What’s in a Metaphor? Using images to decode culture

Jul 21 2015

TapestryWorks recently conducted some fascinating research into the meaning of beauty for Muslim women in Indonesia and Malaysia.  The self-funded project looked at the key emotional goals relating to beauty, using our StoryWorks framework and Visual Think Cards, perceptions of local female celebrities in relation to beauty, and an emotional and cultural analysis of how brands are talking about beauty in both markets.

We will be sharing the results with clients and publishing some of the key highlights soon, but one of the major findings is that many local brands are far ahead of global brands in catching the local zeitgeist and communicating messages that resonate with local cultural norms.

Of course, there are important differences between Indonesia and Malaysia as well as some similarities in the emotions and tensions that surround the beauty that women desire. The key common thread is the need to balance self-confidence with the need to feel free and be true to your own identity and values. There are also some important findings in terms of how different beauty products fit with Muslim beliefs.

However, one of the things that fascinated many of those involved in the study was the consistency with which certain images were chosen. TapestryWorks have long believed in the power of visual metaphors to capture some of the deeper associations and emotions we all feel, reflecting the visual (or at least experiential) thinking style of the non-conscious brain and the way that it builds implicit associations between different experiences and sensations and the emotions and goals that drive human behavior.

This is best demonstrated by discussing one specific example from the work in Indonesia.

You can see the image
card reproduced in the article. Why was this image chosen by nearly half of the women we spoke to in Jakarta? The image was chosen across different groups, although more commonly by those who do not wear the hijab.

Some of the comments associated with this image included:
“Every woman is unique”, “Beauty is daring to be different” and
“Beauty is freedom. She is beautiful, but different, because the color is different from the other eggs. If everything in the world is the same, then there is no color.”

Some of these ideas also came out in the Malaysia work too, but the image chosen was different and the tone was different. The image itself is associated with the goal of freedom and specifically the need to feel different, stand out and be noticed. However, in Indonesia there is also a very strong need to be remain part of the group (as in many Asian countries) and therefore the need to feel different is not really associated with ego. Indonesian women do not want to feel that they stand out too much from the group, only enough to be noticed.

So a compromise is to feel slightly different and standout in the crowd, but a crowd that is made up of people who are almost the same as you, only with a slightly different color. This allows you to “stand out from the crowd without being on your own”.

This is something that we found local Indonesian beauty brands understand much better than international brands in the messages they are currently communicating in advertising. Many international messages are very focused on ego and the portrayal of individuals in contexts where they are disconnected from others around them.

By contrast, many local brands understand the need to belong, and while they show women who are fashionable, glamorous and with a distinctive style and color, they portray this in a context where they are surrounded by other people who have their own style and color but never look too different.

This is not the only mistake made by global brands, which often focus on the “science” of beauty, whereas for Indonesians beauty is much more about heart (or art) than science. Another key finding is the importance of natural beauty and the values of nurture and care (good news for some global brands).

“Because I’m worth it”? Perhaps “Because we’re worth it” would be more appropriate. As local brands grow and expand in a hugely important category, perhaps it’s time for global brands to consider how to adapt their messages to better fit with local values.

If you want to know more about using imagery and metaphors in research, or more on the feeling of beauty in Indonesia and Malaysia, please get in touch and we would be happy to share more.

[This article was originally written for Asia Research Magazine.]

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