Culture matters III

Grant_mccracken_b Culture matters to marketing.

But not everyone thinks so.  There are marketers who neglect, diminish, or exclude culture. 

Excluding culture

Christensen, Cook and Hall say the marketer’s task is "not so much to understand the customer as it is to understand what jobs customers need to do."  They urge the construction of "purpose brands," brands, that is to say, devoted to declaring the function of the product. In this model, function is all.  Culture is excluded.

I do not mean to be discourteous or to indulge in ad hominem attack, but I believe these two things to be true: 1) that it is wrong to give advice on branding unless the speaker is knowledgeable about culture, 2) Professor Christensen knows very little about contemporary culture and nothing at all about that part of contemporary culture we call popular culture.  (I am less sure of point 2, and I would be pleased to hear that I am wrong.)

There may have been a time when knowledge of culture was optional. This time has passed.  Brands are made up of cultural materials.  They are fashioned by the application of cultural instruments.  They are constantly transformed by cultural forces.

There is now an additional reason why people interested in branding must know about culture.  Indeed, we may treat this new factor in terms Christensen brought to the field.   Culture is a new "disruptive technology."  (I speak metaphorically.  What I mean is that culture is now as disruptive as technology.)  Culture contains a surface churn, a boiling innovation that helps refashion consumer taste and preference. It also contains deeper, structural changes, that are transforming the very grammars of innovation. 

I believe Professor Christensen has no knowledge of the churn and no knowledge of the structure.  I further believe he does not see this as an intellectual deficit, still less as an intellectual deficit that disqualifies him as a branding scholar.  But it is.  This is a new rule: those who suffer this deficit may not offer branding advice, instruction or models.  I expect someone will rush to the Professor defense, saying "well, the guy only claims expertise in the effects of technology."  But this ended when, with Cook and Hall, he offered a new model of branding. 

For a more detailed version of my argument, please go here.

Another marketing scholar who excludes culture is Gerry Zaltman. Professor Zaltman believes that he may perform his "Zmet" analysis unaided by a knowledge of culture.  He solicits visual metaphors from consumers and then presumes to tell us what they mean.  Here it is: every single semantic and structural elements in the visual array created by a consumer comes from or has been transformed by contemporary culture.  A business school professor removed from contemporary and popular culture is not just unqualified to perform the Zmet analysis, he is disqualified from performing it.

For a more extended version of this argument, please go here.

Diminishing culture

Clotaire Rapaille is famous for "cracking the code" of culture by his study of cultural archetypes.  The trouble with this Jungian approach is that there are too few archetypes to decode a culture as far flung, various and changeable as our own.  And in any case, Rapaille inevitable offers up a key word or phrase that is meant to stand as his moment of illumination.  This is so simplifying and reductive that one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  I have seen MBA students more intellectual depth and acuity in cracking a single case study than Rapaille’s demonstrates in "cracking" the code of India.  I mean, really.

For an extended version of this argument, please go here.

Kevin Roberts has offered a "lovemarks" model in which culture is becomes a matter of emotion, and the brand a mark of love.  This is all and well, I suppose, but culture is vastly more and more complicated than anything dreamed of in Roberts philosophy.  Culture helps shape and specify the emotions.  It also creates the very categories of perception and conception with which the consumer perceives and conceives of the world of goods. 

For an extended version of this argument, please go here.

Cool hunters are diminishing in another way.  The only part of culture that interested them are the things that a trendy and brand new.  Its all the froth of the churn, with nary a thought for the deep structures.  I have seen the cool hunters at work, shaming big corporations for not being hip enough.  But big corporations cannot set their cycles of innovation only to the trend of the moment.  They must spot deeper cycles of change.   Knowing about culture can’t be a pursuit of cool.   

For an extended version of this argument, please go here.

Neglecting culture

Surely, the most recent act of neglected culture (and marketing theory and practice is of course filled with these acts) is the Blue Oceans book.  This is of course a book about discovering new opportunities, blue oceans, where the enterprise may flourish without the usual rock ’em sock ’em competition that characterizes mature categories.  What is odd about this book si that it does not having any systematic idea of culture, and if culture is not a domain for blue oceans, well, tell it to Steve Jobs and the creators of iPod.  Yes, this is a new technology, but what gives it a blue ocean character is the extent to which it helped occupy and then transform a cultural domain.   But there is another issue here.  It is culture that supplies the high winds and high waters that periodically turn even the bluest waters into a treacherous place to do business.

For an extended version of this argument, please go here

Summing up

Culture matters to marketing.  But there are many, well placed and influential parties who would exclude it from the equation.  I don’t believe you can do branding, unless you get culture.  I don’t believe you can do marketing, but there  are corners  when perhaps the culturally illiterate can get away with it.  For the rest of us, it is time to put this right. 

It is no longer an option.  Now it’s an obligation.  It is time for business schools to snap out of it.  It is time for senior managers, and especially CMOs, to add an investigation of culture to their due diligence.  It is time for the cool hunters to cease and desist their dreadful partiality.  It is time for scholars who talk about marketing without the benefit of a knowledge of culture to come to their senses.  There was a time when every serious player in the world of marketing was obliged to add a knowledge of statistics to their skill set.  That is we are talking about here.  Culture is now standard issue marketing knowledge, and the professional world of the marketer will have to change.  Some players will have to retire from the field.  This rest of us will have to add a cultural competence to our skill set.  Because culture matters to marketing. 

