Putting culture centre stage in business strategies


BOOK REVIEW:  Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing CorporationBy Grant McCracken Basic Books, 272pp, £15.99

WHAT IS it about people like Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, who left the company after a boardroom power struggle, founded Pixar, and was later brought back as chief executive of Apple? Is he simply a genius? Or is it possible to define that “something” that makes the difference between a product line that inspires the imaginations of a generation and one that fails to connect?

In his new book, Canadian Grant McCracken argues persuasively that the missing ingredient is sensitivity to culture, and that this is not such a mystery, but one that companies could do with.

McCracken is an anthropologist at MIT and a superb communicator, particularly through his blog, Cultureby.com, which he says “sits at the intersection of anthropology and economics”.

As an author, consultant and communicator he gets invited to give talks to businesspeople. In the context of one of these he got a favourable response to the idea of the need for companies to have a chief culture officer. Such a figure would be responsible for ensuring that the company’s products and services were sensitive to emerging trends. The book came out of this idea.

Part of me is critical. It looks like a reinvention of relationship marketing. It is limited to US anecdotes and is focused on the US business market. It does not address the challenges facing global businesses and academics, such as how to relate to the business and market cultures of China, Japan, South America, Africa and so on, not to mention the cultures within Europe.

The US seems to constantly produce the latest “must read”, and it certainly leads the “guru” market; but today’s guru is often tomorrow’s fad. On the other hand, the US market is the centre of global innovation.

This book does address the problem that many global, ie US, corporations are so hierarchical that they can get out of touch with their customers.

Also, markets are changing as they mature and shift their focus from “bread-and-butter” products to those with more psychological content – more intangible aspects such as style, fun, beauty and connections to social trends.

Furthermore, the most rapidly growing new markets are stratified not geographically but by age. With improving healthcare, the last decade produced the “grey market”. But even more innovative is the teens and 20s market, which older marketing directors can miss. It is a fast-moving market, where the speed of change is amplified by social networking. It is also more critical. It has more gatekeepers who can promote or destroy the image of a new product.

The central point the book makes is that this market is many times more complicated than people realise.

This book is impressive, but should you buy it? I am not so sure. The best parts are when McCracken writes from his experience as an anthropologist, such as when he recounts his surprise on discovering that there are 15 types of “teen” (teenage subcultures). His argument is that only a chief culture officer “has the weather maps to keep track of all this information . . . [and] can manage a market like this”.

McCracken’s blog is certainly worth following, if only to see a new way of communicating a message through blogs, books and interviews. But how much would you buy his argument?

Whatever about the case that every company should have a chief culture officer, you could argue that any company bringing out innovative products that target young people would do well to appoint an anthropologist.

Does it change marketing theory? Yes, to an extent. Old marketing theory was represented by the 4 Ps: product, price, promotion and place. This implied that a company should use its position to decide about its products and on their prices, while its salesforce should use a more personalised approach to promote them and put them in the right place.

The idea was that the company’s products were so useful that it had no need to research what the market would actually like.

McCracken’s view corrects this imbalance – but in the extreme. It puts the case that research into product design should involve highly personalised interaction with potential customers, endeavouring to identify emerging cultural trends with which brands can be identified.

The first half of the book is a tour of modern pop culture, intelligently observed.

In the second half you can see how McCracken the anthropologist makes his crust by being relevant to marketing.

He argues that a chief culture officer should have a deep understanding of the microcultures that motivate younger customers in particular. McCracken himself would certainly fit that description.

Prof Cathal M Brugha works in the Smurfit and Quinn business schools, is director of the UCD centre for business analytics and is a fellow of the Marketing Institute