Wake Up and Smell the Zeitgeist

Chief Culture Officer:

How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation

By Grant McCracken

Basic Books; 262 pp.; $26.95 Is it possible to clone Steve Jobs or Martha Stewart? That's the question at the heart of Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation, by Grant McCracken, an anthropologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a business consultant. McCracken argues that corporations need to focus on "reading" what's happening in the culture around them—a task at which Jobs and Stewart excel. Otherwise, companies will suffer the consequences, as Levi Strauss did when it missed out on the rise of hip-hop (and the baggy pants that are part of that lifestyle).

McCracken doesn't advocate that companies launch an extensive search for an all-knowing guru or rely on so-called cool hunters or design agencies. Instead, he believes the skills of a Steve Jobs, often viewed as exceedingly rare, are in fact reproducible: They can be learned by managers and made a part of doing business. Offering examples of failures and successes in culture-reading, McCracken dishes up good helpings of practical advice.

At present, says McCracken, most companies do a lousy job of sensing cultural currents. That's because they tend to concentrate on what he calls "fast culture," the kind tracked by cool-hunting, whether it's the latest Italian furniture design or this week's hottest iPhone app. Too often that means companies miss slow culture, the kind that makes up the fabric of people's lives. Homeyness, or how we turn our houses into a home, is an example of slow culture. Former Procter & Gamble (PG) Chairman A.G. Lafley understands slow culture, McCracken says, and because Lafley gets it, he changed the way P&G studies people. Instead of using narrow focus groups to examine why a consumer prefers one toothpaste over another, Lafley got company researchers to look at how people generally lived their lives and how the choice of toothpaste fit in.

Some of the changes McCracken discusses will sound familiar to most readers. For instance, it's a cliché that consumers are producers of culture these days and that companies must embrace this shift. The book's most helpful chapters offer how-tos and profile executives who've become culture officers within their companies.

For example, there's Silvia Lagnado, global brand director for Unilever's (UL) Dove products. Lagnado's fresh take on consumer research data led her to upend beauty marketing. When she looked at global ads, the models were mostly "young, white, blond, and slim." That comes as no surprise, but the impact of such homogeneity is enormous. According to a survey of women worldwide, only 2% consider themselves beautiful. Rather than accepting the marketing status quo and emphasizing other aspects of Dove products, such as healthiness, Lagnado embraced inclusiveness, creating the "Campaign for Real Beauty" that starred ordinary women.

McCracken's how-tos include the development of soft skills people often don't appreciate, such as the skill of noticing. Advertising firm Crispin Porter Bogusky remarked that, though Apple's (AAPL) funny "Mac vs. PC" ads seemed to put people in either the avant-garde camp or the square mainstream, a growing group of people didn't want to be labeled at all. So the firm dreamed up the "I'm a PC" campaign that made it seem cool not to be hip. McCracken also purveys more specific advice, including a list of deep thinkers to lunch with, such as new-media whiz Jerry Michalski.

While McCracken's book is full of managers who read culture well, it's obviously not easy to develop the keen receptors of a Jobs or a Martha Stewart. But maybe that's asking too much. The book makes a compelling case that companies will reap rewards just by working toward more cultural sensitivity. Those inclined to try will get plenty of inspiration and insight from McCracken.

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