The power of storytelling in marketing (and the importance of thoughtful localisation)

Recently, we came across an article where two friends were discussing Alfonso Cuarón’s movie, Roma. They were debating the narrative’s pace and style. Friend 1, being an Anglo-American, thought it was too slow, and too visual. Friend 2, felt that it was a beautiful movie that reminded him of his upbringing in Latin America. It became very apparent that this was not only a discussion about just the film but rather, about different styles of storytelling. This exchange is reflective of how culture can impact how people react to a story, not just the content of a plot, but also the style of the narrative storytelling. That minor nuance is significant in films and books, and should be as meaningful in how marketers approach their communication strategies when it comes to marketing to different cultures.

Storytelling is one of the oldest, yet most powerful communication tools we have as humans. Stories help us to share, engage and comprehend in ways few other tools can. In marketing, storytelling provides an avenue to connect to consumers. Brands are empowered to share and sell their values and personality in a form that feels less like advertising and more like a concerted effort to strengthen relationships with customers.

In Andrew Davis’ book Brandscaping, he talks about niche audience targeting, which marketers can interpret as reaching out to certain brand enthusiast groups, but also recognising multicultural audiences as strong niche players. The impact of meaningful, story-centred, culturally niche marketing cannot be overstated.

“What’s really powerful about that is when you stay true to the community and you’re able to bring them along for the journey. Not only do you get them as customers, but what is even more powerful is you get them as advocates,” says Ukonwa Ojo, CMO, Amazon Prime Video & Amazon Studios.

So the biggest marketing challenge nowadays becomes not how do you reach people, but rather how do you connect with them when you do?


Here are three reasons why the importance of storytelling (and cross-cultural storytelling) in marketing is undeniable:


1. Stories shape how people see you

Brand narratives help form perceptions and attitudes, and in turn influence purchase consideration and brand loyalty. Therefore, the power lies in crafting stories that develop a desired identity and authenticity and thus should be at the heart of any brand’s marketing strategy. But how do you ensure that the story remains central when attempting to communicate across borders?

Cross-cultural storytelling is about more than just reaching an international market. It’s about expanding your perspective to strengthen how you connect with different people through empathy and understanding. When you understand multiple perspectives, you are able to create stories that people resonate with and connect to rather than just letting it pass them by. The key then is to find the experts who can craft your story into one that still moves people to action in any language.


2. Stories are tools of power

One of the great things about a strong story is its ability to engross and capture an audience, to draw them in and block out all other noise. Think about the last book you read that you couldn’t put down, or someone telling a captivating story round the dinner table that had you hooked on their every word. A great marketing story can feel the same, it can drown out the world and have you on tenterhooks waiting for the climax to reveal itself.

Take the Patek Philippe luxury watch brand for example, their advert entitled Begin your own Tradition is a perfect example of the use of how to build emotion, drawing you into the story, and keeping you captivated wondering what the final climax will be. Subtly delivered but in no way detracting from the power of the message.

For the consumer, experiencing the value of a product is closely tied to emotional engagement. Consumers need to be drawn into the story and feel like they’ve gained something. They need to identify with a character or the story as a whole in order to envision a product fitting into their lives.

This character and/or story may need to be adapted to meet the needs of your different markets, so don’t be too attached to the details. Focus on the power of the overarching story, the emotion behind it, then make it culturally appropriate and relevant.

McDonald’s has always been particularly adept at understanding cross-cultural nuances. Here is an example of the differences between Facebook advertisements from McDonald’s USA and McDonald’s Guatemala.


Image displaying a Mc Donalds ad in Guatemala


McDonald’s Guatemala is currently promoting meal plans for 4 people or more and their Happy Meal, or Cajita Feliz. This is a young child’s product yet the minimum age to create a Facebook account is 13 years old which tells me that this advertisement is most likely targeted to parents. McDonald’s understands that adults in Guatemala, a collectivist society, are more likely to treat the children in their family to a fast-food meal than themselves.



Image displaying a Mc Donalds ad in USA


In the USA, on the other hand, McDonald’s is promoting a Buy One Get One meal and rewards for downloading their app. As an individualist society, this promotion plays into their need for individual benefits and rewards.

While this is not the most emotive storytelling example, it is however an important comparison to highlight. McDonald’s have been very intentional in understanding the cultural nuances of their target audience and didn’t just merely translate the same ad into a new language.


3. Stories persuade and move people to action

It is scientifically proven that stories are far more impactful in promoting retention and behaviour than practical messaging. As a London School of Business study found, when people hear statistics alone “they retain only 5% to 10%” of what they’ve heard. Yet “when stories are used to convey the same information, retention jumps to a remarkable 65 to 75%”.


Here are some of our rules for persuasive storytelling:


1. Adapt your vocabulary to match your audience

Ensure that you understand the industry and terminology of your audience, as well as the nuances of the market in which they operate. Incorporate these words into your story so your audience can put themselves in it.


2. Appeal to the needs of your audience

You need to know what your audience cares about. Understand what their needs and frustrations are and what’s driving those concerns. Then you can craft your story around solving those pain points.


3. Stay culturally relevant

It’s all very well to have a strong story with the right words, but if any part of your storyline, the characters in it, or even the tone and style you’re using doesn’t match cultural standards or expectations, then your campaign will fall flat.


4. Align your design

The visual elements of your story will add just as much weight to whether your campaign peaks or flops. Symbols, colours, and characters often have different cultural meanings and links in different markets, so be sure that your team is on top of this. You don’t want to waste time and money rolling out a great idea, only to watch it crash because you used an offensive colour.


Remember to always keep in mind that all humans filter and interpret information based on their cultural imprint and personal experience, so ensure that you know who they are and how they may perceive a story. If you are in need of localisation and/or translation services to deliver your powerful story across Europe, then get in touch with us.


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