The Branded Mind

The Branded Mind

By Erik du Plessis

Chapter 14: Social Systems and Culture

When we use the terms ‘the French’, ‘the British’, ‘the Irish’ and so on as generalizations we often mean a group of people with a preponderance of a certain personality type. Even when we talk about subcultures like ‘accountants’, ‘soccer fans’, ‘youth’ and so on we are talking about a group of people who are seen to have similar personalities. These are generalizations, but most people know what you are talking about. With culture being related to dominant personalities, and personalities to types of dominant moods, we can easily use culture as part of the feelings schema.

The neuro-basis of culture

It is obvious that a person’s culture is one of the ‘background feelings’ that Damasio talks about. Marketers have been aware of this, and it would be a surprise if a trace of this was not found by neurologists.

Another piece of the brain puzzle that has recently emerged from brain imaging is that we possess an ‘empathy circuit’. Several books on this topic have appeared recently. I recommend Making Up the Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World (2007) by Chris Frith, a professor in neuro-psychology at the Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London. This is an easy-to-understand, well-written book. Neuroimaging has determined which areas of the brain light up when a person experiences pain. The surprise is that when we observe somebody else experiencing pain the same areas light up in our brains. But, you might say, you don’t jump around in pain when someone else burns him- or herself. Frith explains:

How is this possible? How can I experience what you are feeling? We can answer this question by looking at precisely which areas light up in the brain during empathy. As we have seen, activity in some brain areas relates to the physical aspects of the pain: how hot the rod is, or where it is touching you. These areas don’t light up when you know that someone else is in pain. Activity in other areas relates to your mental experience of the pain. These areas do light up in response to someone else’s pain. So what we can share is the mental experience of the pain, not its physical aspect. These brain areas also become active when you anticipate pain, if you know that 5 seconds after hearing a tone you will be touched by the hot rod. If you can anticipate the pain that you will feel, is it so difficult to anticipate the pain that someone else will feel? Of course we can’t experience the physical sensations that impinge on others. But we can construct the mental models based on these stimuli. It is because we make mental models of the physical world that we can share our experiences in the mental world.

Frith also reports that in conversations not only will areas in our brain that reflect the other person’s movements light up, but we would often emulate the other person’s body behaviour.

Whilst neuro-imaging results are very modern, the phenomenon of empathy was an important issue for Charles Darwin in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, another easy-to-read book:

There are other actions which are commonly performed under certain circumstances, independently of habit, and which seem to be due to imitation or some sort of sympathy. Thus persons cutting anything with a pair of scissors may be seen to move their jaws simultaneously with the blades of the scissors. Children learning to write often twist about their tongues as their fingers move, in a ridiculous fashion. When a public singer suddenly becomes a little hoarse, many of those present may be heard, as I have been assured by a gentleman on whom I can rely, to clear their throats; but here habit probably comes into play, as we clear our own throats under similar circumstances. I have also been told that at leaping matches, as the performer makes his spring, many of the spectators, generally men and boys, move their feet; but here again habit probably comes into play, for it is very doubtful whether women would thus act.

(Darwin, 2006 [1872])

Why do we have an empathy circuit in the brain?

For a good discussion about this system in the brain (note that it is not a unique system, but rather the ability to use a system we use for our own movements also to mirror the movements of others) see McGovern (in Baars and Gage, 2007). This discusses not only the neurological evidence and the parts of the brain involved, but also some of the evolutionary reasons for this system to exist.

According to McGovern (in Baars and Gage, 2007), the first reason is learning from peers. It is assumed that emulating the behaviour of their parents using neuronal systems that would produce a similar outcome is part of the way that infants learn from their peers. Thus, by emulating (say) the sounds of their parents and then the words of their parents children learn language.

Second is intention detection. This is where things become very interesting. It would appear that we are not merely mirroring the actions of others, but even deducing from this what they intend to do. This comes into the area that cognitive psychologists term ‘a theory of mind’, which roughly reduces to the fact that each of us assumes that other people have minds, and we each have a theory of how their minds work.

