Having known and admired Grant McCracken for a few years, I knew I was in for a intellectual treat with this CMO 2.0 Influencer Conversation. Grant is an academic with a background in anthropology, economics and complexity theory, a blogger and also the author of multiple books, his latest being The Chief Culture Officer, how to create a living, breathing corporation.
Grant has always focused on contemporary American Culture, making his knowledge a real treasure trove for marketers who are trying to understand people’s buying behavior rather than shoving products down people’s throat. His interest in economics comes from the fact that when you study American Culture, you quickly see that it comes from the interaction of culture and commerce.
Having so many definitions of culture out there, we started the discussion by defining what culture means for Grant. Forgive the technical nature of this part of the conversation (and also the fact that Grant was cut out for a bit – we my rerecord that part in the future), but being a new student of Culture, it was important to me. Grant does accept the classic definition of culture as presented by Geertz – which says that culture if a transmitted pattern of meaning embodied in symbols by which people communicate, perpetuate and develop their knowledge about and they attitudes towards life.
Grant then took us through the evolution of culture over time. In hunter gatherer societies, culture was very egalitarian, like language – everyone shared it and nobody had a disproportionate influence over it. In more developed and structurally more complicated societies with hierarchies, we saw the creation of elites who decide what meanings should be and what shape culture should take. In Western societies and all the way into the 20th century we had magazine editors, the keepers of mass media, marketers, and agencies that shaped public opinion and cultural meaning making. In the last 10 years, we have entered a new era, one in which the production of meaning and culture became more egalitarian once again. A kid with $2,000 worth of computer equipment in his parents’ basement can now influence public opinion as much as the elites do. A question in Grant’s mind is whether, with the democratization of culture and the emergence of the long tail, we may lose the centricity and shared-ness that Geertz was talking about and end up with a solipsistic world when everyone is their own universe. We both agreed that while it is structurally a possibility to end up there, we probably will never see that happen.
Next we talked about the importance of culture in business – and started with the example of Coca Cola, which without culture would be nothing more than sugared fizzy water. In the early days Coca Cola had the world to itself, with Pepsi not showing up for another 30-40 years. At the time, Coca Cola’s advertising shaped America’s concept of itself and even influenced how we think about Santa Claus. But then came the competitive phase , and a market crowded with alternatives. Brands now had to keep up with contemporary culture rather than shape it – you would pick a trend and ride that wave into mainstream acceptance. Now that world has completely gone as well. With culture coming from so many places, in so many forms, and lasting such a brief time. It’s like a perfect storm out there, you pick a trend and it’s gone before you know it. And so many companies end up engaging in a desperate game of catch-up, which means that they don’t really have any strategy at their disposal.
That is why Grant makes the case that every company should have a Chief Culture Officer (CCO).
We then talked about the role of agencies in the marketing and meaning making mix and how Grant believes that 30 seconds spots are still powerful tools in shaping meaning. Contrasting a Volvo ad with the Ford Fiesta Movement program in social media, he argues that the Volvo ad did great things for the brand that could not be achieved in social media. In fact, and while the Ford Fiesta Movement was a brilliant program, it did not sell any cars.
Next we talked about slow culture vs. fast culture, and how most companies forget slow culture. Fast culture comes from the cool hunters who know only the hippest things. What they don’t understand is that 80% of all the meanings in our culture are relatively ancient – they come to us from the 19th or 16th century, or even beyond that. Focusing on the 20% cool hunting or fast meanings is what causes everyone to play the desperate game of catch-up he talked and to constantly repudiate their own brand.
I could have written a book with all the information that flowed during this conversation. You will have to listen to the recording to hear Grant talk about some of the other things we discussed, which include:
- How many companies have lots of CCO kinds of people on staff, but no-one in the C-Suite
- How agencies will have to adapt moving forward and how cultural intelligence is so important that you cannot outsource it to them
- How successful brands are a set of meanings that are exquisitely responsive to the consumer and delicately and brilliantly crafted by the tactician, the brander, the marketer or the ad agency.
- How brands are bundles of meaning that need to be manufactured and can be a conduit for sociality
- The lack of culture training in business education
- Whether co-creation of meaning making with consumers can work
- How the older generation had multiple group memberships while teenagers have multiple selves
- How social status no longer plays a role in American culture and how it was replaced by celebrity culture
- How Gen Yers get their security from their networks where we got it from the workplace
As usual, you can listen to the complete interview at the CMO 2.0 Site