the business case for embracing national culture?

This time a year ago David Downs was sitting in a lecture theatre, learning about the insights that researchers have found between the way people make decisions, and their emotions.

This emerging field of study uses brain based insights, often called neuro-economics, to understand behaviour of so called ‘rational’ people. In many ways it’s a field that builds on what marketers, politicians and especially kindergarten teachers have known for years – humans are predominately emotional, not rational.

Sure, we dress up our decisions in neat and tidy logical arguments, we justify our decisions with logic and reason, but what this field tells us is that our initial decisions (our gut reactions if you will) are mostly emotion.

I was thinking of this recently when reflecting on the way New Zealand does (or often doesn’t) use Māori culture as part of our national ‘sales strategy’. In this week, Māori language week, I thought I’d try to apply some of what I learned to flesh out an argument for including Māoridom more in our national storytelling.

This area – telling the New Zealand story more coherently – is something that a cross-organisational team is working on now. It’s a fantastic piece of work that weaves emotion, with fact, to create positive impressions and predisposition for New Zealand, so that our New Zealand businesses (and people, educations institutes, sporting teams etc etc) have what the marketers would call an ‘umbrella’ to work under.  We’re seeing great results and interest from companies who want to use the positivity most people in the world have towards NZ to help them sell.  But does this really help?  Surely if I am buying tapware in a hardware store in Hamburg, I just want to know if the tap works, I don’t care that you come from a country where there are waterfalls, or where the local people welcome you with a fierce challenge.  Or do I?

Conventional economics and business logic would tell you that Value is some function of Price (cost) and Benefit. When I make a decision to buy a new car, I both look at the price of it ($29,000 plus on road costs), and its benefit to me (safer driving, longer life, no more dodgy early morning starts). I weigh up these two factors and based on my estimation, derive a value – if that’s positive, I’m likely to buy it. We could say therefore that Value = β(Benefit) – β(Cost).

But clearly, as anyone who has bought a car knows, there are a large number of other factors at play here too which weigh heavily… will I look cool in it, is it a great colour, is it as nice as my sister’s car she just bought, does the Bluetooth stereo thing pop up the names of the artists. Many factors, most having no relation to the car’s utility, come to bear. Neuro-economics would tell us that people actually make decisions based on those factors FIRST, and then ‘justify’ their decision based on the logical factors.  So Emotion has a role in the Value function too – perhaps Value = β(Benefit) – β(Cost) + β(Emotion).

Only again, modern research in this area tells us this isn’t quite right either. Emotion isn’t equal to other factors; it dominates – in fact it acts as a multiplier. The emerging thinking is that Value = [β(Benefit) – β(Cost)] * β(Emotion). Emotion, when applied to a value decision, amplifies and increases that decision’s importance. Both positive and negative emotions have that result, so a poor emotional experience or reaction will severely affect a buying decision- imagine deciding to eat in restaurant where you had heard a rat had been found last week. That’s not rational – it’s likely they’ve cleaned up, and other restaurants probably have rat issues too, but your emotional brain is much more likely to let the fact that there was a rat influence your decision than the prospect of the delicious food awaiting you.

Which brings me to the relevance of this to Māori Language week, and māoritanga in general – adding national culture adds emotion. Inevitably. People showing emotion and pride in their country, celebrating traditions and uniqueness, brings significance and meaning to an event and has the power to evoke an emotional response.  NZ’s indigenous Māori culture is something unique and special about NZ, and thanks to some clever storytelling, and to traditions like the haka performed before All Black test matches, has started to catch the world’s attention and interest.  I get many questions and lots of interest about this aspect of New Zealand when I travel and promote NZ products and services – a common question is ‘why don’t you talk more about your national culture?’.

If you are a New Zealand business or even just someone travelling abroad, try it for yourself. Add some aspect of the New Zealand’s emotional arsenal to your storytelling – say ‘Kia Ora’ to someone, and then explain that you are saying that you see their life spirit.  Add some aspect of Māoridom to your product or marketing approach, use the New Zealand story in your own storytelling, and see what impact it has. The Value others derive will be enhanced by adding Emotion to Price and Benefit – and you’ll also be enhancing the whole New Zealand story as you do it.

Kia kaha, kia maia, kia manawanui.

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