Wanted: Chief Cultural Officer

Must think like Chris Rock. Gurus need not apply.
7 min read

This story appears in the June 2010 issue of Entrepreneurs StartUps Magazine. Subscribe »

Anthropologists spend their time on remote Pacific islands or in the depths of the Amazon rain forest studying tribes unspoiled by modern life. At least that's what most people think, on those rare occasions when they think about anthropology at all. Not so, says cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken. He argues that modern commercial culture is not only authentic but incredibly interesting to the observant anthropologist. Has there ever in history been such a dynamic, diverse culture, where so many new customs, habits, and meanings are surfacing and disappearing so fast?

An anthropologist's job, he writes in Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation, is "the urgent work of noticing." That, too, is the job of any company that wants to succeed in the marketplace that shapes and expresses our turbulent culture. McCracken, a Ph.D. who has taught at Cambridge, McGill, and Harvard Business School, now spends most of his time helping companies use anthropological insight to improve their marketing. He also writes a lively blog at CultureBy.com .

But McCracken isn't a guru. In fact, the whole point of his book is that paying attention to culture is a skill that can be learned--no gurus required.

What do you mean by "culture"?
I was just watching the movie I Love You, Man. It's a wonderfully observed piece of anthropology. The Paul Rudd character doesn't understand how to act like a "guy." Somehow this knowledge has escaped him. That's what culture is: the meanings and rules with which we understand and act in the world.

What's the biggest mistake business people make when they think about the intersection of culture and commerce?
They suppose that the moment of sale consists of a rational decision, a calculation of interest, a pursuit of benefit. But every purchase is shaped by meanings and rules. Whether a new product finds a place in the market depends on whether and how it squares with the meanings in our heads.

What can a small startup without the resources to have a dedicated "chief culture officer" do to make sure it pays attention to the relevant cultural trends?
Startups have access to lots of culture knowledge. Right now it's tacit knowledge. Like how to be a guy. Or things we know about television, cocktail culture, the local food movement, Burning Man. We have to get it out of our heads onto the table. And then we have to tag the changes we see happening. Then we need to track the changes that matter to us and start making estimates about when they will reach our markets.

For the culture knowledge we don't know, the trick is to start combing media more systematically. In Chief Culture Officer, I talk about an investment firm in NYC that keeps track of culture by having five people read 300 magazines. We don't need to hire a cool hunter or a guru to learn about culture. We just have to pay attention.

Could you give us an example of a startup that beat the big guys by understanding culture?
The world of carbonated soft drinks is filled with examples: Snapple, Red Bull, Vitamin Water, Odwalla, and so on.

What's wrong with "cool hunting"?
Cool hunters only care about the latest stuff, the fads and fashion. Culture is vastly more than this. It is deep cultural traditions that change slowly. And they don't show on the cool hunter's radar. Fads and fashions make up only 20 percent of culture. Slow culture is the rest. What kind of professional ignores 80 percent of his or her domain?

You introduce the idea of the "lunch list" as a way to stay in touch with culture. What is it, and how would it apply to the owner of a small startup?
No one can keep track of contemporary culture but there are people who really understand individual pieces of it. The CCO solution? Take these people to lunch. Chefs, journalists, politicians, CMOs, diplomats, all can give us a glimpse of the forces shaping the world.

What do you mean by "fast culture" and "slow culture," and how do their implications for business differ?
Fast culture is great churn of our culture at any given time. Some of the fads will cool into fashion, some of the fashions will cool into trends, and some of the trends will actually stay on to become culture. But most fad, fashion, and trend just keeps going, out of our world, eventually out of memory.

But there is also "slow culture," and these are the long-standing traditions that are part of our bedrock. I am just reading a book called Hotel: An American History by Andrew K. Sandoval-Strausz, a wonderfully interesting look at the hospitality industry as it has shaped and been shaped by the American culture. We need to know about fast culture, but this is like taking a major leaguers' stats for the season and not the career. We need to know about slow culture too.

Why would Chris Rock make a good chief culture officer?
Mr. Rock knows about African-American culture and he knows about non-African-American culture, and knows how to pass back and forth between them. This makes him a cultural entrepreneur. We might say he's in the shipping business.

Does being Canadian give you an advantage as an anthropologist?
An American journalist asked Martin Short why so many American comedians were Canadians by birth. Shore said, "Oh, that's because you grew up watching TV. I grew up watching American TV." My sister and I used to watch Saturday morning cartoons. We enjoyed them immensely, but there was always a small sense that we were watching something from another world. Now that we are a diverse society everyone has access to a difference of this kind.

Books to Raise Your Cultural IQ
From home-brewed beer to the crafty microbusinesses on Etsy, America is experiencing a resurgence of do-it-yourself culture. Two of the country's most successful bloggers offer their distinctive takes on the phenomenon.

In Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World (Portfolio, $24.95), Mark Frauenfelder, co-founder of BoingBoing.net and editor-in-chief of Make magazine, makes his own yogurt, raises chickens, hacks his espresso machine, and uses such experiences to make the case for releasing your inner amateur. Law professor Glenn Reynolds, of Instapundit.com fame, hit some of the same themes in his 2006 book An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths (Thomas Nelson, $14.99 paper), whose political lessons anticipated both the Obama insurgency and the Tea Party movement.

In contemporary American culture, choice is both a cherished value and a major challenge: How do we navigate the myriad choices we face in our personal and business lives without becoming overwhelmed? In The Art of Choosing (Twelve, $25.99), psychologist Sheena Iyengar offers a lively survey of the psychological research on how we choose and, along the way, suggests some tactics businesses can use to help customers make more satisfying--and profitable--purchase decisions.

Design Your Life: The Pleasures and Perils of Everyday Things (St. Martin's, $23.95) by Ellen Lupton, a prominent graphic designer and design curator, and her twin sister Julia Lupton, an English professor, is all about noticing and then thinking about what you notice, providing instruction in "design thinking" through the anthropology of the familiar. Why is a paper shredder the latest kitchen gadget? Why won't the living room die? Why does a chocolate fountain make an impressive store display but a terrible gift? And where do baby carrots come from?

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