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Authors: Clotaire Rapaille

Tags: #Non-Fiction, #Philosophy, #Business

The Culture Code

BOOK: The Culture Code

This book is dedicated to the GI who gave me chocolate and chewing gum on top of his tank two weeks after D-Day…and changed my life forever.

One of the handicaps of the twentieth century is that we still have the vaguest and most biased notions, not only of what makes Japan a nation of Japanese, but of what makes the United States a nation of Americans, France a nation of Frenchmen, and Russia a nation of Russians . . .. Lacking this knowledge, each country misunderstands the other.

—Ruth Benedict,
The Chrysanthemum and the Sword

We are all puppets, and our best hope for even partial liberation is to try to decipher the logic of the puppeteer.

—Robert Wright,
The Moral Animal


or Americans, it’s a gallop. For Europeans, it’s a march. For Jeep, it was a breakthrough.

In the late 1990s, the Jeep Wrangler was struggling to regain its place in the American market. Once in a category all its own, it had been supplanted by scores of SUVs, most of which were bigger, more luxurious, and better suited to soccer moms. Chrysler had reached a crossroads with the Wrangler and gave serious thought to a major overhaul.

When I began working with Chrysler on the Jeep Wrangler in the late 1990s, the company’s management was understandably suspicious about my approach to learning consumer preferences. They’d done extensive market research and had asked dozens of focus groups hundreds of questions. I walked through the door with a bunch of different approaches and they said to themselves, “What is this guy going to give us that we don’t already have?”

The people at Chrysler had indeed asked hundreds of questions; they just hadn’t asked the right ones. They kept listening to what people
. This is always a mistake. As a result, they had theories about moving the Wrangler in multiple directions (more luxurious, more like a traditional car, without removable doors, enclosed rather than convertible, and so on) with no clear path to follow. The Wrangler—the classic consumer Jeep—verged on losing its distinctive place in the universe of automobiles, becoming, for all intents and purposes, just another

When I put groups of consumers together, I asked them different questions. I didn’t ask them what they wanted in a Jeep; I asked them to tell me about their earliest memories of Jeeps. Respondents told me hundreds of stories, and the stories had a strong recurring image—of being out on the open land, of going where no ordinary car could go, of riding free of the restraints of the road. Many people spoke of the American West or the open plains.

I returned to those wary Chrysler executives and told them that the Code for Jeep in America is
. Their notion of turning the Wrangler into just another
was ill advised. SUVs are not horses. Horses don’t have luxury appointments. Horses don’t have butter-soft leather, but rather the tough leather of a saddle. The Wrangler needed to have removable doors and an open top because drivers wanted to feel the wind around them, as though they were riding on a horse.

The executives weren’t particularly moved. After all, they had vast research that told them consumers said they wanted something else. Maybe people
thought of Jeeps as horses, but they didn’t want to think of them that way any longer. I asked them to test my theory by making a relatively minor adjustment to the car’s design: replacing the square headlights with round ones. Why? Because horses have round eyes, not square ones.

When it turned out that it was cheaper to build the car with round headlights, the decision became easier for them to make. They tested the new design and the response was instantly positive. Wrangler sales rose and the new “face” of the Wrangler became its most prominent and marketable feature. In fact, the car’s logo has incorporated its grille and round headlights ever since. There are even Jeep fan clubs that distribute T-shirts to their members bearing the legend “Real Jeeps have round headlights.”

Meanwhile, the company began to advertise the car as a “horse.” My favorite ad shows a child in the mountains with a dog. The dog falls off a cliff and clings precariously to a tree. The kid runs into a nearby village for help. He passes sedans, minivans, and SUVs until he comes upon a Jeep Wrangler. The Wrangler scales the treacherous mountain terrain and its driver rescues the dog. The kid hugs the dog and then turns to thank the driver—but the Jeep is already heading back down the mountain, just like an old Western hero heading off into the sunset upon his steed. The campaign was a smash.

Bolstered by its American success, Chrysler hired me to discover the Code for the Wrangler in Europe. Respondents in both France and Germany saw Wranglers as reminiscent of the Jeeps American troops drove during World War II. For the French, this was the image of freedom from the Germans. For the Germans, this was the image of freedom from their darker selves. Repeatedly, the people in these countries told me stories about how the image of a Jeep gave them a sense of hope, reminding them of the end of difficult times and the dawn of better days. I returned to Chrysler and told them that the Code for the Jeep Wrangler in both countries was

With the news of the Code, Chrysler launched new campaigns in France and Germany. Here, though, instead of positioning the car as a horse, they stressed the Jeep’s proud past and the freedom gained from driving a Wrangler. These campaigns were also tremendously successful, expanding market share for the Wrangler in both countries.

By this point, Chrysler’s executives no longer doubted my approach. They’d come to appreciate the power of the Culture Code.

or Ritz-Carlton, the revelation came unexpectedly, via…toilet paper. When I began to consult for this company, I shocked them by telling them that the work they needed to do to improve customer satisfaction had to begin in the bathroom. Of course they thought I was delirious, but they heard me out.

If you ask most people why they buy the toilet paper they do, they will say, “Because it is soft and because it is on sale.” They have no idea that the Code for toilet paper might be anything but strictly utilitarian. They are wrong. As with Jeep, my work with consumers to crack the Code for toilet paper revealed something powerful and unexpected about Americans’ first imprint of a familiar product.

