Deciphering our Culture Codes

This past semester, I read a book by Clotaire Rapaille entitled The Culture Code for my Marketing Research class at John Brown University. Though I did not agree with everything that Rapaille said, it was an interesting read, especially as a marketing student. Here are some of my thoughts on the book paraphrased from a paper I wrote for the class:

Every culture has Codes for itself, its members, and its components. In his book The Culture Code, Clotaire Rapaille explores several Codes that are present within American culture. He makes it clear that each Code does not necessarily apply to each member of a culture, but that cultural differences do “actually lead to our processing the same information in different ways” (p. 6). Everyone within a culture often subconsciously uses the different Codes that have been imprinted upon them as a base for making decisions. Since culture changes at a very slow pace (with the exception of very powerful events like September 11, 2001), the Codes of a particular culture remain the same for extended periods of time. This information is useful to marketers that seek to build lasting brand and company images that will resonate with a specific people group for generations.

To discover the Codes that members of a culture have for particular items, individuals, or actions, Rapaille developed a three-step process for bringing out a focus group participant’s first imprint with the subject matter. The first step involves having group members explain to Rapaille what an object is and how it is used as if he were a visitor from another planet who had never had an experience with the object. From this first hour, he was able to discern people’s initial perception of an item. During the second hour, participants are asked to make a collage with words and pictures that they associate with the product or concept which leads to some storytelling related to it. Finally, Rapaille had participants lie on the floor and listen to calming music in order to provide an environment in which the men and women could recall their earliest or most powerful memory of the subject at hand. Rapaille refers to this memory as an individual’s imprint. The way that the majority of people in a culture receive their imprints makes up a pattern that has a common theme: a Culture Code. Rapaille claims, “Understanding the Culture Code provides us with a remarkable new tool…with which to view ourselves and our behaviors. It changes the way we see everything around us” (p. 11).

To uncover the Culture Codes that influence the way that individuals act, think, and, most important for marketers, buy, Rapaille uses five principles in his research: you can’t believe what people say; emotion is the energy required to learn anything; the structure, not the content, is the message; there is a window in time for imprinting, and the meaning of the imprint varies from one culture to another; and to access the meaning of an imprint within a particular culture, you must learn the code for the imprint (p. 13-24). Using these principles, in addition to his discovery sessions, Rapaille has been able to uncover Codes for a variety of different items, several of which he discusses in the chapters of The Culture Code.

In the subsequent chapters, Rapaille discusses the Codes for a variety of topics including love, money, luxury, shopping, home, food, and health. The conclusions that he draws are primarily based on the “third-hour” of the discovery sessions that he holds for various clients. The author provides a significant amount of detail for each Code as well as some practical examples from everyday American life. Dr. Rapaille implies that three concepts influence each of the Codes in American culture. The first concept is that American culture “exhibits many of the traits consistent with adolescence: intense focus on the ‘now,’ dramatic mood swings, a constant need for exploration and challenge to authority, a fascination with extremes, openness to change and reinvention, and a strong belief that mistakes warrant second chances” (p. 33). This adolescent idealism, according to Rapaille, provides a backdrop for all of the American Codes. Another influence on the development of the Culture Codes is Rapaille’s theory of the three-part brain that consists of a cortex, limbic system, and reptilian brain. He puts forth that the reptilian brain is the “undisputed champion” (p. 74) when it comes to our decision-making and adherence to Codes. The final concept that has an impact on the American Codes is actually the American Culture Code for itself: “dream” (p. 195). Each of the other Codes discussed in the book can be related back to the idea of “the American dream.” By understanding that the notions of an adolescent culture, a reptilian brain, and the Code for America work together to effect the development of the American Culture Codes, the reader can more firmly grasp what Rapaille has discovered and the implications of his research for the marketing industry.

As a Christian, the Code that was most convicting for me was the one for love as being a “false expectation” (p. 39). Christians, especially evangelicals, stress the importance of sharing the unconditional love of Jesus with all that we come in contact with. However, if those around us (and maybe even Christians themselves) view love in such a negative light, then Christians, myself included, need to be much more intentional about showing people what love really looks like. Rapaille makes an important and thought-provoking statement at the end of the third chapter that caught my attention: “Our new glasses let us see something that most of us have observed but few truly understand: how central to our culture is the pursuit of salvation” (p. 72, emphasis added). This quote points out something that goes beyond culture into the realm of theology. Many in our culture are looking for someone who can rescue them and show them what love really looks like, which is why the Code for doctors is “hero” (p. 82) and the Code for the President is “Moses” (p. 186). In John 15, Jesus tells His disciples about the importance of abiding in Christ, the true vine, and how, by doing so, they will want to share the love that they experience from keeping His commands and staying close to Him with everyone that they come in contact with. If Christians would put this into action, not only would the world’s view of Christianity change, but so would their perception of love as a false expectation but rather a love that has all the qualities described in 1 Corinthians 13.

As a student pursuing a career in the marketing and advertising field, reading The Culture Code has highlighted the importance of not only finding out what customers want, but also discovering why they want what they do. Rapaille goes into some detail on this idea when he discusses how to market a brand internationally. When an American company decides to take a product or brand to a foreign market, they cannot expect an existing marketing message to appeal to the new audience (though there are some instances where this is true). Instead, “any marketing strategy in a foreign culture must also be cognizant of what a culture thinks of itself” (p. 176) in order to make a considerable impression on the target market. Both pieces are essential for a successful international marketing effort. One of my favorite quotes in the book addresses this topic: “A global strategy requires customizing for each culture, though it is always important that the strategy embrace ‘America-ness’” (p. 179). This quote embodies the temptation that a company may have to separate itself from its identity to appeal to the new market. However, that identity (especially the “village” concept discussed in the Afterword) is a part of who the brand or product is and removing it detracts from the brand or product. If marketers, like myself, are able to take this idea and the other concepts found in The Culture Code, we can appeal to the Codes that underlie a culture and provide products and services that better address and fulfill the desires of the people in the world.

-Lawson
Learn It. Love It. Live It.

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About Lawson Hembree
Lawson is an entrepreneur, ministry leader, and outdoors enthusiast who also enjoys blogging about business, ideas, and theology. Want to continue the discussion or write a guest post? Let's Connect!

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