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Looking past the screen: the influence of culture and representation in streaming media

23rd Mar 2023

Looking past the screen: the influence of culture and representation in streaming media 

Streaming platforms have reached almost every corner of the planet, with global investment in streaming content having more than doubled since 2017 and is estimated to reach over $60 billion by 2024.

As this industry grows at a rapid pace, consumer numbers have reached impressive levels across the globe. With such a diverse and varied consumer base, the importance of representation and DEI in this industry is necessary now more than ever. 

Global streaming media has to navigate a tricky path to remain globally appealing whilst connecting with large audiences across different cultures and regions. This can be achieved by setting aside your own perspective or bias on what would be successful, to make content more relatable to a broader audience.

In this article we will take a look at how streaming platforms not only tap into and influence culture, but how they can capitalise on culture to develop a deeper understanding of local market needs and audiences through cultural understanding, sensitivity and adaptability. These terms are no longer just tick box exercises or bonuses to a global business, but are essential tools to gain a commercial advantage, help create deeper connections with your target market and provide long term growth.

Embracing and championing multiculturalism

Our perceptions of others and ourselves can be influenced by what we see on television, movies and other digital platforms. Having accurate, authentic representation on screen is essential. You can inspire an audience, break down barriers and expose new ideas or customs to the world. Embracing and championing multiculturalism on and off screen is crucial to educate the world and help magnify the voices of the underrepresented. Multiple studies have shown that having a diverse cast and production team will help increase reach and revenue globally. By addressing on and off screen inequalities, the film industry could reap an additional $10 billion in annual revenue.

Brands like Disney are travelling the world, immersing themselves in new cultures and nations, in an effort to expose children to a variety of cultures and positively influence diversity through a child’s perception. The South-Eastern Asian cultures represented in Raya and the Last Dragon included Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Disney Pixar’s Coco is another great example of this; the animated film centres around the cultural traditions of Día de los Muertos. Viewers learn about Mexican culture while also enjoying the storyline and vivid animation. Coco is also the first film with a nine-figure budget to feature an all-Latinx principal cast and grossed $797 million at box office.

Another example is the ground-breaking film Black Panther. It is proof that the public will support films featuring a diverse cast on and off screen, as it surpassed Titanic to become the third most successful film of all time in American history.

This shows that employing diverse storytellers, actors, directors, and producers all working together both on and off screen can produce effective outcomes that resonate with global audiences.

Sourcing local talent to gain global reach

There is no denying the massive influence innovations like the internet and streaming platforms have had across the world. Corporations like Netflix and Amazon are well known for their in-house production of content for their platforms. This means running production and film sets across the globe, which can bring up some logistical and cultural challenges.

It’s not always immediately obvious to consumers where the inspiration for a film script or series comes from. One of the issues with having global reach for these platforms, is importing content from other countries, regions and cultures that have nothing to do with the country they’ve been imported into. This ‘white washing’ has caused a backlash and many countries have started to insist on having local productions and film sets that employ localised talent.

Australia was one the first countries to implement a quota for nationals’ production in streaming services that were looking to expand their business in the country. The European Union implemented similar legislation for the same purposes. One reason to shift to this internal business model is to promote and create the visibility of local producers, actors and shows.

After this push back Netflix began investing in local productions all across the world and the risk paid off. For example, the Korean series “Squid Game” was a massive hit globally, one of the first fully Korean productions to hit such heights. Investment for the production came from both Netflix and the South Korean government. In recent years, the South Korean government has been heavily investing in culture exportation, one aspect of that is a partnership with Netflix to promote South Korean film and TV productions. This opens the eyes of the world to different languages, customs, actors, directors and producers.

Another great example is “Dark”, a German TV series that had a completely local production crew from writers through to runners. The German speaking series was another great success for Netflix, receiving some of the top reviews possible across IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes, proving again that this process of sourcing local talent to gain a global reach works.

