“But problem solving, however necessary, does not produce results. It prevents damage. Exploiting opportunities produces results.”
-- Peter F. Drucker, management guru
“What Makes an Effective Executive
Over years of intelligence-finding for business across dozens of industries, I always focus on the most effective thing cultural analysis can do for the organizations we serve. This is our ability to redefine business problems as cultural problems. We do this by understanding and following the “cultural logic” that rules how people think and act.
For instance, people don’t buy products. They buy values that attach to those products. For example, in America, Mobility equals Freedom. That’s why car ads always feature happy couples or families in a car in motion, ideally on a long winding road. One of the worst fears of the elderly is the loss of their driver’s license. Lose that, and they give up their independence and freedom—including the option to live where they wish. Mobility loss carries with it dependence on others, something Americans intuitively abhor and know to avoid at almost any cost.
At their root, all businesses provide something customers want and need. Cultural analysis can laser through the details to see the outline of those values customers are in search of. There is no more valuable piece of information in the puzzle that is consumer research. The cultural question is the business opportunity every enterprise needs--but does not know how to ask. Culture shapes our decisions far below our conscious threshold. Cultural value is the opportunity every business was built to pursue.
That is why your core business problem may be a simple failure to appreciate and communicate your core cultural meaning, and the value of that meaning to the consumer. The number-one talent of cultural analysis is to identify the real opportunity to align your business—talent, effort, and expenditure--with the way customers understand, desire, buy, and put to use what you offer. This talent is based on the broadest and deepest available knowledge about human thinking and behavior.Basic to cultural analysis, this method of going broader and deeper with consumer research is the ability to see opportunities where conventional consumer research does not even look. We discover exactly what motivates buying by looking at the largest possible human invention—culture—over the longest timeframe—human cognitive evolution, about 200,000 years in total.
A few selected case studies will give an idea of how, by asking cultural questions (about people rather than business), you can much more readily define and frame the problem that business needs to focus on solving.Education: We defined the identity of a small struggling New England college for both recruitment and operations, revealing market and student needs in cultural context. Thanks to its location in the hills of New Hampshire, it was just a school to the faculty and administrators who worked there and went home at 4:00. To the students who lived there, however, it was a village. That meant the services of the outside world were needed on campus – particularly a coffee shop and a convenience store.
Question: What is the school’s best value offering that has been ignored, under-estimated, or uninvestigated? How can its real identity (rather than competitive market ranking) identify the best recruitment targets who will do well, stay, and graduate…and multiply recruitment efforts by word of mouth and successful achievement at the school? The category is not excellent education by elite standards, but effective results proven by top students who benefit most, and why.
Diamonds: A national jewelry chain came to us and asked how they could sell more diamonds. The Center rethought the equation as cultural: “How do people actually use diamonds and other jewelry?” A deep historical search yielded only one consistent answer over time. From the crowns and chains of office of European nobility to the wedding band created by ancient Romans, to military medals, to friendship bracelets, the use of jewelry as symbol to signal relationships is the single constant.Instead of advertising diamonds by the traditional method – color, cut, clarity, and carat weight – the standards jewelers use when they buy diamonds--we suggested they advertise by celebrating the relationship. People already understand that diamonds are appropriate markers for important relationships. We proposed simply reminding them of that fact. Sales rose 17% in the first quarter.
Question: Rather than ask how diamond sales can be expanded for Millennials (as the major target group), the cultural method is to pose a wider question, asking “How do people use diamonds and related precious stones? And in what ways have various cultures done this over thousands of years?” This answer is far more revealing than gathering data about current sales, which is one snapshot in a centuries-wide ongoing panorama. Cultural principle: Whatever people have been doing for millennia, they are not about to stop doing anytime soon. Current behavior is always part of a far longer story.SeaWorld: Discovered that the value set important to visitors at aqua parks is not animal care as defined scientifically (the client’s purview), but extending human perception by asking the general question, “What is good care?” (the guest’s perspective). When it comes to perceiving feelings, we have only one reference point – ourselves. So we judge everything in human terms: lighting, enclosure size, furnishings, feeding, and the animal’s projected response, read as how well this treatment works for the animal. Everything in the park is judged through the human lens--from the way guests read animal behavior and expression as they ask themselves, “How would I like to be treated this way?”
