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'Principal Narratives'​: How foreign Brands must Navigate China

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

This article by Holger E. Metzger appeared orginally in "WARC Exclusive, Spotlight China", in December 2020.

Why a carefully crafted and customer-aligned Brand Narrative matters:

Marketers need to continuously remind themselves that the messaging is always less important than the recipient’s interpretation of it.

This is especially true for foreign brands trying to make headway in the rapidly changing culture of an evolving China.

Key Takeaways:

  • Decode your Chinese target audience’s 'Principal Narrative', with a key focus on personal and cultural dimensions

  • Pin-point role and meaning of your product and brand within that Principal Narrative

  • Choose a key narrative theme within the Principal Narrative that is most relevant to your product/brand’s role, ‘over-frame’ with your brand’s unqiue POV

The quest for Chinese consumers’ hearts and Alipay digital wallets has become increasingly difficult for foreign brands, and it won't be gettin easier any time soon.

It is always easy to blame cut-throat competition from an increasing number of hyper-agile local start-ups, the death of brand loyalty and marketers drowning in descriptive but insight-free data.

Those issues do exist, but the bigger problem is the failure of foreign brands to emotionally connect with consumers in the first place.

To be able to connect with people's perceptions and emotions, you need to thoroughly understand their perceptions: how people see themselves today, within their immediate cultural context and as an active participant of a fast-evolving society.

Given the tremendous transformations China has undergone in the last couple of decades, foreign brands must be aware of a precarious line between the ‘old’ versus the ‘new’, and between notions of backwardness versus modernity and feelings of past humiliation versus hard-won dignity.

A surprising number of foreign brand marketers appear to be unaware of that line, very few know how to navigate it (and, contrary to expectations, it does't matter whether your brand team is Chinese or foreign, it's a typical 'we are a foreign/global brand' mindset).

Brands that have recently found themselves on the wrong side of this intangible line – only to suffer tangibly damaging consequences – include, for instance, Coach’s perceived ‘tasteless farmer’ campaign with Jeremy Lin and Balenciaga’s retro images that evoked ‘uncomfortable’ and even ‘offensive’ feelings among some Chinese audiences.

Some analysts consider such reactions as overblown, fuelled by ‘politically charged nationalism’ and thus beyond any brand’s control. In my opinion, the real and underlying issue is not a conveniently politicised label.

Foreign brands seeking success in China today must first figure out their specific target audience’s national, cultural and personal sense of identity. They must first decode what I call their underlying ‘Principal Narrative’.

Let’s first define what ‘narrative’ is: narrative does not simply describe an idea, it shows people how to understand and identify with it. Narrative is about meaning and context, it’s the ‘frame of truth’ that evokes (positive or negative) emotions, it forms perceptions and conclusions. An individual’s Principal Narrative feeds his or her Sense of Identity, as it is the lens through which people understand not only the world but themselves.

Narrative is not ‘Story’

There is a crucial difference between the two: story carries information to gain attention, to engage and entertain. Almost all brand communication campaigns are by their very approach and design a ‘story’ construct, and ‘storytelling’ has become de rigueur for marketers as a better means of connecting with and influencing the consumer.

It is people’s own 'Principal Narrative' that enables them to read and judge those brand stories’ meaning and relevance to their personal lives. Principal Narrative is the soil, the cultural context and the individual’s identity; his or her state of mind and orientation within it. Brand Stories, in contrast, are seeds that loudly clamour and compete for a place of acceptance and nurture within that soil.

The problem is that many marketers place almost exclusive focus on the brand story, either unaware of their audience’s Principal Narrative, or are without the means to decode and apply it to their brand-building efforts.

The result is often a brand story that uses communication elements (often generic clichés and stereotypes) seen by the audience through a narrative frame different from that of brand story crafter, and that’s when brand story elements may easily collide with certain dimensions of the audience’s own narrative dimensions.

The 2018 Dolce & Gabbana campaign used an inherently flawed narrative lens, one that epitomised the brand’s sexist, racist and cultural arrogance, demonstrating an almost wilful ignorance of their Chinese audience’s Principal Narrative on all dimensions. People felt insulted personally, culturally and as a nation.

There are typically three dimensions within an audience’s Principal Narrative:

  1. The Personal Narrative: The internal emotional tensions and needs that directly impact the way we look at ourselves, our lives and position in this world. Here lies our core narrative frame.

  2. The Cultural Narrative: Living within our specific cultural and social contexts we constantly adopt external narrative elements, often unconsciously. Those elements shape and strengthen our Personal Narratives and may sometimes even give cause for a slight re-adjustment.

