Chief Culture Officer, by Grant McCracken

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I have been a fan of Grant McCracken’s for several years now, so I was eagerly awaiting his new book, Chief Culture Officer. Note that I may be slightly biased in this review, as Grant mentions me in the book as a potential CCO candidate.

Chief Culture Officer is McCracken’s manifesto of how and why culture matters to the corporation. He starts the book with stories like Levi’s missing a billion dollar opportunity in the mid-90s because they didn’t see the hip-hop trend and therefore didn’t understand why anybody would want baggy jeans. Another example is Steve Jobs revolutionizing industry after industry by leading a new wave of culture e.g. using iTunes and the iPod to create an individual song a la carte option in the music industry so people could create their own mixes. Or Geoffrey Frost at Motorola creating an enormous amount of value with the Razr.

McCracken then dives into several of the trends that have been taking place over the last few decades:

  • Culture fast and slow – fast culture is the bleeding edge, particularly notable in the fashion and design industries where “that’s so five minutes ago” is a meaningful insult. Slow culture is represented by less flashy, more subtle trends, like how we think about our food, or how homes are changing to reflect updated needs.
  • Status and cool – status is Victorian and high culture – it’s about aspiring to the One True set of status indicators like the luxury car, an appreciation of art and opera, etc. Cool is represented by outsiders such as the beats – it’s doing what the hip kids are doing rather than conforming to society’s expectations. I liked McCracken’s observation that the two trends, at odds throughout the twentieth century, have now fused into an interesting hybrid where “cool” avant-garde liberties in personal expression are eventually co-opted into the social order of “status” (shades of learn and latch).
  • Producers and consumers – the age of mass media was about few producers and millions of consumers. We have moved towards a many-to-many fragmented culture, as everybody now has the tools of production. That changes our entire relationship to media, both as producers and consumers.

One insight I particularly liked was that “Convergence culture is fleeting. But it supplies order, and for the CCO this order is a gift”. Seeing the right cultural trend splits the world in a useful way and illuminates events by giving a framework through which to view them. It gives us a meaningful story by which we can interpret what’s happening, and testable hypotheses as to what will happen next. McCracken suggests we should be tracking the trends that we think are happening and revisit those predictions, so that we can learn from our mistakes (I would note that blogs are a particularly good way to track such thoughts).

How does the CCO figure out which are the next meaningful trends, and which are fads that will fade away? They need to monitor magazines, TV shows, internet forums – one person can’t do it all, so how do we collaborate? McCracken suggests having a group of advisors/editors who can collectively share tidbits (I would suggest that Twitter can be useful for this purpose if following the right set of people). And once potential trends of interest are identified, how do we convert those into actionable insights? McCracken suggests that the CCO needs to champion efforts in the corporation that catch the rising wave, and fight back against the ones on the subsiding ones.

Another insight I liked was the corporations breathe culture in and out – “the corporation is not just an economic actor, it is also a social and a cultural one.” Brands are not imposed on people; instead, brands only derive meaning from how people incorporate brands into their self-story. Brands must spark a recognition within the consumer that the brand is a meaningful expression of identity. For instance, cars are a quintessential expression of identity, ranging from muscle cars, hybrids, or minivans. In this vision, brands that aren’t co-opted and multiplied by their users wither away and die.

McCracken finishes up with a chapter on the nitty-gritty of how to observe and monitor culture, including an appendix with “A Tool Kit for the Rising CCO”, which includes recommendations for magazines, TV, events, people, books, etc. His ethnographic perspective emphasizes the act of noticing, both observing a behavior and then explaining it with a story. Part of the challenge of noticing is keeping an open mind. If you go in with an opinion, you’ll fit your observations into that opinion – you have to pay attention what is actually happening and willing to follow up on surprising inconsistencies. The ethnographer is actively engaged, “capturing how and why the assumptions in this life go together, or feel they do”.

I like McCracken’s premise that understanding cultural trends is vital to corporations that want to act effectively in this world. And as usual, I love his insights into our culture – he provides useful stories for understanding what is going on around us. This is the kind of book that is easy to read, but has meaning that is only slowly percolating into how I think. Good stuff.

P.S. As mentioned previously, McCracken is holding a Chief Culture Officer Boot Camp this Saturday in New York. I’m excited to attend, and will report back with my notes and observations afterwards.

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