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Rise of 'cultured' corporates

Published on Friday, 02 Sep 2011
Illustration: Bay Leung
Book: Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation
Author: Grant McCracken
Publisher: Basic Books

How many times have you found yourself in your office, realising how "dead" it is? Or soul-destroying. Or full of zombies in suits. The corporate world can be cold-hearted, demoralising and deathly dull. But it doesn't have to be. And indeed some workplaces aren't - they do motivate staff and excite consumers. These are the companies that generally do well. They are also often organisations that value "culture" and the outside world.

Based on his observations of these "cultured" corporates, American author Grant McCracken is proposing a new "C-suite" title: the chief culture officer (CCO). Such an executive would be mainly responsible for keeping the company abreast of changes in consumer behaviour and cultural shifts.

McCracken, a business writer and anthropologist, is mindful that readers will likely wonder how this can even be justified as a full-time job, much less one at the higher end of any firm's salary range. But he says that if done competently, the job will more than pay for itself.

To bolster his case, McCracken cites numerous examples of corporations that have employed the cultural shtick successfully, and those that haven't. Winners include Apple, Procter & Gamble, and Facebook. And his CCO-like icons are Apple's Steve Jobs, former Coca-Cola executive Mary Minnick, ex-Unilever honcho Silvia Lagnado, and the late Geoffrey Frost, who rejuvenated Motorola.

McCracken asserts that most companies do a crummy job of sensing and capitalising on cultural currents. That is because they concentrate on "fast culture", the kind tracked by "cool-hunting", whether it is the latest Nordic design or this week's hottest iPad app.

This means companies miss out on "slow culture", the variety that makes up the fabric of consumers' lives. To illustrate this, McCracken explains how Procter & Gamble eschewed the use of focus groups to examine why consumers preferred one toothpaste brand over another. Instead, its own researchers looked at how people lived their lives, and how their choice of toothpaste brand fitted into that complex matrix.

Another case study is just as enlightening. Silvia Lagnado, formerly global brand director for Unilever's Dove soap products, decided to use advertising to debunk stereotypes of impossibly beautiful women. When she looked at ads from around the world, the models were usually "young, white, blond, and slim". That came as no surprise to her, but she also realised that such blinkered homogeneity curbed marketing.

Rather than emphasising unattainable beauty, Lagnado embraced inclusiveness - creating the "Campaign for Real Beauty" that starred ordinary-looking women. Sales soared. And Lagnado had helped make the corporate world a better - and more truthful - place. A real hero who managed to shift the cultural paradigm, Lagnado is deservedly lauded here.

McCracken also has his fair share of anti-heroes: consultants, cool-hunters, headhunters, self-aggrandising business gurus, and economics academics who never actually get their hands dirty in the real world. However, he targets them with wry humour.

The central idea of this book is a well-conceived one, even if many of the proposed tools and techniques will not be fresh to recent MBA graduates. Nevertheless, this book makes a compelling case that companies will reap both financial rewards and consumer goodwill by enhancing their cultural sensitivity and ability to sense the zeitgeist, and - crucially - by paying greater attention to slow culture.

Here is a work packed with insights from the point at which anthropology intersects with business and economics. And those insights are fascinating.


Five insights

  • Smart companies anticipate rather than react to cultural trends
  • “Fast-culture” fads have less long-term value than “slow culture”, which comes from heritage and tradition
  • The development of staff proficient in soft skills is still undervalued
  • Focus groups have their limitations, so it’s better to widen the parameters of any marketing study
  • Small details make a huge difference to the popularity of a company’s online marketing


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