Virginia Postrel was kind enough to interview me for Enterpreneur Magazine.
You can find an edited version of the interview at Enterpreneur.com here.
For the full version of the interview in which you will find me chatty and discursive.
Virginia Postrel: What do you mean by “culture”?
Grant McCracken: I was just watching the movie I Love You, Man. It’s a funny movie, and it’s a wonderfully observed piece of anthropology. The Paul Rudd character doesn’t understand how to act like a “guy.” Somehow this knowledge has escaped him. That’s what culture is: the meanings and rules with which we understand and act in the world.
This makes culture sound amorphous and absurdly abstract, I know. But let’s put this another way. Culture is the very knowledge and scripts we will someday build into robots to make them socially sentient creatures. At the moment, we’re still teaching them to climb stairs. The more difficult task is to read social situations. Unless we’re autistic, most of us do this effortlessly and in real time. That’s because we have this knowledge “built in.” Notice what it will take to build it into robots. This is programming, exact, finite, and incredibly specific programming. Nothing amorphous or abstract about it.
VP: What’s the biggest mistake business people make when they think about the intersection of culture and commerce?
GM: Business people think that because they can’t see it, culture doesn’t exist. They suppose that the moment of sale consists of a rational decision, a calculation of interest, a pursuit of benefit. But every purchase is shaped by meanings and rules. Whether a new product finds a place in the market depends on whether and how it squares with the meanings in our heads. Think of all the innovations that were technically brilliant but failed because the consumer “couldn’t really get a handle on them.” This is another way of saying that the innovation was not designed or positioned in a way that made it consistent with the culture in our heads.
VP: What can a small startup without the resources to have a dedicated “chief culture officer” do to make sure it pays attention to the relevant cultural trends?
GM: Start ups have access to lots of culture knowledge. No need to hire a guru or a cool hunter. They can boot strap this knowledge. (They probably do need to read Chief Culture Officer. I can’t urge this strongly enough. But, hey, it’s my start up.) The thing is to formalize all that cultural knowledge we have in our heads. Right now it’s tacit knowledge. Like how to be a guy. Or things we know about culture, about television, cocktail culture, the local food movement, Burning Man. We have to get it out of our heads onto the table. And then we have to tag the changes we see happening. Then we need to build a big board in order to track the changes that matter to us and we have to start making estimates about when they will reach our markets. For the culture knowledge we don’t know, the trick is to start combing media more systematically. In Chief Culture Officer, I talk about an investment firm in NYC that keeps track of culture by having 5 people read 300 magazines. We don’t need to hire a cool hunter or a guru to learn about culture. We just have to pay attention.
GM: I think Alan Moore put his finger on the problem here in Crossing the Chasm. In the early days, tech start ups are selling to people who are savvy enough to figure out the value proposition and make the product work. Eventually, however, we are speaking to much larger audiences and this means talking to people who don’t get tech. Now we have to build not from what’s technically possible. Now we have to build to what fits in the world of the consumer. Consumers are no longer coming to us. We must go to them. We have to cease being an engineer for a moment and become an anthropologist. We must find out who the consumer is, how he lives, and what will make the product make sense to him. In a perfect world, we build a product that understands the consumer so perfectly, he or she doesn’t even need to read the manual. We all remember our first experience with the iPhone. It was as if the iPhone understood us so completely, it was teaching us how to use it. This is cultural knowledge in action.
VP: Could you give us an example of a startup that beat the big guys by understanding culture?
GM: The world of carbonated soft drinks is filled with examples of start ups that managed to spot the next trend and steal a march on the big guys: Snapple, Red Bull, Vitamin Water, Odwalla, and so on. These startups spotted the trend and rode it to glory. They get in early and ended up owning the market. In the book, I try to show how Snapple accomplished this miracle. The rewards here at breathtaking. Snapple sold to Quaker for $1.7 billion.
VP: People often say, “You can’t teach taste.” At least when it comes to business, you disagree. Why?
GM: Culture is a body of knowledge like any other body of knowledge. Saying we “can’t teach taste” is like saying we can’t teach finance, operations, or human relations. Of course, we can. But of course we have lots of people in business who have a vested interest in making it voodoo. This is the way gurus, cool hunters, and various agencies keep themselves in business. It’s time to get culture out of the black box. I don’t say we don’t need gurus or agencies. For certain purposes, they can create exceptional value. I do say that they should not be allowed to make themselves sole source for what we know about culture. In the run up of 1990s, serial startups found that the guy who was CFO for the last startup was now CMO for the next one. The C-Suite is filled with fast learners, with mobile learners. We need to get culture into this mix.
VP: A.G. Lafley is one of the heroes of Chief Culture Officer. What can entrepreneurs learn from him?
GM: He’s the guy who helped teach P&G, that great temple of marketing, that it had much more to learn about being consumer focused. In Game-Changers, Lafley insists that the marketer must dolly back from narrow utilities to see the larger social and cultural context, to see the consumer in all of his or her complexity. This is the corporation making sure that the product services is “not about us,” not about what the engineers can build, not about what the marketer’s can sell, not about what the corporation has traditionally done. It’s about who the consumer is and how he or she lives. It’s about that software in his or her heads.
VP: What’s wrong with “cool hunting”?
GM: Cool hunting is heat sensitive. Cool hunters only care about the latest stuff, the fads and fashion. But culture is vastly more than this. It is deep cultural traditions. These traditions change, but they do so slowly. And when they change, they do not show on the cool hunter’s radar. Hard to know how to quantify this, but my guess is that fads and fashions make up only 20% of culture. Slow culture is all the rest. What kind of professional ignores 80% of his or her domain?
