Amid all of this talk about new media, culture is the one medium that’s rarely discussed.  Most people take culture for granted.  But as the marketplace—the cultural landscape—fragments into niche upon niche, culture will take on increasing importance for marketers.  Soon, effective communications planning will not only hinge on the ability to determine the right message sent at the right time via the right vehicle, but also understanding the cultural medium through which the message must travel.

Wikipedia defines culture as:

Culture has been called “the way of life for an entire society.” As such, it includes codes of manners, dress, language, religion, rituals, norms of behaviour and systems of belief.

And, the Random House dictionary provides a useful definition of “medium”:

An intervening substance through which something else is transmitted or carried on.

Culture colors how we see the world and, more importantly, how we process communications.  On a national, regional and local level, culture determines how we frame everything.  For example, in an earlier post I’ve highlighted the work of Clotaire Rapaille, who continues to successfully document the cultural “codes” that exist for services, product categories and even concepts (like seduction, work or shopping).  His work is valuable precisely because it exposes the frames that shape our perceptions and it gets us even closer to understanding why one size fits all communications don’t work.

Perhaps it’s also useful to think of culture as a medium because we often speak of ideas traveling through it.

The “intervening substance” is more dense in some areas, made so by any number of factors: race, gender, occupation, religion, political affiliation, income.  You can probably think of others.  As the medium gets more dense, communications (think of it as a wave) refracts (bends) and doesn’t reach its target in the way that was originally intended.

That simple message that you (the marketer) labored over, bounces right off the consumer (like bullets off Superman) or—continuing the bullet metaphor—the shot that you thought was dead on goes wide.  Perhaps it reaches the target as you’d planned, but it’s somehow changed: It travels slower and thus doesn’t have the intended stopping power.  Sounds violent, I know.  But given that many brands talk about how they’re in a life or death battle for share, it’s appropriate.

Is there some “cultural co-efficient” that can be applied to target groups before any messages are sent?  You know, just throw a few factors into your pimped out Univac and out comes a number by which you’ll have to adjust your message in order for it to have maximum impact against a particular group.

But this is getting too abstract.  Most likely, human factors make the determination of such a number useless.  No, I doubt we’ll have that much scientific ammunition in our marketing tool kits.  Rather, I think it’s going to come down to old-fashioned tools of anthropology and sociology: observing and understanding how people live, how they create meaning and why they do so.

Once this deep dive is complete, the important step will be the insight: Knowing all of this, how does this niche/subculture/area of interest link back to/impact the person’s relationship with the larger culture?

Context becomes paramount: What’s disturbing the medium and why?  Was it a big rock or pebble?  The pebble you don’t have to worry about.  The big rock, on the other hand, forces you to think: What is it, and how has the fact that it’s been thrown in changed the environment for me and my business?  Hip hop had much more of an impact on fashion (Levi’s, anyone?) than it did on software and IT.

That said, where do we go from here?  A good next step is to pick up a copy of Grant McCracken’sFlock & Flow: Predicting and Managing Change in a Dynamic Marketplace”.  Why?  In it, he provides an extremely useful framework for understanding how innovation moves across the landscape.  Equally important are his recommendations for the additional skill sets that will be needed to create competitive marketing organizations.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll be highlighting some of McCracken’s key concepts in an effort to share with you what I think is one of the most important business books of 2006.

Posted by Rob Fields