What is a universal human truth?

by Nigel Hollis | January 18, 2016

Last week, I wrote about the video ‘Dear Brother’ and was very tempted to state that the reason for its success was that it touched on a universal human truth, but then I realized that I was not sure what the definition of a human truth really was. Googling the words did not help much either. So how about developing a definition here?

The phrase ‘universal human truth’ is most often heard in marketing in the context of global branding, where the accepted wisdom is that your brand’s positioning should be based on a motivation that transcends cultural boundaries. Strangely, when I wrote The Global Brand I seem to have avoided using the phrase, perhaps reflecting my uncertainty about its definition.

You could argue that a universal human truth is an oxymoron since truth is definitely not universal. What is true to one person may not be true to another. However, maybe that is the point. When we refer to a universal human truth we are talking about things that motivate people irrespective of experience or belief: consistent psychological and social qualities that motivate humankind.

Universal Truth

Of the two qualities, psychological and social, I suspect that the psychological are more consistent on a global basis. In The Global Brand I noted that motivations transcend culture, referencing work by Doctors Curtis and Aunger of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Motivations reflect goal-oriented behavior, for instance hunger will cause people to seek out something to eat.

But does that mean that if you market a food brand that you should ensure that your brand is salient as a means to satisfy hunger? Any food is going to be able to satisfy hunger, so now we need consider how it satisfies hunger relative to the alternatives. Is it more enjoyable or more satisfying? And here we run head on into the issue of local tastes. For instance, many Brits love the savory taste of Marmite, but some do not, and most Americans loath it. The brand’s “Love It or Hate It” campaign works well to remind people of their affection in the UK but would just trigger instinctive negativity in the USA.

The challenge of finding something universally motivating is exacerbated when you start considering social qualities. All too many global brands seem to run into the same problem: what seems universal often turns out not to be so. Dove ran into this problem when the idea of real beauty failed to resonate in China in the same way that it did in the West.

These ponderings have left me more confused than when I started. Is ’universal human truth’ an oxymoron? Even if it is not, how many universal qualities are there that marketers can tap into effectively? Might marketers be better off simply going with something superficial? Please share your thoughts. 

15 comments

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  1. Archie Bomecca Bey Harris., November 03, 2018
    Whenever we are trying to define "Truth," the "Sun," is the number one thing we should consider as an example. It is a fact that the sun is where it is but it is not the truth that its there. Fact is predicated upon evidence but the truth is based an existence that cannot be seen with human eyes. God is spirit but the physical world only serves to let us know that God exists.
  2. Subhendu Das, June 23, 2016

    Laws of nature are the only truths. Therefore truth must be unique and universal. That means, what is true on USA must be true in China, what is true on earth must be true on mars etc. Truth also means if it was true million years back then it is true now, and will remain true million years from now.   

    Laws of nature are created by the objects of nature and their characteristics. Nature also has the unique property that it always demonstrates its truths. Thus to learn about the truth you must observe the nature, just like Galileo did. This means you cannot create truth using some math sitting in your home. Similarly, you cannot also create truth using some experiments in an isolated and controlled environment inside a lab.   

    Vedas describe such universal truths: Soul Theory, yoga, yogic meditation, yogic powers, reincarnation, destiny, birth-maturity-death of all objects, eternal recurrence, memory in the nature, etc. All of the modern religions, including Bible, Judaism, etc. describe them also. There was a time when Vedas were known all over the world. For more on universal truths take a look at https://theoryofsouls.wordpress.com/

  3. Vic Davies, January 20, 2016
    How much is truth defined by culture ? And how much is culture defined by media content? Was late 20th century global culture and therefore its reflection as truth proscribed by cinema film ? And  has the arrival of the web as a distruptive force disjointed that idea of culture and therefore ofa universal truth? Try researching the concept of thin and thick cultures, something your Marmite and Dove stories might relate to.
  4. Nigel, January 20, 2016

    Wow! That question certainly evoked more comments than I expected. Thank you.

    I particularly like Dave's idea that a universal truth is one that we can all recognize and relate to. It echoes my thoughts about experience in an earlier post. Many of Dominic's examples could also be experienced as common experiences and, of course, experience leads to emotion, as Gordon notes. However, maybe the real issue with a universal truth is that the cues or prompts that evoke specific emotions are going to vary dramatically by culture?I am not sure how many universal prompts that there are and don't I remember that happiness is the only positive motivation that we all share? Mmm...

  5. Gordon, January 19, 2016

    Combining some of the thoughts already expressed I would build this from emotions upwards.  We know that we are all (universally) hardwired to move towards certain things - food, sex, warmth and to move away from others - risk of pain, injury, death.  And we know that there are half a dozen universally measurable facial responses that indicate sadness, joy, disgust etc which suggests that the movement towards and away can be built into  more compound emotions (universally).