Based on this we can then try to deduce what they will do next. In rough terms this means that when we see someone reach for a cup on a table we not only mirror the movement of their arms, but also make suppositions about why they are doing this: to drink water from the cup, to clear the table of the leftovers from lunch, or to throw the cup at us in anger. To survive it is very important to know what others will do.

The best model we have of what others will do is ourselves. So, if our neuro-circuitry allows us to ‘feel’ what others feel or, rather, interpret how we would feel if we were them, then we can also know what we would do – and this is what we assume they would do.

From a brand perspective it is easy to see how, if I see somebody who is thirsty and I know Evian water would make me feel better had I been thirsty, I would offer him or her some Evian water. If, in my culture, I would feel honoured should somebody offer me the finest ground maize meal and I want to honour you, I would offer you my finest ground maize meal.

One can easily understand why tribes would do battle. We see people from a different tribe near our cattle and assume that they want to steal the cattle because that is what we would have done with their cattle. They, on the other hand, assume that we will attack them to defend our cattle and therefore they hit us before we hit them.


South Africa has a history of racism – which is prejudice. I have always been interested in how prejudice works and what the neurological foundation of prejudice is. Frith (2007) has the following to say about prejudice:

  • ‘Making guesses about what people are like before we have information about them is prejudging them. It is prejudice. Prejudice might be a dirty word these days, but it is in fact crucial for our brains to function.’
  • ‘We are innately predisposed to prejudice. All our social interactions begin with prejudice. The content of these prejudices has been acquired through our interactions with friends and acquaintances and through hearsay. I talk differently with my work colleagues than with non-scientists at a party.’
  • ‘Our prejudices begin with stereotypes. The first clue I can get about the likely knowledge and behavior of someone I know nothing about is from their gender. Even children as young as 3 have already acquired this prejudice. They expect boys to play with trucks and girls to become nurses.’
  • ‘Social stereotypes provide the starting point for our interactions with people we don’t know.’

The important point here is not that having prejudices and stereotyping people are innate, but that they are beneficial for survival and social interactions. This stereotyping of people may lead to socially unacceptable behaviour. What is ‘unacceptable behaviour’ is determined by the culture itself.

Frith explains that communication is more than just speaking: ‘I don’t just choose my words because of what they mean; I choose my words to suit the person I am talking to’; ‘The more I talk to someone, the better an idea I get of what words will suit – just as I get a better idea of how to perceive the world around me the more I look at it.’ These two sentences I would consider to be the best rationale for marketers doing market research, not only when they are moving between cultures, but also inside their own countries and the subcultures that exist there. It is necessary to identify these subcultures (via segmentation studies).

The marketing error resulting from the empathy system

The marketing revolution (if there was one) came about when businesses learned that it is not enough just to produce a better mousetrap, but that it is necessary to produce what the market wants. If, in my nearly 40 years in marketing, I had received $10 for each time brand managers had explained to me why their brand is better than all the others on the market and that the consumer is an idiot, I would have been very wealthy.

The problem is that brand managers often use their empathy circuits. They assume that consumers are like them and will feel the same about the brand’s benefits as they do. A similar mistake made by advertising agencies is that they assume the audience for their advertisement will feel the same as they do after viewing it. It really becomes irritating, after a pre-test, when explaining to the management team what the consumer said about the advertisement and someone chirps up that the respondents are obviously idiots.

Teaching feelings

This empathy circuit works very well when people have a lot in common. The more they have in common the more accurate they will be in their guess about what the other person will do. Unfortunately the less they have in common the more they are going to be wrong. Since nobody is exactly the same as anybody else this system has big opportunities for misunderstandings and is not as efficient for survival as it sounds. Humans have a unique ability to learn from communication by others. Frith explains not only how this works but tells the neuroimaging that supports his views:

This sharing of experience is not just words. When I tell you of my experience, your brain will change as if you had had that same experience. We can show this using Pavlov’s technique of conditioning. One such paradigm is fear conditioning. Whenever you receive a painful shock there will be an increase in activity in many brain regions. In Pavlov’s terms, the shock is the unconditioned stimulus and brain activity is the unconditioned response. No learning is involved. A painful shock causes these changes in brain and body the very first time we experience it. In the fear-conditioning paradigm a visual cue (a red square, the conditioned stimulus) is presented on a screen just before the shock. After the experience of several such pairings between the red square and the shock, the subject, whether a rat or a human volunteer, will start responding to the red square with fear. One aspect of this fear response is increased activity in the amygdala. The fear associated with the shock has become attached to this arbitrary visual cue.