  3. The National Narrative: Nationalist sentiments run strong among citizens whose nation has almost magically improved everyone’s lives and attained global superpower status. This national narrative is typically communicated by official media, adding an additional layer to the Cultural Narrative.

When foreign brands decode a specific Chinese target audience’s Principal Narrative, the focus should be on the Personal and Cultural Narrative dimensions. Then they should integrate those insights into their brand stories so that the recipients of their brand messages may decode those as personally relevant via the first and dominating ‘perception filter’ – the Personal Narrative dimension.

The National Narrative is not as ‘active’ as the other two and for most, it only activates when prompted, such as by (perceived) insults. It is relatively rare for foreign brands to collide with the Chinese National Narrative, as Daimler did in early 2018 with a Dalai Lama quote in an Instagram campaign, or when Dior had to apologize in 2019 for not including Taiwan in a map of China.

While it shouldn’t be difficult to navigate political and national sensitivities, marketers need to continuously remind themselves that the messaging is less important than the recipient’s interpretation of it.

The earlier mentioned Coach and Balenciaga campaigns collided with people’s Personal and Cultural Narrative frames: both brands ignored how Chinese consumers have been and still are on a constant personal quest to upgrade their lives, how they view themselves in terms of what they have ‘left behind’ versus the ‘new lives’ they have been arduously and successfully building for themselves. And why that really, really matters to them.

Does that mean that a brand story must exclusively focus on the target consumer’s own narrative and ignore its own, unique and differentiating story elements?

Of course not.

The brand’s own compelling story and the audience’s inherent narrative should engage, impact and enhance each other: via what I call ‘Narrative Over-framing’.

This is how it works:

  1. Decode your target audience’s persoanl narratives, focusing mainly on the Personal and Cultural Narrative dimensions.

  2. Pin-point the role and meaning of your product, category or brand within that Principal Narrative.

  3. If Steps 1 and 2 have been done correctly, this is your high-powered strategic and creative ‘playing field’: then you choose a key narrative theme within the Principal Narrative, one most relevant to your product/brand’s role, and ‘over-frame’ it with your brand’s specific point of view on that theme. The Principal Narrative remains intact, there is no ‘collision’, but your brand story adds additional or even new meaning and repositions your brand to be its most appealing agent.

Here is an example of how two Chinese beauty brands understand and activate Principal Narratives frames among young women who struggle with society’s demands on them, and how each brand carves out its unique brand story angle on a relatively similar theme.

The female beauty brands Prochoin 百雀羚 and Chando 自然堂 communicate in their recent campaigns a theme along the lines of “Be yourself, the original version of you is beautiful!”. This connects with a prevailing personal narrative and need for “I want to be seen as beautiful because I am who I am, and not because I’m trying to be someone others want me to be...” among young Chinese women entering society.

The respective brand story angles are clearly different, though:

The Chando campaign focuses on the message of “maintain your inherent passion and goals, don’t let society force you to be someone you dislike”.

It deploys pop cultural metaphors and stereotypes in a visually creative fashion, it activates the underlying cultural or contextual narrative dimension of the roles people play to conform, earn respect, seek shortcuts, take or even avoid responsibility.

The personal narrative dimension is the emotional conflict of the young Chinese woman who is pressured to adapt to society versus her need to be acknowledged for who she is, her natural strength, skills – and, yes, her natural beauty.

This is a strongly resonating message, creatively and smartly articulated, it captures the prevailing narrative on both personal and cultural context dimensions, addressing specific emotional needs.

The Prochoin campaign also riffs on society’s expectations of Chinese women and what they are ‘supposed to do’: what to study, how to prepare for the dating game, how to be a beautiful wife and career woman at the same time, and so on. She must show her best and most beautiful side, in every different role, every minute of the day.

Prochoin recognises the strong emotional tension of this underlying Principal Narrative among their target audience, but the brand deals with it not by suggesting how to escape the pressure – women know they must face those expectations, it’s an accepted part of their own Narrative – but by encouraging her to reframe those challenges via a mindset that preserves her youthful ‘original self’ while navigating life’s ups and downs. It feeds into the young Chinese woman’s Personal Narrative today, that is nurturing her independent ability, strength and courage to face life’s (painful) demands while figuring out how to maintain and ‘look’ her original self.

These are campaigns that foreign brands can learn from. Demonstrating how a thorough understanding of your audience’s Principal Narrative ‘frees’ you to develop a brand story that not only avoids collision and damage, but one that truly connects with Chinese consumers in an emotionally relevant and persuasive way.

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