Clotaire Rapaille is a market researcher and a gifted one.
Every time I hear his name, I remember a marketing conference a couple of years ago.
We were sitting around a table, 4 or 5 of us. It was late. We were deep into our cups. The evening was over. Rapaille’s name came up. Someone said,
"Oh, yeah, that guy. We hired him. He told us our ATM machine was "mother.""
Heads shot up around the table, and almost simultaneously, several voices protested,
"That’s what he said our product was!"
"Hmm," I thought, "that’s the trouble with Jungian archetypes. There only a few of them, and eventually you have to start recycling."
Ever since then, I’ve had a picture of a dart board at Rapaille’s headquarters. "Let’s find an archetype for sports cars! How about luncheon meats? Stand clear, everyone. I’m throwing for a South African resort!"
This is unkind. But hey, I’m entitled. Rapaille and I are in the same business. And he’s a big success. According to a recent story in Fast Company, Rapaille has a mansion in Tuxedo Park, an 9th century castle in France, his own helicopter, and millions of dollars. Until recently, I lived in a rickety condo in Montreal where I lived without a car, a chateau, a helicopter, or much in the way of a bank account. (I take my profits and pour them straight down the hole marked "deservedly obscure books." Clearly, I need a new investment advisor.)
I would not have offered comment had John Winsor not gently baited me on his blog today.
But comment is called for, because Clotaire Rapaille is a man without shame, the P.T. Barnum of the research world.
What else can we say about a man who claims to have understood Japanese, Chinese, German, American and Indian culture by "cracking their code." Rapaille says,
"The code is like an access code: How do you punch the buttons to open the door? Suddenly, once you get the code, you understand everything. It’s like getting new glasses."
When I listen to this kind of thing I think of Milton Singer, the great anthropologist at the University of Chicago who devoted his life to the study of India. "Did Professor Singer discover a code?" I ask myself. "Did he break through the South Asian security system?" My head spins.
I know enough about India to know that it is encompasses an almost limitless diversity. And this was true before it embraced the postmodernism that has reshaped global and local cultures. The idea that there is a code! This is ludicrous. The idea that someone can crack this code with a simple proposition, a lively phrase, a striking image! I think it’s just possible even the infinitely gentle Professor Singer might well have strangled you for suggesting as much.
Now, I am guilty as charged. I have presumed to do ethnographic marketing work many times in China and several times in India and Japan. To be credit, I always told the client (usually Kodak and the Coca-Cola Company) that the culture in question, that North America is my "beat." They always replied that they wanted the same eyes and ears for the problem at hand.
There is no code. There is just good marketing. Listen carefully. Identify the cultural meanings,the market conditions, and the economic constraints and inducements in place. Spot the opportunity. Sell the opportunity back in to the corporation. No theater. No fancy language. No professional Frenchman charisma. No glittering phrases. Just very clear insights that can be put into practice straight away.
Good market research, especially these days is bound by 3 rules that seem specially germane in a case like this one.
1) Research has to be bespoke. It has to come from the interviews in a particular way. It has to speak to the problem in a particular way. It has to be custom made. No Jungian dart boards. No prefab archetypes.
2) Good research should not be parading around in grand declamations and charismatic presentation. We are not branding an idea. We are reporting our findings. Good research is thoughtful, grounded, nuanced, and precise. It is after all social science, of a kind, and not theater, of any kind.
3) It’s not about us. The Fast Company records Rapaille’s eagerness to claim the success of the PT Cruiser has his own. "I discover the code, and–bingo!–the car sells like crazy." The article also notes the unhappiness of Chrysler employees when they hear of this. Good research delivers new insight but this insight will come from the corporation as much as it does the researcher. The research is working collaboratively with the consumer and the client.
But, hey, I’m keen on anything that works. And evidently, Rapaille has created lots of value for lots of clients. Fast Company suggests that up to 25% of his utterances may have substance. And let’s not forget. Sometimes it takes a PT Barnum to create a PT Cruiser.
For a brief summary of the career of Milton Singer, see his obituary here.
Sacks, Danielle. 2006. Crack this Code. Fast Company. Issue 104. April. here.
Winsor, John. Cracking the Culture. Under the Radar. April 19, 2006. here.
With thanks to J. Duncan Berry for giving me a head’s up on the Fast Company article.
Thanks to John Winsor for getting me to shoot my mouth off.