Pop Culture as Competitive Advantage: Embracing the Chief Culture Officer

We all need more heroes. Grant McCracken is one of mine.

Grant McCracken, Chief Culture Officer

I’ve mentioned Grant McCracken in a past blog post, with the release of his important book, dare I say magnum opus, Chief Culture Officer. Grant is in my eyes the leading business anthropologist of our time; a master ethnographer who specializes in American Pop Culture, brand advertising, and the intersection of commerce and culture. His blog www.cultureby.com is considered by many the leading anthropological take on the world of branding, marketing, and social trends. Two weekends ago, I had the pleasure of attending Grant’s one-day Culture Boot Camp in NYC. It was quite the turnout, with over 80 participants largely from the ad agency and marketing domains. It’s taken me a couple weeks to digest the formative experience and blog about it. It truly felt like a day spent on the mountain top. Thank you Grant!

Some Back Story

Having majored in anthropology back in university, my entrepreneurial endeavors have always been colored through the lens of business anthropology. One of Grant’s earlier books Culture and Consumption had quite the influence on my thinking (it was assigned college reading). Fast forward to today, and McCracken’s Chief Culture Officer gives language to what many of us are witnessing yet don’t necessarily know how to always articulate. Since the name of my first blog (during THIRSTY-FISH days) was called PopAnthropology, you should know this topic is dear to my heart.

Here are some of my favorite notes from the bootcamp:

  • Corporations are struggling to be responsive to culture (perpetual state of surprise)
  • New species of social life – everybody produces (not just elites)
  • New self-seekers less interested in status
  • Contrast frames are narrative arcs in context
  • Chief Culture Officers must be empathic
  • We are building roomier selves – expansive individualism
  • Lots of brands with cultural propositions (e.g. Google, Facebook, Four Seasons, Red Bull)
  • Corporations are a little like David Hasselhoff (click link for urban dictionary def.)
  • “Not just feeding culture, but creating culture”
  • Cultural convergences as moments of consensus
  • Are these kind of cultural convergences still happening in America?
  • Create “glass bottom boat to see the world”
  • Brands are morality plays about fun, glamor, freedom, etc…Now must be more nuanced
  • Don’t go for the early adopters, look for the most interesting content creators
  • Gold-rush moment as the notion of “sociality” is shifting”
  • Working from depth to surface and from surface to depth
  • Content is the currency that sustains social networks
  • Pattern Recognition: is it something or nothing?
  • Consumers are active and literate; need a word new for consumers

Why Culture Matters

McCracken’s book and bootcamp go a long way to demystify the oversized role and growing influence of culture on our business dealings. As our society continues to morph and evolve in the 21st century, cultivating a fluency in the ways of culture is just plain smart business. Consider how many iconic brands’ successes are based on their acumen and alignment with evolving culture – Apple, Zipcar, Target, Oprah, Kate Spade, Dove soap, Phat Farm, Martha Stewart, to name just a few…In many instances, these brands not only capitalized on cultural trends but end up shaping or driving culture forward. In other words, you need to understand the implications of culture on your own business.

A couple friends said they liked McCracken’s new book but complained that Chief Culture Officer left them wishing for more. The book does NOT teach you step-by-step how to bring these principles into your corporation. Which is perhaps a little misleading considering the title and premise of the book – all corporations need a Chief Culture Officer. In his defense, Grant does describe the idea of a cultural dashboard – for how a company needs to monitor culture with listening posts, detective work, and pattern recognition. Basically bring the skills of anthropology into the functions of strategy, marketing, and product development.

The purpose of these activities are so that one’s brand doesn’t get left in the dust as the cultural dimensions of your industry or market evolve. Many companies have been embracing the role and talents of corporate ethnography – whether its Intuit going into the homes of customers to understand how they balance their checkbook or Procter & Gamble spending time at the kitchen table learning how mom’s domestic roles are evolving. Grant McCracken has countless years of experience in the field of corporate ethnography and it shows. His book advocates a more expansive opportunity on the table. There’s a reason why so many esteemed sources are buzzing about the book, like Business Week, Seth Godin, Henry Jenkins, Faris Jakob, etc…

We just need to keep it all in perspective – Grant’s book offers a salient, inspired, and instructive lesson in Pop Anthropology and the growing stakes of culture as a corporate mandate. For example, Grant highlights recent missteps like: (1) the purchase of Snapple by Quaker for $1.7 billion, sold three years later for $400,000, or (2) how Levi’s totally missed the boat on “baggy jeans”. This is an important place to start – to recognize the changing cultural context and how this impacts your company’s footprint in the marketplace. In McCracken’s case, he’s serving as our collective wayfinder – articulating what’s hiding in plain sight and bushwhacking the path forward for us to follow.

His book is written in a style and prose that jumps of the page – its lucid, filled with stories, and an emotional empathy that betrays McCracken’s academic roots. Yet for those that want some substance and gravitas behind the business self-help conjecture, McCracken provides a lifetime of anthropological insight and theory distilled for easy digestion. Think Jared Diamond only cooler and more interesting. It’s clear that McCracken lives and breaths pop culture, which makes his perspectives that much more insightful, provocative, and believable.

