Chief Culture Officer – A Book Review

January 24th, 2011   •   no comments   

On a recent visit to the public library at Bukit Merah (I love them for their wide selection), I managed to locate a copy of Chief Culture Officer by cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken.

With the tagline “How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation”, McCracken proposed that a new professional – the Chief Culture Officer or CCO – is needed to keep corporations on the pulse of consumer cultures. While certain organisations has the fortune of having a CEO who is also a CCO, relying purely on the gut feel of executive tastemakers alone may be dangerous and un-strategic for organisations keen to differentiate themselves.

Adopting an anecdotal narrative, McCracken first gave examples of top executives who were CCOs themselves, distinguished between fast and slow cultures (see diagram below), highlighted why status was waning and cool was winning, and shared about the rise of pro-sumers.

While fast culture appear to be fads, slow culture is a product of heritage, ritual and tradition (courtesy of throughline)

McCracken next hinted how organisations can seek out culture through books, magazines, movies, insiders, hobbyists, blogs and other sources of popular culture. He advises CCOs to steer clear of naysayers, and furnished readers with a “How-To” guide complete with a “tool kit” and reading list.

A natural storyteller, McCracken weaves a compelling chronicle. He explains that any company worth its salt needs to understand and ingrain a deeper understanding of popular culture into its DNA. This is different from high culture which includes museums (ouch!), gallery art, classical music and ballet.

CCOs can play a vital role by helping to connect the organisation to its consumers (termed multipliers by McCracken to signify a more active and participatory role), and to both “breathe in” and “breathe out” culture. They need to venture beyond traditional market research tools like surveys and focus groups to embark on ethnographic interviews (which is a form of social science research). This entails noticing what’s happening around them and demonstrating empathy while asking the right questions.

CCOs must get down and dirty to dig up scintillating gems of deep and useful cultural insight. They cannot shy away from speaking to people from all walks of life in order to gain an intimate understanding of how their products and services fit into their customers’ lifestyles.

To bolster his case, McCracken showcased numerous examples of corporations that get it and those that don’t. Winners include Apple, P&G, Facebook, and Motorola’s Razr (it went downhill thereafter). Culturally astute heroes such as Steve Jobs of Apple, Mary Minnick of Coke, Silvia Lagnado of Dove, Geoffrey Frost of Motorola and the legendary A.G. Lafley of P&G are also lauded.

AG Lafley is the Chief Executive Officer of P&G as well as its CCO (source)

Offering tips on brainstorming and other acts of intellectual improv, McCracken felt that a CCO should leverage the interests, wisdom and knowledge of others in the organisation. A truly effective cultural strategy would permeate all parts of the customer-facing end of the organisation – from brand management/marketing communications, to design, to new media and planning.

Writing in a bold and sometimes provocative manner, McCracken has his fair share of pet peeves. He warns about over-reliance on consultants and “gurus”, despises “too cool for school” cool-hunters, ridicules the over mechanical mindsets of engineers or economists, and even brings down his own kind – academic professors and anthropologists. Unfortunately, this is also where McCracken fell into his own trap of adopting stereotypical and prejudiced lenses while making bold sweeping statements!

Would I recommend this book? Well, the idea of a CCO is an ingenious one, although many of the proposed tools and techniques are not new to those of us schooled in Marketing. While the book is heavy on stories, it isn’t meant to be prescriptive and thus may be more useful as a provocation for action rather than a reference tome. Overall, the book was a rather entertaining read, although certain sections tend to belabour their points.

One thing is certain though. Companies need to be more informed and alert to upcoming consumer trends and cultural tastes, and this book serves as a good base to build one’s cultural strategies upon.

PS – Do also check out Kevin Lim’s interview of Grant McCracken close to a year ago.

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