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The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way To Understand Why People Around The World Live And Buy As They Do
By Clotaire Rapaille
The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way To Understand Why People Around The World Live And Buy As They Do by Clotaire Rapaille examines how different cultures view products, events, and concepts.
Rapaille argues each product makes a unique imprint on members of any given culture. This imprint can be described in only a few words. For example, Rapaille says the American code for cars is "Identity," while the German code for cars is "Engineering."
For the last thirty years, Rapaille, a cultural anthropologist, has helped international companies learn and understand these cultural codes by examining how consumers really feel about products.
Rapaille worked with Chrysler to discover the code for Jeep. The American code for Jeep is "Horse," a go-anywhere vehicle. Based on this, Rapaille suggested replacing square headlights with round ones, because horses have round eyes. Luxury interiors weren't part of the code. The Jeep was then successfully marketed as a "horse" in America.
In France and Germany, Jeeps were seen differently. People there associate them with the WWII liberation of Europe. Chrysler marketed Jeeps in Europe as symbols of freedom.
According to Rapaille, most cultural imprints occur by a very early age. In America, many people love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, because they ate them as children. People associated the sandwiches with care and attention from mom. In other cultures the sandwiches might not have been imprinted at all.
Cars also have a strong, positive imprint in America. Rapaille writes: "[Children] imprint the thrills associated with cars in their youth. Americans love cars and they love going out in them. Throughout the discovery sessions, participants told stories of their excited parents bringing home a new car, about the enjoyment and bonding that comes from families going out for drives together on the weekend, about the breathtaking first ride in a sports car. American children learn at an early age that cars are an essential and vaunted part of family life, that they bring joy and even family unity. When it is time for them to buy a car, this emotional connection guides them subconsciously. They want a car that feels special to them. …"
Based upon his understanding of the American code for cars, Rapaille helped Chrysler develop the concept for the PT Cruiser. Rapaille writes: "It became obvious to me that because the emotion associated with driving and owning a car is so strong, the PT Cruiser needed to be a car people could feel strongly about. It needed to have a distinctive identity to justify such strong emotions. To create a strong identity and a new car at the same time, we decided to tap into something that already existed in the culture, a familiar unconscious structure. The one we chose was the gangster car, the kind of vehicle Al Capone famously drove. This became the PT Cruiser's signature. It lent the car an extremely strong identity—there is nothing like it on the road today—and the customer responded. Again, if the Cruiser had been just another sedan, the public probably wouldn't have even noticed it, but its distinctiveness tapped into something very emotional."
In addition to products, concepts like beauty, youth, health, home, dinner, money, shopping, luxury, work, and perfection are also imprinted with certain subconscious associations. Rapaille examines how each of these is imprinted in American culture. The George H.W. Bush campaign even hired Rapaille to discover the cultural code for the American Presidency.
While many of Rapaille's insights seem spot on, a few seem to be a bit of a stretch. Rapaille suggests being overweight isn't a problem, but a solution. He says the American code for fat is "checking out." This means people get fat, so they can withdraw from society. That seems a bit like asking for the cultural code for gravity. It doesn't necessarily have a cultural explanation. It really seems more an issue of food tasting good and calories in and calories out at the waist.
For marketers who want to better understand some of the cultural reasons why Americans behave as we do, I recommend The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way To Understand Why People Around The World Live And Buy As They Do by Clotaire Rapaille.