Playing up to national stereotypes in brand marketing

Joe Cox discusses how best to judge the portrayal of nationality when it comes to promoting your product.

It’s hard to downplay the role of stereotyping in any marketing campaign. Market segmentation, which is crucial to identifying and understanding target audience and consumers, is essentially the practice of lumping individuals into groups based on their geography, demography, behaviour or culture (to name but a few).

In this article I want to look at the role of national stereotyping, not from the perspective of market segmentation, but from its direct use in marketing content itself. We’ll look at the risks involved in this approach, as well as exploring some examples of companies who have pulled it off. Before all of that though, it’s worth explaining the ‘country of origin effect’.

The country of origin effect

The country of origin effect is how people tend to view products produced in countries other than their own and how preconceived notions about these countries affect perceptions of the product in question. Think Germany and you think of reliability. Think Japan and you think of technical innovation in electronics. Think France and, let’s be frank, you think of good wine. Although variables like age and education can and do play a role, the country of origin effect on consumer behaviour has been studied a great deal by marketers and does play a significant role.

Consider this popular joke:

Heaven is where the cooks are French, the police are British, the mechanics are German, the lovers are Italian and everything is organised by the Swiss.

Hell is where the cooks are British, the police are German, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss, and everything is organised by the Italians.

Whether you find any truth in this or not, it’s likely that the national stereotype you’ll least associate with is that of your own country. But gaining an understanding of how others view your country and its culture and people is an incredibly powerful asset if you’re marketing your products to consumers in foreign countries who may well appreciate those kind of stereotypes (it’s certainly a lot safer than playing up to national stereotypes that aren’t yours anyway).

Understand your brand, understand your marketing

The success of using national stereotypes in your advertising and marketing is ultimately dependent on your brand or product at the end of the day. If you can’t naturally see any national or cultural connotations to your product or service, it’s probably wise not to force it and to leave this kind of strategy alone, for the time being at least (a future change in corporate direction or target market may predicate a later change in approach).

If the brand or product fits then playing off a carefully chosen national stereotype, if you can do it well, has the potential to deliver a great deal of success to your marketing and could be instrumental in defining an enduring brand image. Of course, get it wrong and it could result in an unmitigated PR disaster.

The line of acceptability

Knowing where the line of what is acceptable and what is not largely comes down to the possession of two distinct qualities.

The first is an appreciation of the sensibilities of your target audience. Remember of course, that in any online space your content could in theory reach a global audience and so this comes with a strong caveat that must see you extend an appreciation of cultural boundaries and stereotypes at a more universal level. It goes without saying that the ability to differentiate between harmless national clichés (such as those in the joke above) and damaging racial slurs is crucial and yet, it’s amazing how huge organisations like Intel and VW still manage to get this so wrong.

The second is understanding the power of satire and subtlety. Satire can employ techniques such as irony, sarcasm or even ridicule but it is always with the express intention of exposing folly in some form or another. In that sense satire maintains a sense of moral superiority over blunt caricature. These might seem like abstract distinctions but they are important to understand if you are to differentiate between what could be viewed as a crude generalisation or debasement and a witty insight that has a sense of self awareness. If you think that you might not be able to tell the difference then it’s best to stop right now.

Success stories

Welsh price comparison site Gocompare.com have play marvellously on their national roots in both their previous and recent advertising campaigns. The first features an omnipresent opera singer (playing up to the national stereotype of the Welsh as good singers) whilst the most recent adverts send up the perception of the Welsh language as impenetrable with excessively long and hard to pronounce words (watch out for the sign in the opening shot).

Galaxy chocolate’s sublime use of CGI to bring a young and radiant Audrey Hepburn back to life plays off of a very clichéd scene that could be set anywhere in Southern France or Italy, with continental tempers on display as bus driver and fruit stall salesman argue over a spillage that’s blocking the road. The scene is so nostalgic that it’s easy to not take in this national stereotyping as the romantic scene between the CGI Hepburn and her new found chauffeur plays out to the soundtrack of ‘Moon River’.

 

Continuing the continental theme, you may fondly remember the advert from Stella Artois that perfectly played on an idyllic and unmistakably French pastoral scene. Again, nothing but romantic sentimentalism comes through from this display and the advert was perfectly targeted to a UK audience in thrall to Peter Mayle’s autobiography ‘A Year in Provence’ and the miniseries made off the back of it.

Stella Artois’s quintessentially French advertising has continued unabated, paying homage to a whole range of Gallic stereotypes. Following in its footsteps, Kronenbourg’s adverts, featuring an incredulous looking Eric Cantona (with, it has to be said, faultless comic timing), plays on Footballer as well as French stereotypes.

 

Walking the line of acceptability

Understanding what makes these advertising campaigns successful is crucial if you are to have any success in creating marketing that successfully utilises or plays up to national or cultural clichés. The first thing to be aware of is how subtle or benign the stereotyping is in all these examples; at times almost buried behind things going on in the foreground, or simply drenched in nostalgia or sentimentalism. Both drive home a sense of national identity that could be seen as charmingly idiosyncratic or steeped in a whimsical regional romanticism and none of the humour is cutting or derisive.

Another similarity is that in every case the companies are sending up their own nations (or at least those of their products). This takes us back to the country of origin effect and how important it is in understanding how this plays into consumer behaviour (you might not want to portray a laid back relaxed bucolic lifestyle if you’re a management consultancy, but if you’re selling beer, well that’s a whole other matter).

The trick when using humour is to learn to walk the fine line between acceptability and offence and appreciating exactly where one ends and one begins in the eyes of your target demographic. A word of warning though: unlike Intel and VW who have very deep pockets and loyal customer bases, the risks to a young startup in getting this kind of thing wrong could prove disastrous.

Joe Cox is Head of Content for Bristol based digital marketing agency Bespoke Digital.

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