But there is another way of attaching fear to the red square. This method works only in human volunteers. I tell new, inexperienced volunteers that the red square will be followed by a shock. Before being told this, they show no fear responses to the red square. After being told, they immediately show fear responses to the red square, including activity in the amygdala. My experience that the red square will be followed by a painful shock has created fear in another person’s brain.

(Frith, 2007)

This explains how a lot of advertising works. The advertiser does not have to work just with the existing knowledge structures of consumers, but also creates new knowledge structures. I see people in the advertisements using the brand to generate certain feelings, and I actually feel the feeling. But, if I had no knowledge to use, there would be physical changes in my brain that, like the red square, make me feel the feeling.

What is culture?

For all species it is important for their survival to know how to interact with others of their own species and with other species. It is important either to live as a social group or not. They must know not to eat their own kind. If they are a group they must know the social hierarchy of the group. Sometimes they must have sympathy with other members of the group.

A society is a population of humans characterized by patterns of relationships between individuals that share a distinctive culture and/or institutions. More broadly, a society is an economic, social and industrial infrastructure, made up of a varied multitude of people. Members of a society may be from different ethnic groups. A society may be a particular ethnic group, such as the Saxons, a nation state, such as Bhutan, or a broader cultural group, such as a Western society.

(Wikipedia, ‘Society’)

It is doubtful that one’s culture is caused by the structures of the brain. It is more likely that different human cultures have similarly constructed brains but have learned to use them in different ways. For example, all humans have a language centre in their brain, but they speak different languages. People’s feelings are strongly determined by their culture – and what might appear as rational behaviour for one person might appear to be very irrational to another. Once again we are looking at something that might appear to be non-rational but has a great effect on the rational output of the brain.

Cultures are internally affected by both forces encouraging change and forces resisting change. These forces are related to both social structures and natural events, and are involved in the perpetuation of cultural ideas and practices within current structures, which themselves are subject to change.

Social conflict and the development of technologies can produce changes within a society by altering social dynamics and promoting new cultural models, and spurring or enabling generative action.

These social shifts may accompany ideological shifts and other types of cultural change. For example, the U.S. feminist movement involved new practices that produced a shift in gender relations, altering both gender and economic structures.

Environmental conditions may also enter as factors. For example, after tropical forests returned at the end of the last ice age, plants suitable for domestication were available, leading to the invention of agriculture, which in turn brought about many cultural innovations and shifts in social dynamics.

(Wikipedia, ‘Culture’)

Let us consider the above comment about the feminist movement in the United States.

In Africa men pay lobola to the bride’s family when they marry. Generally this is in the form of cows. Traditionally this was because the bride’s kraal was losing someone who contributed to the harvest and other hard work, while the groom’s kraal gained a pair of hands. However, this system also leads to the groom feeling that he has paid for the bride and she is now his property. The lobola system is often blamed for female abuse.

In India marriages are often still arranged. I have heard an anthropologist explain a Lux soap campaign in India, where the bride moves into the groom’s household and becomes her mother-in-law’s helper with house chores. Because of the extended family situation she will have little privacy and very few ‘moments of her own’. One very treasured moment of her own would be when she is taking her bath. The Lux campaign capitalized on this.

The impact of this basic cultural difference has a significant impact on how brands can be promoted in these cultures.

When marketers and researchers talk about culture they often use Hofstede’s classification system, probably because no other generalized classification system has really been offered by market researchers.

Hofstede has found five dimensions of culture in his study of national work related values:

Low vs. high power distance – the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.

