Quick Read: If ‘brand’ is a story and if ‘we’ constitute a culture, interesting things begin to happen when a culture seeks a story or when a story seeks a culture – all in that classic quest for resonance.
When a Culture Seeks Out a Story
Rovaniemi – is a Christmas lover’s dream. It is a Finnish town that has – over the years – established itself as the home of Santa Claus. This sleepy town of around 60,000 inhabitants manages to attract over 500,000 visitors annually from all over the world all seeking the story of Santa Claus, or in other words the experience of the brand Santa Claus.
It has the Santa’s office where people queue up for a brief 3 minute meeting with him, Santa’s post office that receives a flood of letters from all around the world addressed to “Santa Claus, Lapland”, the Santa’s official elves and you get the drift – essentially the entire Christmas package that you could ever ask for.
While this could constitute a fascinating case study in itself about the power of an iconic brand as an enduring story, the last 18 – 24 months have seen an interesting phenomenon emerge.
Let’s start with the letters. The Santa’s post office is said to have received upwards of 500,000 letters in 2018. Till 2017, most of the letters used to come from the UK. But now China is said to be way ahead. Apparently the Post Office is said to have received more than 100,000 letters from China alone last year. (source)
Now the visitors. By some accounts in 2017 alone, close to 580,000 visitors flew into Rovaniemi (double the number in 2010) and much of that growth is said to be driven by visitors from China. In fact as per this article..
Now, just about everywhere in Rovaniemi accepts Alipay, Alibaba Group’s mobile payment system, which is also available on Finnair flights from seven Chinese cities to Helsinki. …At (hotels) you can pay in Alipay and communicate with reception using WeChat, the ubiquitous Chinese social media/messaging service.
Now this is the interesting thing.
Christmas is not an official holiday in mainland China, and has in fact increasingly been banned in various cities in recent years. On Dec. 15 2018, security officials in Langfang, a city in Hebei province, issued a notice prohibiting the display of Christmas materials and spreading of “religious propaganda” in public areas including schools and plazas. The notice also warned against selling Christmas products and instructed local workers to ensure a “healthy and orderly environment” during the Christmas period. One city even said it would fine individuals caught selling or making fake snow. (more on that here)
But Chinese visitors and letters addressed to Santa from China constitute the majority. Why?
Most Chinese children may not be fully aware of Christmas’s religious background nor of China’s complicated relationship to the holiday. But the story of Santa Claus and Christmas – the universal values of generosity, hope, and gratitude, could be what’s driving them to write to Santa Claus or visit the town of Rovaniemi.
In many ways this phenomenon could be said to be the classic example of a ‘culture’ seeking out a ‘story’.
Nothing represents this sentiment better than the following lines from a letter written by a 19 year Chinese girl to Santa (as quoted in this article)
“In China, we don’t have Christmas, and family is more important than gifts,” she wrote in both English and Chinese. ”But you know, one small present can mean so much to a child, and bring so much happiness. Although you don’t really exist, kindness does. In my heart, you represent kindness.”
When a Story Seeks Out a Culture
If you are not a parent, let me quickly get you up to speed on Peppa.
Peppa Pig is a British preschool animated character that has spawned a multi billion dollar worth empire of TV series, toys, books, films, theme parks, merchandise and even video games. Each day this muddy puddle loving pre-school character has been winning legions of little fans from all over the world.
In 2018 Peppa’s memes were banned from social media platforms by Beijing. So its chances looked dicey in China.
Well that was till early this month.
By mid January 2019, Peppa Pig has been experiencing a huge boost to its popularity in China after the runaway success of a trailer released to promote a Peppa Pig film.In fact the trailer’s Mandarin hashtag #WhatisPeppa had been viewed more than 1.45bn times on popular microblogging platform Sina Weibo and the official video had garnered hundreds of millions of views across various streaming platforms. (source)
This short video, co-produced by Canadian media group Entertainment One and China’s Alibaba Pictures story has supposedly found its best resonance with the Chinese audience given the timing of its release – the Chinese New Year marking the start of the year of the Pig – and for realistically depicting how societal changes such as urbanization and generational culture gaps have had an impact on Chinese families.
Given this, the short video makes for an uplifting story of the potential that could be unlocked when we have a story that successfully seeks cultural resonance.
Now Try This Exercise
Think of a phenomenon gone viral or a campaign that back fired. And for each such example that comes to your mind:
- Identify if the brand or the central theme has a clear story to tell, a positioning that it seeks to carve out in people’s minds with a clear and a consistent narrative. Is it coherent or half baked? Is that rooted/ does it seek to root itself in the zeitgeist of the times or does it look like it is pushing its luck by tapping into a topical trend?
- Now, look at the recipients of the story (or sometimes the seekers of the story). Is there a tenet that unifies them – a common characteristic, a cultural theme that binds them? Can there be a common story that could appeal to this culture? Or is the underlying cultural theme too fragmented or too nuanced that no single story could have a satisfying chance to resonate with it?
Chances are that, a successful campaigns/ popular phenomena would always be rooted in strong stories appealing to strong cultural themes or the other way round. Have either one of these stand on weak or flimsy grounds you have a recipe for a backfire.
[Featured Image: Peppa and Her Family Dress up as Santa Claus for Christmas, Video thumbnail]