A note of explanation:

Yes, that’s me in the picture.  It was taken a couple of years when I was talking at PopTech (that’s the inimitable Bob Metcalfe in the background).  I like it because it makes my hand look like it’s one of the weeding claws.  That’s the way I think of this, the third piece, in the Culture Matters series.  I’m weeding. 

13 thoughts on “Culture matters III

  1. steve

    I like it when you weed whack. It’s bracing.

    Not to be too crabgrassy, but isn’t there a difference between knowing a culture and knowing about culture? Some kid in junior high probably knows (even if he can’t articulate) lots and lots about his local culture, his feelings about different parts of pop culture, etc. But he doesn’t know anything about anthropology. So if a branding executive knows enough people who play golf and watch pro football games, wouldn’t he be okay marketing golf clubs and developing ads to run during football games? In other words, native familiarity should be just as good as anthropological sophistication, if not better, at navigating the meaning structures relevant to a brand.

    You could say that as our culture gets all fragmented and fluxy (new word?), a la plentitude and commotion, individual native experience becomes relevant to a smaller and smaller part of the world the brander must navigate. Then we all have to learn some anthropology because we all end up being non-native in the normal course of doing business (or living). Come to think of it, that probably IS what you say.

    The only problem I have with all this is that I think the range of product markets where this kind of attention to cultural meanings matters “on the margin” is narrower than you do. Heck, I’m not sure that Steve Jobs really knows that much about the ins and outs of all the subcultures and meaning-maps of his millions of users. Maybe he just has really good aesthetic taste and knows how to edit software interfaces to make them user-friendly. Plus he’s good at negotiating with psycho music executives.

  2. jens

    great weeding job (whereas the gesture looks a lot like weighing the balls of a bull – but that is more or less the same thing i guess). great and valuable job. – may the word be heard.

  3. Rob Kleine

    Grant – Hmm … looks like your comments have been spammed.

    RE. Christensen. If one construes ‘purpose’ to connote ‘function’ then the approach woefully under specifies the relevant domain (as you should expect me to advocate). If, on encountering “purpose brand” one flashes to a phrase repeated endlessly in the Steve Martin movie, ‘The Jerk’, then we are perhaps closer to a popular culture rendition. But that, too, underspecifies matters. When I read Christensen, et al., my mind immediately generalized their concept of ‘purpose’ beyond pure utilitarian function to encompass symbolic (cultural) purposes as well.

    Grant, oh weedmaster, am I missing your boat to think that a product must have a cultural purpose if it is to find or maintain a place within the cultural mileau? This cultural purpose may be construed a variety of ways. My take is that cultural purpose derives from evaluating a product’s perceived attribute and performance characteristics (Kleine & Kleine 1991) through the lens of a particular set of identity schemas (e.g., Kernan & Sommers 1967; Kleine et al 1993). It seems that the fabled Chicago School of symbolic interactionism generally, and Lloyd Warner specifically, make a case for products to have cultural purpose.

  4. jens

    one short thought:
    we should not be too surprised that there is not much space for culture in the culture of marketing because the dominating perspective in marketing theory still is that of domination and manipulation – it still is a very much a top-down approach.
    wanting to fundamentally change that possibly means starting completely from scratch: out with the old – in with the new. maybe even the term `marketing┬┤ has to disappear for good.

    on the other hand: there is also extremely potent about being culturally ignorant – because at some point you have to be anyway (in order to create).

    when grant heavily criticizes these marketing thinkers, as he is doing above, i should speculate that he is putting aside a lot of his sensitivity and empathy only in order to make his point. and only with the help of this ignorance he creates culture.

    a big weakness of (marketing) theory is that it emphasises all the things that one can actually analyse and influence systematically.
    the power of creation though lies in putting all analysis aside at some point and just saying: christensen, you have got no idea – or – this aeron chair will work in the market – or whatever…

    your tools always cripple you – they can only take you so far – but at some point… you’ve got to jump

  5. Antonio

    “It’s about culture”, you say. “It’s about function”, they say.

    Get real.

    It’s about humans.

    Culture is a node in the human system. Functionality of tools is a node as well. Bigger nodes are found by contemplating the 99.9% of our history we spent in the wild (since hominan), rather than the .001% of modern culture. Bigger nodes are found within the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala.

    None of my marketing courses in school even mentioned the human brain or human evolution! How can I ignore 99% of my customer’s development and expect *any* insights? For that matter, how can a social scientist expect sound results by ignoring the same?

    Ultimately, any marketer who ignores any part of the system of humanity is missing out and selling short.

  6. Brian Phipps


    One implication from your post (if I read things correctly) is that one could deploy several brand cycles within one product cycle, where aspects of brand context are tuned to cultural tides. That’s interesting. However, I might not want to stake too much of a brand on shifting seas. Might be better to design a brand platform so customers can build out the brand themselves, in their own terms, rather than have corporate brand builders trying to read the tea leaves from the latest swirl.

  7. Pingback: IF!

  8. Jeneae

    Rapaille’s ridiculous “codes” should induce crying – by the companies who willing fork over thousands of dollars for his so-called “expertise”.

  9. Pingback: Marketing Pop Culture

  10. Mark Schraad


    While I think you are on the right track with inclusion of culture as a component for consideration… one of many possible ingredients, sometimes culture is more significant as an outcome of a product or brand.

    Additionally, and I have only read a couple of the Christenson books, I think he is referring to products or a group of products wen he says brand. (not a definition I am on board with btw) He is a product strategist and to position him as a marketer seems a bit of a stretch.

  11. Pingback: brandjazz

  12. Pingback: brandjazz

Comments are closed.