Understanding local cultural differences to gain a competitive advantage

Across the globe audiences enjoy different types of content according to where they live and the cultures that surround them. Brands can leverage local cultural preferences to engage with new audiences and create deeper cultural connections, by showing the similarities rather than the differences between cultures.

For instance, the Brazilian passion for football is known worldwide. Over the last decade sports streaming platforms have been working hard to tap into this vibrant sporting culture, with an aim to bring in other international sports such as NBA and NFL.

When Band, a Brazilian free-to-air television network, gained the rights to air the NBA, it decided that rather than competing for dominance with the nation’s favourite game, it would use the country’s love of football to its own advantage. Fans Will Be Fans, created by FCB Brazil, São Paulo, aimed to attract football lovers to discover the joys of basketball by highlighting similarities between the sports.

FCB/SIX, FCB’s creative data subsidiary, analysed data from Brazilian football teams and NBA franchises to draw interesting parallels. They then used this information to deliver contextual ads to football fans based on the content they were viewing, to show football lovers that they could fall in love with the NBA for all the same reasons. For example, those viewing an article about the Brazilian national football champions would be served an ad featuring the NBA champions, highlighting that they had the same team colour.

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​​​​The campaign reached over 60 million people on social media, and the most recent NBA season received a 16% increase in ratings compared with the previous season. In a 2022 survey, 45% of Brazilian adults stated they are now avid or casual NBA fans. This strategy shows a practical use of cultural understanding and semiotics within a targeted social media campaign.

How culture can influence business revenue

The soft power and influence of the entertainment industry has become more prominent in recent years. Movies and TV shows directly impact pop culture but not only that, they can affect consumer behaviour too. From outfits to travel, what is seen or sold on screen usually finds its buyer.

For example, New Zealand. Someone may have had no interest in visiting until they found out Lord of the Rings was filmed there. Tourist numbers shot up 40% in the five years after the first LOTR film was released. By 2018, 3.6 million people, the equivalent of three-quarters of the population of New Zealand, have visited the country every year. Today tourism is the nation’s biggest export industry, bringing in NZ$39.1 billion annually and employing one in seven New Zealanders.

This effect can also be seen in purchasing  trends, the 80’s comeback brought on by the popularity of “Stranger Things” is one example, but also the impressive purchase rate of chess boards after the success of “The Queen Gambit”. In the three weeks after the show premiered, unit sales of chess sets jumped 87% in the U.S. and chess book sales rose an eye-popping 603%.

This soft power influence can even be seen with multi billion dollar businesses such as Formula 1. Having gained a significant amount of public attention and audience growth since the first “Drive to Survive” season on Netflix. The popularity for the launch was so large that streaming queues were experienced in the United States, which is a first for Netflix in that territory. The dollar figure has climbed from a respectable US$1.15 billion in 2020 to US$2.14 billion in 2021 (+86%).

Culture’s influence is everywhere and affects everything, even through streaming platforms. It’s more than just nationality or geographic location, it’s about ideas, customs and behaviours that fundamentally connect everyone. This is crystal clear when you look at the impact pop culture or subcultures can have worldwide.

The success behind global brands like Netflix or Amazon not only lies in their product innovations, but with the captivated audiences subscribing to their streaming platforms. Creating content that connects with a global audience is  challenging, but by placing diversity and audience insights at the core of their research and writing processes, these platforms can drive audience engagement, content relevance and help manoeuvre past any potential pitfalls through cultural understanding.

Without these local audience insights, brands like Netflix and Amazon are taking a massive gamble on each multi-million production, without truly understanding if the final product will resonate or land with it’s targeted audience.

Harnessing the power of local relevance to drive global success can be achieved by cracking the cultural code that’s within an audience is vital to identifying who they are, what drives them and how to create an emotional connection with a brand or even a TV series. Tapping into these cultural drivers and understanding local market needs ahead or production or release is essential for any global brand or a brand with global aspirations to be able to truly connect with a worldwide audience. 

If you’d like to learn more about local market insight and how culture can work for you visit our insights page.

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