Individualism vs. collectivism – individualism is contrasted with collectivism, and refers to the extent to which people are expected to stand up for themselves and to choose their own affiliations, or alternatively act predominantly as a member of a life-long group or organization.

Masculinity vs. femininity – refers to the value placed on traditionally male or female values (as understood in most Western cultures). So called ‘masculine’ cultures value competitiveness, assertiveness, ambition, and the accumulation of wealth and material possessions, whereas feminine cultures place more value on relationships and quality of life.

Uncertainty avoidance – reflects the extent to which members of a society attempt to cope with anxiety by minimizing uncertainty. Cultures that scored high in uncertainty avoidance prefer rules (eg about religion and food) and structured circumstances, and employees tend to remain longer with their present employer.

Long vs. short term orientation – describes a society’s ‘time horizon’, or the importance attached to the future versus the past and present. In long term oriented societies, values include persistence (perseverance), ordering relationships by status, thrift, and having a sense of shame; in short term oriented societies, values include normative statements, personal steadiness and stability, protecting one’s face, respect for tradition, and reciprocation of greetings, favors, and gifts.

These cultural differences describe averages or tendencies and not characteristics of individuals. A Japanese person for example can have a very low ‘uncertainty avoidance’ compared to a Filipino even though their ‘national’ cultures point strongly in a different direction. Consequently, a country’s scores should not be interpreted as deterministic.

(Wikipedia, ‘Geert Hofstede’)

Hofstede analysed country cultures of IBM employees. Marketers are very aware of subcultures and that people inside a society can associate themselves with many subcultures, and that we all have some preconceptions about these cultures. As a simple exercise think of two groups in your society: say motor bikers and accountants (I chose these because they are not mutually exclusive). Now rate them on the five dimensions above.

Hofstede said: ‘Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster.’ His work is the only descriptive segmentation of cultures that I am aware of.

One of the main criticisms of the work is that it assumes that country and culture are the same thing, ie it ignores cultural typologies inside countries.

What makes it useful for marketers is that the descriptions of the cultures allow one to generate hypotheses about what the differences in appropriate communication styles (and brand positioning) might be.

One would expect that major marketers should be embarking on multi-country segmentation studies as a basis for how they can position brands in different countries. Such a study will have to be driven by sociologists.

I was involved in an interesting study for Coca-Cola. They had worked out what the international position for one of their brands should be and then did a lot of research in different countries to find the best way of expressing this position. As one would have expected they needed to change the positioning statement several times to find one that is workable in most countries, and then the execution was dramatically different between the US and Chinese cultures despite projecting the same positioning.

Culture and time

Culture, when we consider it at a meta-level such as country or religion, is not something that changes dramatically over time, certainly not with the frequency with which people have mood swings or become hungry and then sated. Because this is often the level at which we consider culture I have shown it to be, like personality, something that affects the consumer now, in the near future and for a long time.

When we start to consider culture at a micro-level then it is obvious that people might change between subcultures rather rapidly: you might be an accountant when among fellow accountants, but then adopt the Hells Angels culture when you drive home on your Harley. However, even at a micro-level the cultures we adopt are fairly constant. The Hells Angels culture remains similar between the times you adopt it, or even between countries.


Probably the most distinctive part of culture is language. Generally the definition that people use when they identify a culture in everyday language is the language that a group of people speak.

Because people’s growing up, learning and social interactions all happen in a specific language, and because they probably think in that language, the language itself has a great influence on marketing and research. I told the following story in The Advertised Mind (2005), but it really demonstrates the problem with culture and languages.

‘Black people see fewer colours than whites’

Back in the 1970s South African Breweries used a well-known psychological researcher to conduct focus groups for a label change. In his report he mentioned that he suspected black people see fewer colours than whites. South African Breweries approached me to see whether I could find a way to verify empirically this very unlikely hypothesis.

It was only a few weeks later, when my wife and I were discussing the redecoration of our living room, that I realized what the problem was. She was using terms like ‘maroon’ and ‘beige’. These words do not exist in Afrikaans (my home language), and we would normally just use the Afrikaans words for ‘yellow or brownish’ and ‘dark purple’ to talk about these colours. In many cases we would simply use the English word, if it came to mind.