When dealing with animal attractions, the standard of care will be judged by the same standards guests apply for themselves. While humans closely identify with (other) animals—especially mammals—we do so on our own terms, transferring our opinions of what’s suitable for us to our animal counterparts, especially pets, or wild animals we can conceive of as pet-like. Our recommendations used this base analysis for a large-scale pool build for orcas.Question: How is the guest point of view based, and why? No matter how dedicated the design of a project may be to science, education, and improving behavior, the bottom line is the category in the guest mind that rules in framing and judging – in other words, the cultural lens.
NASA: Redefined the search for social value in space exploration by looking at public perception of value in historic exploration journeys. The Agency’s question was what it would take to get the American public on board for future space projects, as the space shuttle was retired without a replacement transport system. This left only technology – satellites and remotely controlled rovers as the default for moon and mars missions.Question: How do people find value in space exploration? In other words, why do we do it in the first place, and what values does the public derive from space as a collective initiative? This might seem too general and open to yield anything actionable, but it turns out that by posing an open-ended cultural query, we were able to discern an important fact: that any space program has a humanistic mission – it must be about people facing and discovering the unknown, as opposed to technology like the Hubble project or space probes, robot rovers, or even the space station, which are more about projects and tools and the science quest than a human experience we can share by following US astronauts on a mission. Robots won’t do the job for public support. Every story needs a hero. Technology is not the hero. There must be a human story to frame the technology.
While focus groups might still be considered a lode of valuable material for consumer research, they will not reveal the core proposition for your business, unless your facilitator knows how to guide the discussion by using a values-inquiry mindset.If you think that milk is a beverage and competes in a beverage market (as the industry still does), you won’t know how to elicit responses along the food / nutrient scale, which is where milk operates. That is because it acts far more like a food (dense, rich, nourishing, filling) than a beverage (light, refreshing, hydrating, paired with food) in the consumer-life profile of habits, needs, wants, expectations, and aspirations.
What future is your business missing by being treated in a cultural a/k/a consumer category other than the one in which it actually lives? You may have far more potential than you think because you are unnecessarily limiting your cultural category—who or what you are to your customers and would-be buyers. And in most cases, it’s easier to re-label your product or company than it is to try to convince the world that it is misreading what you’re trying to do.Disney’s America: Cultural Studies is here to help. But note: Call us for the MVP – the Most Valuable Principle—of your concept at the “fuzzy front end” (where direction is set), before you’ve already invested the whole budget in heading the wrong direction. We are often called in as firemen when things are falling apart because the initial concept was flawed—as we were for Disney’s America – where we were the cultural advisors. Remember that wonderful public history project from the mid-90s? You don’t because it was never built. The reason was simple – they weren’t building it in “America.”
Disney picked a site in rural northern Virginia, not realizing that this was the sphere of influence of the elite who valued their privacy – inherited wealth (the Mellons, among others), the secret government (The CIA right down the road), and the “permanent government” (State Department employees retire there). They didn’t own the land selected but considered it within their sphere of influence. They had money and power and are pros at playing the political game. Thus began a well-funded media campaign to kill the project in every regional newspaper. In this case, they wielded influence that Disney couldn’t. By the time these realities surfaced, Disney had already lost the war of public opinion. All we could do was deliver a post-mortem. Had we come in at the planning stage, this debacle could have been avoided.
And that was this: not knowing the political terrain, Disney had chosen a site that the elite had already sequestered to guard their privacy. At the time, if you got off at the Falls Church exit of the DC beltway, you would suddenly find yourself on narrow winding rural roads and long driveways leading to estates hidden discretely out of sight behind trees. There were no convenience stores, no gas stations. The environment clearly encouraged nonresident drivers to keep going. If Disney built nearby, a park would need highways, opening the area to development, the very thing the rich and powerful had settled there to avoid. They weren’t fighting Disney; they were fighting the roads and loss of their private preserve. And humans fight hardest when their home is under siege.Far better to know where you’re going before you set sail. Ideas are cheap and plentiful. The trick is to choose the right ones for the right reason. In Disney’s case, they saw it as a real estate deal. To their opponents, it was opening up the area to everything they had moved there to avoid.
Question: How do your opponents construct the equation you are trying to solve?