VP: You’re a creative, divergent thinker, yet you seek to avoid what Claude Levi-Strauss called “wild thought.” How do you balance creativity and structure, and what would you advise entrepreneurs about striking that balance?
GM: I’m Canadian, a notoriously tidy people, the Swiss of North America. But I am prepared to go where ideas take me. I have this from my parents and from my education at the University of Chicago. (The latter looks a little like Lafley’s P&G. It accepts that the exercise is “not about us,” but about the ideas. You adapt as you must to honor them.) I think this makes me like most entrepreneurs who know that good things happen only when wild creativity is routinized and systematized. Entrepreneurs have range! They are there when the big ideas happen, driving people “outside the box.” They then find a way to rebuild the box. They then find a way to make something actually come out of the box. Then they find a way to put that something out in to the market where it turns into ROI. Phenomenal! They are very smart and very determined. But they are also masters of many cultures.
VP: You introduce the idea of the “lunch list” as a way to stay in touch with culture. What is it, and how would it apply to the owner of a small startup?
GM: No one can keep track of contemporary culture but there are people who really understand individual pieces of it. The CCO solution? Take these people to lunch. (Or otherwise engage them.) My editor at Basic Books, Tim Sullivan, is a great guy to take to lunch. He will give you the world of emerging ideas. He will let you his astounding powers of pattern recognition. Chefs, journalists, politicians, CMOs, diplomats, all can give us a glimpse of the forces shaping the world.
VP: You talk about “fast culture” and “slow culture.” What do you mean, and how do their implications for business differ?
GM: Fast culture is great churn of our culture at any given time. Some of the fads will cool into fashion, some of the fashions will cool into trends, and some of the trends will actually stay on to become culture. But most fad, fashion and trend just keeps going, out of our world, eventually out of memory. As I was saying above, it is fast culture that preoccupies us most.
But there is also “slow culture,” and these are the long standing traditions that are part of our bed rock. These get some attention from the academics. The historians have warmed to the idea of culture over the last 30 years especially and this has results in some very useful work. I am just reading a book called Hotel: An American History by Andrew K. Sandoval-Strausz, a wonderfully interesting look at the hospitality industry as it has shaped and been shaped by the American culture. We need to know about fast culture, but this is like taking a major leaguers’ stats for the season and not the career. We need to know about slow culture too.
VP: Why would Chris Rock make a good chief culture officer?
GM: Mr. Rock knows about African American culture and he knows about non African American culture, and knows how to pass back and forth between them. This makes him a cultural entrepreneur. We might say he’s in the shipping business. Anyone who knows two pieces of our culture is well on his or her way to mastering the larger whole. It’s a lot like language learning. The second language is always the toughest. The third and fourth come more easily.
VP: How can social media tools help small businesses keep in touch with culture?
GM: Twitter and Facebook are great ways to listen in on the conversation and to engage in it. I recently did an interview with Bud Caddell at Undercurrent and I liked his idea that you have to keep provoking the world with comments, suggestions, and experiments. The reactions will give us a sense, a kind of GPS signal, of where we are, of what’s happening “out there.”
VP: Does being Canadian give you an advantage as an anthropologist?
GM: An American journalist asked Martin Short why it was so many American comedians were Canadians by birth. Shore said, “Oh, that’s because you grew up watching TV. I grew up watching American TV.” My sister and I used to watch Saturday morning cartoons. We enjoyed them immensely, but there was always a small sense that we were watching something from another world. Now that we are a diverse society everyone has access to a difference of this kind. As a culture we are so decentered that everyone has an exceptional point of view.
VP: How much TV do you watch every week?
GM: I watch the national average, plus I have friends who are not as diligent as they should be, so I watch their hours too. As a civic gesture. TV is a wonderful listening device for our culture. The networks and cable run out a constant series of experiments (aka, new shows) and these shows are so expensive that choice are made with great care. Which is another way of saying the experiments are very carefully crafted. Then the TV view audience votes with their viewership and we see, hey presto, America likes Modern Marriage and it doesn’t like the show that comes after it on ABC, Cougar Town. It’s not impossible to draw cultural conclusions from this event.
VP: What do you make of Lady Gaga?
GM: Lady Gaga burns brightly at the moment. She has crafted herself in the tradition of David Bowie and Madonna, changing dramatically, vividly, and often.Indeed, Lady Gaga ups the transformational cycle. Bowie changed several times. Madonna changed many times. Lady Gaga appears to change with every performance. So we can take her as a measure of the speed at which we change. But she is also a fad struggling to stay on as a fashion and then a trend and then a fixture in our culture. Bowie and Madonna made the cut. Chances are she will not. But I hope I’m wrong. She is a vivid, interesting presence. (The real mystery here is why the music is so utterly ordinary. Bowie and Madona were transformational here too.)
VP: You ran a “CCO boot camp.” Who came and what did they do? Do you have plans for more?
GM: We had a great mix, people from the strategy world, the C-suite, entertainment industry, the military, designers, senior managers, grad students, a real range. In the morning, we reviewed 6 parts of American culture. In the afternoon, we looked at how to monitor and manage culture for the corporation. It was amazing fun. I am now planning to do one for a gigantic corporation. I now have a poll on my website to see where people want the next one held. At the moment, Boston is winning.
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