This case study explores how a set of cultural codes that TNS Qualitative developed can surface cultural differences, and guide brand communications. We focus on a contrast between the US and China to help explain what the codes mean at a general level. Then we look at how Nike (a characteristically US brand) has managed to align itself to UK, Indian and Chinese cultures through brand advertising.

Brands lost in translation

Delivering a global proposition in a way that resonates locally is one of the most important and toughest challenges in marketing. Globalisation means that brands seek growth by stretching across geographies. At the same time consumers expect brands to be more sensitive and 'speak their language' as never before. Aligning a global proposition to local requirements is fraught with difficulty. Partly this is because of organisation issues. But it is also because the problem of cultural difference is veiled, misunderstood and under-estimated.

It can seem that nowadays, because everyone wears the same clothes, drinks the same coffee and uses the same computers, we are all converging. And in some ways we are. Yet each culture frames its implicit presumption about what life is, what it's for, and how people should orientate themselves to it. It then instils these presumptions into their children. These deep differences are not going to disappear any time soon.

Yet while we all have hunches and feelings about cultural difference, we often don't have the language for it, beyond the standard, superficial and sometimes offensive stereotypes. All of which makes it hard to talk about and harder to analyse.

The Ideal Man: A new tool for cultural alignment

The Ideal Man is a framework of qualitative codes that characterise the ways different cultures construct their 'Ideal Man'.

Each culture has its own set of interlocking ideas about what a man should be. Because these ideas need to be coherent with each other, each society evolves its own unique 'cultural logic'. We un-wrap this logic by a process of analysis, built around a series of deep questions drawn from Sociology and Social Anthropology which each culture answers in its own unique and characteristic ways.

The questions we ask are: How is he (the Ideal) embedded in society, i.e. what are the deepest values that describe his orientation to others around him, and them to him? What is his modus operandi, i.e. what does his 'embeddedness' mean about how he should operate in the world. What is his purpose of life? What kind of knowledge and skills are particularly honoured? How is he distinguished from women? And what characterises his engagement with other men?

In the following section we describe how the American Ideal Man contrasts with the Chinese. We then give a summary of the US, Chinese, Indian and British codes ('codes' = answers to the question). And from this we discuss four Nike ads, one from each market, to illustrate the way Nike and its agency Wieden+Kennedy have worked to align the core proposition to the distinct markets.

The grid below lays out the summary codes for China, USA, UK and India.

American Ideal versus Chinese Ideal

By looking a little more deeply at what the codes reflect in China and the US, we can better understand the challenge Nike addresses in those two markets.

When we look at the core 'Embeddedness' code in the US, we have identified what we term 'Righteous Purpose'. What do we mean by that? The cultural codes describe tendencies which have arisen over the course of history. To understand them we need to look back in time.

From the Pilgrim Fathers to the opening up of the West, the US has been powered by a sense of Righteous Purpose, a journey to the Promised Land and on to the American Dream. Narratives framed by Righteous Purpose pervade American life at every level. It has had masterful exponents in Washington, Lincoln, JFK, Martin Luther King, Ronald Reagan and now with Obama. Today it explains the shrill polarisation of right and left as each side claims 'righteousness' to the exclusion of the other. But not just there: if one looks across American culture we can see it being expressed in its heroes from Dirty Harry to Superman.

Righteous Purpose is not naïve or innocent. It comes with a hard edge, the requirement to 'do what is necessary' to achieve that purpose. That can mean the necessity to take life. All societies justify violence but the gun has a special place in America because it is aligned to particularly central