In 2006, I was lucky enough to meet Dr. Grant McCracken by accident in the lobby of the (long-vanished) Future Marketing Summit in New York. Of all the thinkers in the room, including a talk by Alex Bogusky on brand terrorism that I’ll never forget, a five-minute conversation with McCracken stuck with me the most.
Trained as an anthropologist (Ph.D., University of Chicago), McCracken has studied American culture and business for 25 years. He has worked for organizations including Timberland, New York Historical Society, Diageo, IKEA, Sesame Street, Nike, and Kimberly Clark, and has taught at the University of Cambridge, MIT, and the Harvard Business School. His most recent books include “Culturematic” and “Chief Culture Officer.”
You will rarely meet anyone who is such a font of insight into the ebbs and flows of culture and the context of brands in human life. I’ve had to remove probably a university course worth of ideas from this interview, but fear not, dear reader–you can (and should!) follow Grant to learn more about his books and speaking events at cultureby.com. This interview is from volume 1 of "The SoDA Report 2014," presented by SoDA, the Global Society for Digital Marketing Innovators.
MacPhedran: How do you convince your client of the value of research–ethnography, in particular?
McCracken: The most general proposition on behalf of ethnography is simply that, whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not, we end up the captives of our own corporate culture. I did a lot of work for Coca-Cola some years ago and would come back to Toronto after a couple of weeks there, and Coke would feel like the inevitable choice. I would see a kid ordering a Pepsi, and it would seem like an impossible choice for me. My world was now “Coca-Cola World.”
Ethnography works like a helicopter. It lifts you up out of your own sense of the world and the brand, and drops you into the world of the consumer, so that you can see them and yourself as they do.
MacPhedran: What’s the most interesting trend that you’ve seen emerging over the past year in your work?
McCracken: The American Experiment is just changing at light speed. There is some sense that everything is changing because this has gone from being an expansionary economy to a contracting economy. And that does powerful things to the American sense of initiative and optimism. Some of the painful opposition that’s going on in political circles where you’ve got people hollowing out the middle and driving one another to the far left or the far right, that’s partly a reflection of the fact that the American experiment is no longer as generous. And now people are fighting over it.
The new generation of Millennials are now coming up and making their way in the world. That’s extremely interesting to watch unfold as they decide how they want to craft their careers and their public and private lives in the face of job insecurity, and the difficulty of creating a career. They would say, “My parents cared about having a connection to a big corporation, that was their security, and I don’t expect ever to have that, and that’s perfectly OK. I have a social network, thanks to Facebook and Instagram, and that group of people is my security. That is the thing that secures me in the world and opens up opportunity.”
MacPhedran: What brands are good at discovering the value in the large amounts of information we are collecting today?
McCracken: Netflix has done a great job. I’m impressed with how intelligently they’re figuring out what’s happening in culture now. They’ve got data. Do you remember that moment when GM discovered that they were making more money by loaning money to people to buy their cars than they were making from actually selling their cars? They were acting like a bank, and there was more money in that than manufacturing cars. Something like that is going on now in some of the new media plays.
MacPhedran: Are there any risks in becoming too data-driven?
McCracken: I think what we’re going to see is this regime of big data where managers make decisions based on these beautiful and illuminating data sets. But that scares me because it puts us back into the post World War II era where we have guys like MacNamara saying, “Give me the data, and I will give you the managerial thing to do.” And that was tested–that’s one of the reasons that he thought he could win the Vietnam War, and he totally didn’t. The data was very good, but it didn’t tell them anything about the Vietnamese. It goes back to the helicopter notion. He really had no idea using the data at hand who he was dealing with.
MacPhedran: How would you draw the link between cultural understanding and brand value?
McCracken: Talking about meaning and value in the same sentence. In the same active analysis. When we’re talking to the consumer about how they define themselves in their homes and their families and their preferences. They’re almost always talking about meanings. Specific cultural meanings. “I like the way this perfume makes me feel” or “I like the person I become in this video game.” At some point those meanings get turned into value. The brands that capture the meanings that matter are actually monetizing the meaning. If they do it well, they find a way to connect with cultural meaning that turns into economic value. It actually becomes part of the value of the brand.
Literally, this brand is the share price. In the case of Coca-Cola, Nike, or Google–we can say that some part of this value comes from the brand, and some part of its value comes from the meanings that are captured and mobilized by the marketers.
Next week: Three ways to create real value for customers.