In most discussions of visual storytelling, the audience features heavily. After all, you can’t tell a visual story if you don’t know how the visuals are going to be perceived by your audience. In the business world, communications can’t run the risk of alienating their target audience—second chances at messaging are extremely rare.
Localization, or the modulation of your visual storytelling for different regional audiences and cultures, demands a thorough understanding of your audience.
Images Carry Meaning
Start at the best place to start: the beginning. History provides invaluable insights into a culture, so if you’re creating visual storytelling for a culture you don’t know a lot about, get started with some reading. Now, don’t worry—you don’t have to memorize the date the nation was founded, or the birthplace of its most famous leader.
You do, however, need to know if the image of a lion has carried negative connotations for over sixty years due to a tyrant’s use of the symbol.
That’s an image you’re going to avoid.
We could come up with a dozen examples, but let’s just use an American one to make the point.
Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by Joe Rosenthal of American soldiers lifting a flag into place on a Pacific island in World War II, is a great example of an image charged by history.
The story told by the image is multilayered: it’s about camaraderie, about sacrifice, about the individual contributing to a greater ideal. It’s simultaneously very serious and very uplifting. It’s been replicated countless times and praised by presidents.
Can you imagine if someone used this image in their visual storytelling haphazardly—or worse, disrespectfully?
Many Americans would not give them a second chance at promoting their brand. This is why you must study your audience’s history: even if you think you’ve found a visual that will resonate, you won’t know how it will resonate without its historical context in mind.
Historical context creates meaningful empathy for your target audience, allowing you to convey “…the intended meaning [of your visual story] without carrying negative connotations.”
Keep Up on Trends
With the same rationale, explore the pop/current culture of your target audience. “You need to know… what they care about, their preferences, buying patterns, product usage, and hobbies”. If you’ve done your history homework, you might be able to discern which pop-cultural trends are fly-by-night, and which are consistent (the fidget spinner vs. the horror movie, for example).
With an understanding of trends and pop culture, you’ll be able to adjust your visual storytelling.
If your product is aimed at youth, and your target culture’s young people love bowling, you’ll know to set your story in a bowling alley, not an arcade.
Current Events Matter
You’ll also want to stay informed about your target culture’s current events. What kinds of images are dominating their news cycle? This information is vital to ensure you do not make a disastrous misstep in visual storytelling.
Imagine you’ve got a superhero character in your visual marketing story who can jump over buildings. If the marketing material is set to go out in two days, noticing that a natural disaster collapsed a building in your target city will save you from putting this now-painful image in your story.
Bad news isn’t the only kind of news you’ll want to avoid replicating. Imagine your main character wears bright yellow sunglasses. A week before your visual story is set to debut for your target audience, a funny picture of a local celebrity circulates widely—and she’s wearing virtually identical sunglasses.
Now, if you don’t change anything, your audience will think you’re referring to the celebrity photograph, and associate your whole communications effort as a topical reference to that moment. It’ll rapidly become dated and forgotten.
Prevent this by watching your audience’s news, right up until your visual story debuts.
Your Cultural References May Not Resonate
Remember, just because something doesn’t carry negative baggage with your audience doesn’t mean it matters to them, either. In other words, don’t be ethnocentric in your visual choices. Just because an image doesn’t offend your target culture doesn’t mean they’ll care about it, or even know what it’s supposed to mean.
Consider something like the Hoover Dam.
It’s a classic image to Americans, with all sorts of visual messages of innovation and willpower. But does your target audience know that? If they do, will they care? Would you care, if you were them?
That last question might be the best test of the success of your localization that you can run: If you were a member of your target audience, what would this mean to you? Are you employing visual references that only make sense to someone in your own culture?
Learn About Your Target Audience
You’ll only be able to answer these questions with some perspective from your target audience. Do you have colleagues or acquaintances that come from the region? Have you hired local translators? If the communication is important enough, it might even being worth doing some on-the-ground research of your own.
Conduct some focus groups or surveys. Find out if the current iteration of your visual story is functional or missing the mark. “Take in-county feedback very seriously,” and talk with local translators. They’re ready to help localize the spoken content of your storytelling. And they give you a broader understanding of your visual story’s relevance to your target audience.
When in Doubt…
Even without the benefit of research or perspective, there’s one visual storytelling route that’s fairly safe. Use non-verbal storytelling that prominently features happy people.
The human brain seeks out faces and human forms unconsciously. Adding people to your story is a great way to increase engagement. And there’s little on earth more universal and infectious than a smile. Keep out any potentially awkward dialogue, and you’re well on your way to an easily localizable, low-risk visual story.
Here’s another fairly universal way to tell a visual story: emojis. Emojis are a “form of business currency,” Michael Peggs argues. In 2015, Coca-Cola became the first brand to pay for an emoji on Twitter. And the use of emojis has only grown since then. They’re simple and non-verbal, so they’re quickly understood and never blocked by language barriers.
Localizing your Visual Story isn’t as Daunting as it Seems
Some of the best practices for success include historical research, and keeping apprised current trends and news stories. Combine these efforts with perspective gained from locals and the use of near-universal visuals like happy people and emojis, and you should soon have a well-localized visual story.