This means that, when I speak about these things (in a focus group conducted in Afrikaans, for instance), I will tend not to use these words. When the focus group is conducted in English and the respondents tend to think in Afrikaans and translate their thoughts into English when they speak the same will happen. To the moderator it might sound as if they do not know the colours or, worse, do not even see them. Whoever interprets the research could be forgiven for thinking I don’t see these colours.

How big is the problem?

Webster’s English Dictionary is several inches thick, compared to the Zulu dictionary, which is only one inch. There are many more feeling words in English than in Zulu. Does this mean that English-speaking people have many more feelings than Zulus?

Now consider that the ‘advances’ in language happen mostly when there are technological advances. The smaller language will tend to adopt the English word. The Zulus solved this problem by adding an ‘i’ as a prefix to the English word.
Hence ‘i-taxi’, ‘i-cup’, ‘i-tea’ and ‘i-stopstreet’ are valid Zulu words. This means that there is much less space for confusion.

However, there are not many new feelings discovered these days. This means that the languages are all using the original word for a specific feeling, and their translation for it. This means that there is a much bigger chance of misinterpretations.

The problem is big not only because of the paucity of some languages to describe feelings, but also because of the size of the non-English-speaking market in the world.

Table 14.1 shows the percentage of different countries’ populations who speak English as a first language, or as an additional language (often a third language). Out of the 6.7 billion people on earth only 1.1 billion speak English (17.7 per cent). This is made up of only 331 million people who speak English as a first language, and 812 million who speak English as a second language. It might be that English is the language of business across the world, but it definitely is not the language of the consumer! Even among the 20 countries that have the most English speakers, there are many where English is a very small proportion of the country’s population. I was surprised to learn that Nigeria has more English-speaking people than the United Kingdom, although it is mostly only as a second language. Now consider how many cultures there are in the UK, all speaking some form of English. Even jokes do not travel across the United Kingdom.

Table 14.1 Top 19 English-speaking countries


Percentage English speakers


Total English speakers

As first language

As an additional language

United States


















United Kingdom






















































South Africa










































Note: List in order of total English speakers.
Source: Wikipedia, ‘List of countries by English-speaking population’.

Oatley and Jenkins’s view about culture and emotions

I show the conclusions that Oatley and Jenkins (1996) come to here because I believe they have got it mostly right:

Emotions are strongly affected by cultural ideas.

In Western culture emotion is rather distrusted, as compared with reason; but at the same time it is valued as the basis of authenticity.

We can recognize our own cultural ideas more acutely by making comparisons, both with historical materials, and with contemporary cultures.

Historically we in the West still seem to be living in an age of romanticism, which has lasted nearly 250 years. As compared with many other cultures worldwide, present-day Euro-American culture is strikingly different in its emphasis on the autonomy of the individual, and on the individual’s rights. In such a culture emotions like anger occur at the infringement of such rights.

By contrast many other societies, including Japan, see the social group as the basis of selfhood. They define themselves in terms of duties, and of ‘We’ rather than ‘I’, and some emotions of togetherness are hypercognized.

Many cultures stress how emotions mediate relationships – probably Westerners believe this too because we know that love, happiness, sadness, anger, all tend to concern our relations with others. But our emphasis on individuality makes us also believe that emotions are individual states.

Testing the bases of cultural differences is not easy. Certainly the value placed on different emotions, the situations that cause emotions, the names for emotions, and the extensiveness of the vocabulary of emotions, all vary cross-culturally.

The question of how far emotions are universal and how far they are socially constructed by cultures is more difficult. Passionate love, for instance, seems to occur in many cultures. Our own Western culture has a form of it which is not only distinctive, but has particular functions just in our kind of society.

(Oatley and Jenkins, 1996)

This explains very clearly why we should study the effects of culture in this book: culture affects our emotions, even to the extent that we express them and admit to having them.