    Many of the things that create these emotions will be culturally specific, but there is also strong evidence that there are universal prompts for these emotions.  These prompts will be directly physical as above ( avoid pain) but because we are social animals there are correlates of the physical in our social world.  So we will seek to avoid social pain and discomfort.  We want to be loved.  We want to live long and happy lives.  We want to see our children grow up to be healthy and successful.  The Johnnie Walker film is built directly on the emotion that comes out of a powerful social bond.

    The challenge to me does not seem so much about finding a universal truth but in defining one for a brand that can be owned by that brand and which will help them sell more product.

  6. Paul Edwards, January 19, 2016

    Fascinating - and obviously one that resonates with your fans Nigel.

    Could it be 'recognisable by a Martian'?

    Or maybe the small number of themes common to the world's literature (which someone smarter than me will have to distill)

  7. Dave, January 19, 2016

    Is it about recognition?  The kind of thing that good comedians tap into - something you hadn't previously considered but that is actually very familiar. 

    'You're not you when you're hungry'  is  something that many of us have experienced but Snickers has articulated it in a way that makes it resonate. 

    'Finishing off the thought' by relating it to your own experience is what makes it feel like a Truth.

  8. Benson Agoha (Woolwich Online), January 19, 2016

    Nigel, I think that the universal truth is that humans are still in search of the Truth. Human's are still searching to find the secret of mysteries which embodies the human truth, but can quite put our finger on it.

    Much of what we have observed within our social environments we have been able to analysis and develop theories that enable of feel we are in control, but we continue to find those theories are often undermined by the complexities surrounding it.

    Beyond that, we are looking outside the earth to find some answers.  We have found that the human breath is `spirit', and that so are other gaseous energies.  We even use some of these spirits that we have humanly created to treat people. But we still cannot design means of capturing some  other spirits like the Holy Spirit and the bad spirits, some of which still hold mysteries we are trying to solve.

    It seems to me that since the Universe is made of loads and loads of energies - gaseous energies that build up and explode, and reform.  Then the Universe is God or God is the Universe - and he is still incomprehensible to human beings because understanding Him is beyond the limits of our capabilities.

    Such is the Universal Human Truth.


  9. Erik du Plessis, January 19, 2016

    My first thought was that Maslow got some of the answer. Then I realised his are needs, not truths.

    Maybe when they talk about universal human truths in terms of marketing they got it wrong. Needs are what matter.

  10. Mohtashim Abbasi, January 19, 2016

    As mentioned by the other posters there are universal human truths but leveraging them for brands is always going to be a challenge since most of them deal with basic human needs i.e. hunger, lust, love, children etc.

    Cultural context maybe a better way to look at marketing then an overarching global truth, which may or may not exist in the context of brands/marketing..

  11. Pushkar Ashtekar, January 19, 2016

    I Believe, Universal Human Truth does exist but it can only be used to market a product line which is above the influence

  12. Dina El Sehrawy , January 19, 2016
    I love it Nigel- as I do your other thoughts. For me a universal human truth is a state, situation, scenario, idea, etc or feeling that transends not only cultural boundaries, but time as well. It's things that are hard wired in our nature as humans. Sexism / obscenities aside I don't know a single guy who couldn't relate to powerful yogurt's "find your inner abs"...  "You are not you when you are hungry" was as applicable for the caveman as it is for the spaceman. "Curiouser and curiouser" works for Alice (of Wonderland, that is) as it does for me :) I am a big fan of Carl Jung's archetypes - for me it really distills human nature into little "characters" or categories of "truths" that we can all relate to whether we are from China or Britain. We all have a need to love and be loved, to nourish (ideas, people, pets, etc), to know (more), to rebel, to belong... it's just the manifestation that differs. But deep down we probably have more in common than not.
  13. Ed C, January 19, 2016
    I'm not sure if it's an oxymoron but maybe close. There seem to be a few that might be close to universal - love of family, desire to mate, wanting the best in life, etc. The US Army's "Be All That You Can Be" seemed like it touched on a good one. Gillette's "Best a Man Can Get" was close. I think marketers would be best effective tapping into these vs. more superficial (or even superfluous) approaches, though as many in capitalistic societies point out, many want more than just the minimum (universal truths), hence one reason there's so many products/services/ads out there.
  14. Edmundo Berumen, January 18, 2016
    Death? Only one I can think of that complies with universal, human, truth.
  15. Dominic, January 18, 2016

    Lots of universal human truths:

    eg

    Life stage:Birth; childhood tantrums; going to school; leaving home; getting married; having children; being a grandparent; getting old; dying (and my of these from two sides). 

    Physical need: hunger; need to go to the toilet; being too cold; being too hot: being uncomfortable

    Emotional response: love; lust; hatred; schadenfreude

    Probably loads of others I've missed.

    But - not many brands can tap into one of them. and if you can, it may need tweaking for cultural responses.

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