Culture is not a myth

Every culture has myths and mythical heroes that it holds close to its collective heart. In the US, for example, we have several core myths that shape our national psyche:

  • Pioneer – the idea of going beyond the horizon and searching for personal fulfillment or achievement has fueled generations of entrepreneurs and innovators; hence, the reason that the US, for so long, led the way in new company startups and new technology.
  • Anyone can be president – all US schoolchildren are taught that any one of us could someday be the president, if we only strive high enough and work hard enough; in other words, we are all equal in the beginning and any change in that status comes from our own initiative.
  • Melting pot – the idea that we, as a nation, are homogeneous at most levels, after you strip away language or religion differences.

Marketers frequently try to tap into collective myths when developing a brand; witness the long-term success of the Trump empire or (before smoking bans) of the Marlboro man. This is an easier task when you are working within your own culture, since you intrinsically understand the underlying myths. However, when developing international marketing communications, it becomes critical to understand the myths embedded in the target market.

Cayla and Arnould (2008) offer the following myth characteristics to consider when examining a new market:

  1. A myth is a foundational story (or system of stories) perceived to be historic, involving time-proven truths. Most religious constructs have an element of myth to them, such as the trials of Job.
  2. Myths are anonymous and shared; to survive, they must be continuously re-told through generations; for example, the unjustly persecuted being restored to their rightful place, a theme in numerous fairy tales such as Cinderella or Snow White.
  3. Myths integrate social groups by proposing meaning for social life and outlining appropriate modes of conduct; again, the idea that anyone can achieve greatness through hard work means figures like Thomas Edison (and the stories of his countless failures before he had success) are taught to every schoolchild.
  4. People regard myths as compelling and, to the extent that mythical heroes can be emulated, believable. Superman may be fantastical as presented, but the main idea of a gentle good person rising up to perform heroic deeds when the situation requires it is something that most people can find believable.
  5. The heroes who populate myths tend to shorn of psychological complexity and nuance, incorporating powerful forces. For example, consider Dirty Harry and his quest to save the innocent even to the point of being merciless to the evil.
  6. Myths are made dynamic by compelling binaries: good and evil, life and death, day and night, and so on. For example, the male/female binary is central to the Goth consumer subculture.

Another culture’s myths are not always easy to discern. And the road to understanding them may seem far away from normal marketing activities, e.g. studying religions, watching films, or reading fairy tales. However, since myths are so central to understanding what a culture holds dear, a smart marketer should be willing to invest some time in developing this understanding.

References:

Cayla, J. & Arnould, E. (2008). “A cultural approach to branding in the cultural marketplace.” Journal of International Marketing. 16 (4), pp. 86-112.

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