For American parents, toilet training is taken very seriously. For some, toilet training is considered so essential that they start the process not long after their child’s first birthday. And, regardless of when they start, parents support a small industry of books, videos, and even psychologists who focus on the task. (A current controversy in the field involves the idea of the “diaper-free” baby, who may be toilet trained as early as eight months old!) Toilet training has significant social consequences: it affects everything from playdates to car trips to acceptance in preschool. There is also, of course, the stirring sense of liberation that comes when mothers and fathers realize they no longer need to change diapers.

For the American child himself, however, the completion of toilet training triggers a different response. Once he can use the toilet by himself—or, more specifically, use the toilet and
toilet paper
by himself—a remarkable thing happens. The child can now close the bathroom door, maybe even lock it, and
his parents. And, amazingly, he will be praised for doing so. His parents are proud of him for not needing them anymore. They smile and applaud him. Sometimes they even buy him presents.

This imprint is fully associated with the use of toilet paper rather than the use of the toilet itself. In the early years, using the toilet still requires a parent to come in—or to sit there with the child until she is finished—to wipe up afterward. It is only after the child is adept at using toilet paper that she can be free behind the bathroom door. Free, and without guilt, since she has the full endorsement of the authority figures in her life.

This imprint is so strong in the American culture that the Culture Code for toilet paper is

For Ritz-Carlton, this meant a huge opportunity to cater to their guests in the one room of the house (or suite) that signifies complete privacy and independence. Why not have a phone in the bathroom? A notepad and pen to take notes? Why stop there—why not make the bathroom comfortable, spacious, and independent of the hotel suite? Merely functional, a bathroom is forgettable. A bathroom that is a fully equipped and independent retreat from the world, however, is right on Code. Indeed, if you look to the new homes being built in prosperous neighborhoods today, you will see the same effect. Bathrooms are growing ever larger, with formerly luxury appointments now standard—sunken bathtubs, double sinks, televisions, phone jacks, and always, always, a door to lock out the world.

The reason? The Codes.

he Culture Code 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 American experience with Jeeps is very different from the French and German experience because our cultures evolved differently (we have strong cultural memories of the open frontier; the French and Germans have strong cultural memories of occupation and war). Therefore, the Codes—the meanings we give to the Jeep at an unconscious level—are different as well. The reasons for this are numerous (and I will describe them in the next chapter), but it all comes down to the worlds in which we grew up. It is obvious to everyone that cultures are different from one another. What most people don’t realize, however, is that these differences actually lead to our processing the same information in different ways.

My journey toward the discovery of cultural codes began in the early 1970s. I was a psychoanalyst in Paris at the time, and my clinical work brought me to the research of the great scientist Henri Laborit, who drew a clear connection between learning and emotion, showing that without the latter the former was impossible. The stronger the emotion, the more clearly an experience is learned. Think of a child told by his parents to avoid a hot pan on a stove. This concept is abstract to the child until he reaches out, touches the pan, and it burns him. In this intensely emotional moment of pain, the child learns what “hot” and “burn” mean and is very unlikely ever to forget it.

The combination of the experience and its accompanying emotion creates something known widely as an imprint, a term first applied by Konrad Lorenz. Once an imprint occurs, it strongly conditions our thought processes and shapes our future actions. Each imprint helps make us more of who we are. The combination of imprints defines us.

One of my most memorable personal imprints came when I was a young boy. I grew up in France, and when I was about four years old, my family received an invitation to a wedding. I’d never been to one before and I had no idea what to expect. What I encountered was remarkable. French weddings are unlike weddings in any other culture I know. The event went on for two days, nearly all of which was spent around a large communal table. People stood at the table to offer toasts. They climbed on the table to sing songs. They slept under the table and (as I later learned) even seduced one another under the table. Food was always available. People drank
le trou Normand,
a glass of Calvados that allowed them to make room for more food. Others simply went to the bathroom to vomit so they could eat more. It was an amazing thing for a child to see, and it left a permanent imprint on me. Forevermore, I would associate weddings with gustatory excess. In fact, the first time I went to a wedding in America, I was taken aback by how sedate it was in comparison. Recently, my wife (who also grew up in France) and I held the kind of multiday feast that meant “wedding” to both of us.

Every imprint influences us on an unconscious level. When the work of Laborit crystallized this for me, I began to incorporate what I had learned from him into my clinical work in Paris, most of which was being done with autistic children (in fact, Laborit led me to the theory that autistic children do not learn effectively because they lack the emotion to do so). The subject of imprinting also formed the foundation of the lectures I gave during this time. After one particular lecture at Geneva University, the father of a student approached me.

“Dr. Rapaille, I might have a client for you,” he said.

Always intrigued at the possibilities offered by another case, I nodded with interest. “An autistic child?”

“No,” he said, smiling. “Nestlé.”

At the time, focused on clinical and scholarly work, I barely understood what the word “marketing” meant. I therefore couldn’t possibly imagine what use I would be to a corporation. “Nestlé? What can I do for them?”

“We are trying to sell instant coffee in Japan, but we aren’t having as much success as we would like. Your work on imprints might be very helpful to us.”

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