The Culture Code: An ingenious way to understand why people around the world live and buy as they do.
by Clotaire Rapaille
Having spent substantial portions of my life in 3 very different cultures on 3 different continents (US, UK, Korea), I found “The Culture Code”, very insightful, entertaining and surprising.
The Culture Code. as defined by the author, is the unconscious meaning we apply to any given thing – a car, a type of food, a relationship, even a country – via the culture in which we are raised.
The author uses the Jeep Wrangler as an example of how different cultures have different codes when relating to it: Chrysler didn’t know what direction they should push the Wrangler, and asking people hadn’t helped. The author didn’t ask what people wanted, he asked what their earliest memories (“imprints”) of Jeeps were. Many recalled open land, going where no normal car would go. This reveal the code for Jeep in America is “horse”. Hence Jeep didn’t need luxurious touches, such as soft leather seats. It needed removable doors, and an open top. In contrast, the code for Jeep in France and Germany is “liberator” since many associated the Jeep to the liberation of Europe during the Second World War.
It had always puzzled me why Americans love carry their coffee around, drinking it on the go – on streets, in cars. I would see American exchange students on campus in Korea, faithfully carrying their big travel mugs heading to class. Only American students seems to do this. A sure sign of an American student was his/her coffee, backpack, sandals and large water bottles.
This, I learned, was because Americans equate health with movement, (the American code for health is “movement”) and that Americans have a strong ethic for work and getting things done and have no patience for taking a backseat or enjoying things for its own pleasure. Therefore consumption of coffee (= productivity), on the go (= movement, efficiency) makes practical sense to the common American where it would puzzle your average European or Asian.
The books goes on to explore various codes for love, beauty, fat, health, youth, home, work, money, quality, alcohol, shopping and towards the end the code for America itself.
The book was somewhat therapeutic for me. I never imagined that a branding/marketing book would end up being a self-help book. It helped me understand how growing up in different cultures informs the way we think and helps explain some of the differences between my wife who grew up in the States and I who grew up in the UK. Why I read instructions and she doesn’t.
The study of how Americans perceive quality was also informative. American code for quality is simply “it works”. What this says is Americans prefer basic function over design. American are very forgiving towards design as long as it performs it expected function (How else would you explain the abundance of such bad car designs coming out of Detroit). In the mobile phone industry, this attitude is perfectly exemplified in the Verizon ads with the bespectacled man who goes around simply saying, “Can you hear me now?” In comparison, Koreans, Japanese and British people are far more conscious about the way cell phones look.
The author bring all the observations around cultural differences to a conclusion about global marketing:
Global strategy requires customizing for each culture, though it is always important that the strategy embrace “American-ness.
The author suggests that branding needs to be tailored to cultures however when a brand is global, it is always in its best interest to project an image of its local roots:
Cultures perceive globalization as a direct attack on their survival. If the world becomes truly flat and we all exist under one huge planet-wide culture, then we lose the individual cultural identities that have defined us. When brands extend themselves into the global market by championing their village of origin, they accomplish two tasks at once: they perpetuate their own culture and they celebrate everyone’s cultural identity.
Think Mini Cooper. They are owned by BMW, but they are branding (rightfully, successfully) as a British icon. Think Evian or Levi’s. These are global brands, but still have something very local about them. Evian is water from the Alps and Levi’s is the icons American apparel.
In the end I had to wonder about Korea. How Koreans perceive themselves. Also how Korea is perceived by others outside Korea. What is the code for America in Korea? How should Samsung, LG, Hyundai be market themselves? What is uniquely Korean about these brands?
On this heels of one book that explores the differences between cultures comes another: I just started reading: The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why. This book promises to be more of an academic read.