Oatley and Jenkins also discuss the problems that you encounter when you want to do research about feelings as they relate to your brand and your advertising. First you need a working theory on what emotions, moods, personality and so on are and then how these are affected by culture:

One of the unresolved issues in emotion research is what emotions are made up of.

One view is that they are made up of components that are not themselves emotions, such as appraisals and pieces of expression. If this were the case it would help understand how different cultures prioritize and name different bundles of such components.

The other view is that there is a small set of biologically given basic emotions, and that these are elaborated by culture to produce the large set of emotions that people experience.

(Oatley and Jenkins, 1996)

The global brand

In 1983 Theodore Levitt published a paper that became famous, ‘The globalization of markets’, in the Harvard Business Review. In essence he argued that the world is becoming flat and that the future of brands lies in globalization. Pankaj Gemawat of the Harvard Business School referred to this as ‘globaloney’, writing: ‘It took Coke the better part of a decade to figure out that globaloney and its strategic implications were hazards to its health – in the course of which its market value declined by about $100 billion, or more than 40% from its peak’ (in Hollis, 2008). One might argue that that was 1980 and now is 30 years later, with the internet happening in between.

Since 1998 WPP has conducted a worldwide survey for its constituent companies every year based on the Millward Brown BrandDynamics model. This measures the extent to which consumers are bonded to a brand.

Nigel Hollis, Millward Brown’s Chief Global Analyst, analysed the 2008 database to identify which brands have truly succeeded in becoming global, and also what strategies worked for them. He calculated a ‘global brand power score’. The highest scores were for Pampers (42.8), Nokia (37.5) and Microsoft (33.0). One can see already how big the distance is between even the top three brands. Among the top 25 brands is Toyota (number 21, with a score of 7.5), HP (number 22, score 7.5) and Vodafone (number 23, score 7.0).

Hollis’s book The Global Brand (2008) is highly recommended, because it analyses the problems that brands have when they attempt to cross country borders, shows how few are really successful and also makes many suggestions as to what should (not) be done.

Culture is much more than countries

Whilst a lot of my examples here relate to countries, we must be aware that cultures stretch deeper than countries, and culture can be across many countries. Certainly some cultural aspects will transcend different countries, not only in terms of language or religion but in many other respects (level of development, dress code, freedom of personal expression, etc). On the other hand, inside countries there will be many local cultures based on a multitude of things. We mentioned accountants and Hells Angels, but the list goes on and on.

One might have thought that the internet and television would have homogenized cultures. They appear to be doing the opposite in many ways. Subcultures are arising via the social media, and these are seldom bound by physical boundaries to any specific region. The internet has opened new potential disasters for marketers. Different internet social groups might adopt or knock a brand and have an effect on other groups, and this might easily spread worldwide. Certainly the internet messages are not limited to the brand’s area of distribution, and therefore damage cannot be contained to a region.

Bio-measures and culture

I am not aware of any neuroscience that indicates differences in brain structures based on cultural differences (even for different nationalities). Because culture does not change while bio-measures are taken techniques that rely on measuring change (EEG) will not measure it directly. This is especially true when comparing Hells Angels and accountants!

However, since our culture has a strong effect on our emotions EEG will measure whether there is an emotional reaction to a stimulus. But, as for many of the background feelings’ effects on emotions, one will have to rely on introspective questions to determine the reason for the emotional reaction as well as its valence.

Let us go back to the example of South African biltong (dried meat). Hypothetically, one might get a strong positive emotion from a South African, a strong negative emotional reaction from a Brit, and a neutral reaction from an American (used to jerky). If one was basing your advertising campaign purely on EEG measures of emotional reactions you might conclude that you are getting a reaction from South Africans and Brits and can use the campaign in both countries.

Chapter 14 from The Branded Mind: What Neuroscience Really Tells us About the Puzzle of the Brain and the Brand, by Erik du Plessis, published March 2011 by Kogan Page. Copyright 2011 by Erik du Plessis. Reproduced by permission of Kogan Page. Click here to purchase book.

Copyright © 2011. All rights reserved.

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