The Link Between Story and Culture

As you know, I’m passionate about storytelling and culture. Here’s one way to bridge the conversation – with one of my favorite definitions of Culture: The stories we share in common.

Culture is rather amorphous or hard to define. And yet it forms the invisible fabric that links us together. Norms of behavior are shaped by the culture. Its easy to take it all for granted yet its culture that informs our perception and experience of reality. What is real, what is possible, what is acceptable? Those are all culturally defined notions. So stories serve as the bedrock of culture. Both the stories we consume and the stories we produce. Taking it a step further, as I describe in axiom #7 of my book: “If you want to learn about a culture listen to the stories. If you want to change a culture, change the stories.”

Every social group has a culture – whether you’re a company, a bowling team, a not-so-nuclear family, or a nation. In the case of U.S. culture,  I’ve long believed that Popular Culture has evolved into national religion. Regardless of whether we live in a blue state, a red state or a purple state – what connects us are the TV shows, the news celebrities, the books, the movies, the collective zeitgeist and artifacts that makes up our culture. Funny, it used to be pop culture was reviled as “lowly” or “pedestrian” even 20-30 years ago, and now the boundary between pop culture and elite culture has almost completely dissolved. Relevance is pop culture.

Here’s another wrinkle, which Grant McCracken illustrates in great depths – the pace of cultural evolution is both accelerating and fragmenting into a thousand particles, which he captures in the concepts of slow culture and fast culture. What used to be more structured and stratified categories within “official”culture has exploded into a mash-up free-for-all of subcultures and micro-communities (see Rob Walker’s Buying-In if you want to explore this some more). In large part this trend is because we are increasingly less passive consumers of culture, but now we are empowered to create culture ourselves.

We don’t need permission to share our view, perspective, or story. We can claim our small share of ownership over a brand and add our two cents into the brand story. You see this everywhere with just about any brand with an impassioned following – Harley Davidson, Star Trek, Mini Coopers, etc…where fans are modifying, evolving, tweeking, and mashing up their own interpretations of the brand itself. In my own book, I describe this new landscape as “the means of story production have become democratized.” Per example, note my ability to embrace Grant’s work and present it here with my own editorial slant and point of view. Welcome to the cultural commons. Where the personal ownership of ideas is also evolving.

Here is the outline of what we explored in the Boot Camp:

  1. De-Industrialization of Food (shift from mass production to local farmstead as form of status)
  2. Homeyness (the evolving concept of comfort beyond more formal social norms)
  3. The Great Room (greater social connectiveness in the home with open kitchens etc)
  4. Multiple Selves (freedom to reinvent oneself and participate in many sub-cultures/identities)
  5. Social Networks (new ways of connection and possibility of upward mobility beyond elite culture)
  6. The Gift Economy (redefinition of value in the modern age)

One more favorite concept from the day was the notion of Culturematics – which is a bit of a slippery term to wrap your hands around. I understand it to be the intersection of art, culture, meaning, and commerce. It explains why many of our pop culture breakthroughs tend to remain enigmatic, unique, different, or special. In Grant’s words, “You really know a culture by the things it finds interesting, yet can’t explain why”. In other words, culture creation is meant to push the boundaries, by re-interpreting the past in a new/fresh context. I thought that was a rather fitting food for thought to close this rather elongated blog post.

Kudos, Grant – you’ve blown my lid open…and I’m still digesting your staggering work of genius. So far there’s 51 dog-eared pages in your book. Needless to say, go and get Grant’s book, join his NING community, and be a part of this cultural convergence.

P.S. Here are just a few of the awesome folks I met at the event:

Vivian Beer – published her own review/highlights from the bootcamp
Bud Cadell – http://whatconsumesme.com/
Dan Gould – http://www.psfk.com
Manon Herzog – http://www.davisbrandcapital.com
Eric Nehrlich – http://unrepentantgeneralist.com
Alisa Weinstein – http://www.bluepractice.com/

5 thoughts on “Pop Culture as Competitive Advantage: Embracing the Chief Culture Officer”

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  4. Culture is pivotal in the current organizations. But I would like to mention here a quote from Jamie Beck land that the reality is that “the large companies that McCracken speaks to in this book can often just acquire innovation once it’s proven itself out. (As a side note, this is a huge danger in the film industry currently).” There are some more important insights on here : http://jamiebeckland.com/2010/05/chief-culture-

  5. Hi Alina – thanks for your comment and link to Jamie's interesting article. In further reflection, I'm not sure that Jamie gets the full picture of Grant's work.

    Certainly innovation is something that big companies that acquire through the shear force of their pocketbook, but knowing what innovations remain relevant requires a culture nuance and understanding, or else you'll pay a hefty premium. That is Grant's point about the snowjob that occurred during the acquisition of Snapple, way after it peaked in its culture moment.

    Furthermore, the real cultural taste-makers actually shape the culture/trends, versus your point “innovation once its proven out”. So if you want to be a market leader that is actually shaping and defining culture, there is no other short-cut than to be creating it.

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