Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Why understanding culture is good for business

Why would it be important for business to study culture?  This question is just what the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis has been doing for the past 25 years, and there is in fact a great reason:  because culture is where the consumer lives.  Culture is the software of the consumer mind.  Over time we’ve been occupied in decoding the cultural mindset to see what it has to tell us about ourselves, the culture we live in, and why we buy. 

Although the college-educated think of culture as synonymous with cultural expressions – architecture, literature, music, the fine arts—these are just the elite side. 
Widen the cultural lens and we enjoy a panoramic landscape that includes all of culture – everything people have ever produced, over time, including the thinking and behavior behind both the highly creative and the habitual mundane, from opera to soap. In the wide-angle format, popular culture contains everything needed to tell us about where we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re headed, including the ability to extract the major values behind any single culture, like our specialty, the American one. 
This finding is arresting in itself because Americans don’t really think we share a “reality by common consent,” the software that drives our collective thinking.  Without some means of relating to each other within a greater mindset, however, there would be no way to talk to each other, no basis for negotiating agreements or governance, and no mass market for anything.  There is indeed such a shared reality, to be discovered across two and a half centuries of national history.

Cultural Studies & Analysis has isolated the basic values that inform and motivate Americans.  We’ve shared this short list with our clients—most of whom thought they understood their customers quite well.  Most often that belief turns out not to be reliable.  Our job as cultural analysts is to conduct a reality check on what companies think they know, in order to target our laser vision on exactly what’s behind customer buying.  We have plenty of information—but until that information is subjected to analysis, we don’t assume we know the answers it contains.
That is why there is no more important research question than the one we ask: “Why do people buy [x or y, your industry product], and what are the deep cultural needs driving both its sale and use?” 

Two decades ago we posed this question to the world’s largest entertainment company, The Walt Disney Company. First we made the distinction between entertainment and amusement—rooted in the difference between theme versus amusement parks.  It turns out that these terms are not interchangeable, but channel opposing values. 

To entertain is to engage the mind, as in entertaining an idea; whereas to amuse is to distract, as in the magician’s diverting our attention by misdirection.  Second, if to entertain means engaging focus and attention, what subjects exert the heaviest gravity for any group of buyers?  
Through the theme park, arguably the most successful art form in the experience economy, this question can be explored to answer the next one:  what is this art form’s secret to success--the force behind its incredible repeat visitation record?  Surprisingly, it isn’t the rides, games, food, thrill-seeking, or merchandising, because these are also the stock of the amusement park and carnival. 
What Walt Disney did, because he identified so closely and positively with American people and their past, was to create an iconic cultural landscape that distills what we like best about ourselves—our favorite venues, values, and communal memories, starting with Main Street, USA as the entryway, and culminating in Tomorrowland, the original positive view of the future. 

Unconsciously and not by design, but by natural affinity with his guests (as he was first to call customers), Disney’s genius was to build Disneyland on the way park patrons already thought and felt, without the least need—one companies so often assume—to “educate the consumer” about what he was trying to communicate or how he wanted them to respond. 

This is exactly the way The Center works, in a consciously focused way, to discern and define the natural fit between products, ideas, services, and experiences, and the mind of the consumer.  We use a suite of original tools, models, and definitions worked out against thousands of cultural cases using cultural intelligence.  CI is our method based on the inductive logic of mining culture so as to reveal the rulebook of human thinking and decision making in groups over time.

By drawing on the four principal dimensions of culture: community, context, age, and gender, our studies have derived high-value meaning from consumer issues presented by top businesses, agencies, nonprofits, educational and government groups.  Our laser compass is now the secret weapon that gives our clients an extraordinary edge in understanding and strategic planning centered around the world of the consumer rather than based on their business or industry conventions.

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