Understanding Culture & Meaning

06 Dec 2006|tommy

Sometimes debates emerge that challenge my long-held assumptions and prompt me to “go back to the beginning” to examine why those assumptions are held. Recently I was reading a discussion led by Grant McCracken’s blog on “why culture matters” (http://www.cultureby.com/trilogy/). McCracken cites both sides of the argument – that understanding culture holds a minor role in innovative marketing & branding versus the notion that understanding culture plays the prime role. In reading the comments and dialogue, I couldn’t help but consider how relevant this discussion is to the work we do at Cheskin.

Sometimes debates emerge that challenge my long-held assumptions and prompt me to “go back to the beginning” to examine why those assumptions are held. Recently I was reading a discussion led by Grant McCracken’s blog on “why culture matters” (http://www.cultureby.com/trilogy/). McCracken cites both sides of the argument – that understanding culture holds a minor role in innovative marketing & branding versus the notion that understanding culture plays the prime role. In reading the comments and dialogue, I couldn’t help but consider how relevant this discussion is to the work we do at Cheskin. Understanding culture is a given here – but as an intrinsic piece of our perspective, methodology, and process, it’s easy for me to take for granted culture’s role in marketing and innovation. I’m prompted to consider, “WHY does culture matter?” Is it fair to just assume it does? If we are to innovate, why do we really need to understand the culture of the audience for that innovation?

Three primary reasons for the importance of understanding culture came to mind as I considered this: firstly, we should strive to understand culture as the impetus for innovation because it’s fun (my selfish reason). Secondly, understanding culture is important because it makes us more likely to succeed (my economic reason). And thirdly, cultural understanding and sensitivity for innovation fosters a more meaningful existence; not just for me, but for my clients and their customers. My altruistic reason.

Perhaps the “fun” argument is the least serious of the three, but I think it’s a valid driver for pursuing a real understanding of the culture we’re designing for. Selfishly, pursuing an “emic” (insider’s) understanding of a culture is what gets most of us here excited – and excitement breeds good work and creative thinking. I feel a real satisfaction when I’ve scratched the surface with a consumer to begin to understand what makes them tick: what they value, what they despise, what influences them, and why they do what they do. Most people I know are not satisfied leaving a conversation with the “what” questions without following that up with many, many “why’s”. The excitement I feel at uncovering even a piece of the “why” frees my mind to be more creative, more flexible, and more active. Combine MY excitement with a roomful of like-minded colleagues (who often think more creatively than I do) and the possibilities are fascinating. The ideas and thoughts become more fluid, emerge more quickly, and are less likely to be forced and strained. Our passion for understanding people has been fed, and quite frankly, that’s fun.

The economic argument for taking the time to understand culture says that understanding the audience’s culture makes us more likely to develop truly innovative ideas that will resonate with them. Perhaps the biggest concern I have with minimizing cultural understanding is that we are left with only the “what” of behavior: what people do (or say they do), what they think, what they want. But this doesn’t provide an adequate foundation for long-lasting innovation and creativity. For products and services to truly succeed they need to move beneath the surface statements of what people do and effectively meet the needs that prompt that behavior – understanding the cultural influences and parameters that constitute the “why”. The underlying needs people have are likely to change much less frequently than their behavior. And the best way to change behavior is to provide a better way to meet the needs – best understood through understanding the culture that drives them.

Lest we stay too mired in the selfish or economic, I’d like to consider a more meaningful, altruistic reason for understanding culture. I don’t want to get too philosophical or highfalutin about this, but I do believe that our understanding of self and other makes the world a better place. If, in trying to understand culture, we’re able to delve into the “why” questions, then we strive to identify the meanings that underlie culture. For instance, American culture may be fascinated with celebrity gossip. Working to understand why this may be the case is likely to drive us to discussions of meaningful experiences – wanting to feel informed, wanting to transcend our daily circumstances, wanting to live a life that matters and is impactful. It’s this idea that cultural understanding helps us respect one another, understand what’s important to each other (and why) that has me so convinced that understanding culture is crucial. The innovations that emerge from such understanding can tap into that meaning, helping each of us lead a more meaningful life and a life that acknowledges the deeper significance of why we behave and think the way we do.

The point is that understanding culture is vital – even seemingly “low” culture (Jerry Springer, celebrity gossip, etc.) is important in that it impacts the ecosystem in which any innovative product / solution will operate. As innovators we have to understand this ecosystem in order to design for the truly foundational needs / desires of consumers. This has ramifications for our perspective on meaningful benefits in that just as there are functional benefits that can be tied to deeper meaning, there are cultural phenomena that can be tied to deeper meaning, too. Why people watch certain programs, engage in certain behavior, cling to certain attitudes… all these things may be tied to a deep-seeded desire for meaning, and obviously that’s the key to design success.

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