Acting on Cultural Insights to Sustain Business Growth

Culture is as meaningful as it is meaningless. Without context, culture is merely an environmental observation. Yet, when we diligently look for cues and establish cause and effect, relationships, implications, and hypotheses, we can truly capitalize on cultural awareness. The way we study culture in a business context is important. I have found the anthropologist’s toolkit to be quite handy here. While statistics, surveys, and focus groups are used to inform cultural awareness, nothing beats the fieldwork of an anthropologist when it comes to generating data and insights, often simultaneously. By being a fly on the wall, observing objectively, interfering only when nature fails to answer questions in a timely manner, we assess our audience in their element, interacting with things, responding to stimuli, and displaying opinions. In the business world, this is a very under-utilized – yet potentially game-changing – methodology.

In his book, Small Data, Martin Lindstrom talks about how he took on a similar approach to breathe new life into the companies for which he consults. By spending time with consumer audiences, in their natural environment, he discovered business growth solutions that were hidden in plain sight. For example, while conducting in-home research for Lego, he observed just how proud the skateboarding-enthused kid was about a pair of sneakers that were significantly distressed – they were a badge of honor proving his dedication to the sport. In a separate case, Lindstrom discovered that older Russian matriarchs disliked the smell of perfumed laundry detergents, revealing huge insight that could make or break detergent brands seeking to do business in Russia.

Big data or not, it takes guts to take risks

These observations might seem obvious and trivial, but not everyone sees them as something from which we can derive meaningful insight. Someone needs to invest time and attention to this; insight doesn’t just get delivered on a platter. Consider this, if we looked at the big data possessed by any given business, we could very well say that the data contains the answers to our biggest strategic questions, and we could therefore establish a phenomenal growth trajectory. But again, it’s not quite as easy as snapping your fingers. It takes a team of dedicated and skilled data scientists to ensure the data quality, analyze it, and finally validate hypotheses to garner useful insights.

At the end of the day, even with the best data, data analysis, and honed audience archetypes, it takes guts to act on cultural insights.

There are risks in every business decision, but when we rely on cultural insights as essential inputs to business strategy, we take risks that are difficult to control for on a CFO’s spreadsheets. This is also the reason it is difficult to add “develop cultural insights” to a job description. Yet, the tide is turning, and in an increasingly technology-enabled world, human behavior and cultural awareness will continue to become vital to sustaining a competitive advantage.

Aligning internal cultural values with external brand presence

Let’s not forget that we are all people – and when people do anything together, they form a culture. People from Scandinavia, people who speak Portuguese, people who shop at IKEA, people who play cricket… all of these groups represent distinct cultures. Business leaders need to acknowledge cultural realities to tailor solutions that will resonate with target audiences just as much as they need to build a progressive company culture so people love coming to work.

As business management legend Peter Drucker noted, “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and it always will. Businesses seek to gain emotional connections with customers by influencing brand perception. They want customers to see them as trusted advisors, eco-friendly, positive, uplifting, and so on. But, though some brands accomplish this in the short-term, there is no brand longevity without matching external brand objectives to internal cultural priorities.

The people running the company, from line staff to management, must have a shared purpose, a shared culture. Without this alignment, all functions are putting out fires and playing defence: the sales team is chasing deals, the finance department is looking for profit to make up for each cost, the compliance team slows down processes to protect the company, the marketers are at the ready for the sales executive that yells the loudest, and HR struggles to recruit against high employee churn. Madness!

This isn’t quantifiable stuff, and that’s why I’ve seen investors buy companies based on decent financial statements without accounting for destructive cultures. In one corporate acquisition I observed, an investment firm acquired a group of companies that looked great on paper. After the ink dried, however, newly hired external executives arrived to find a sludge of tired staff, unsatisfied customers, unfavorable business deals, and industry-lagging product lines. This is what happens when culture isn’t a priority. In absence of defining a desired culture, a bad culture develops. When we’re grouped together in such a way, game theory kicks in, small social circles and alliances form, intracompany alignment drops, and overall morale nosedives.

You don’t have to look beyond today’s most successful companies to see that deliberate cultural definition is a requirement for growth and scale. Netflix, Amazon, Zappos, Google, and IBM all possess defined cultural objectives that sometimes even seem unorthodox.

Why am I even here?

So why does all of this matter? To bring purpose to business. Driven by purpose, a brand becomes more than a corporation working to boost “shareholder value,” and develops a personality that attracts supporters, admirers, and friends. We come to work ready to rock! We support colleagues by listening attentively, engaging in intellectual conversations, assuming the best intentions, and picking up lagging performers. We all have an individually-unique sense of purpose, but a strong company culture brings a shared purpose – this is a powerful force.

Internal communication matters

Companies with great products can net high revenues, but they cannot scale without a deliberate cultural strategy. There are many companies out there with great culture and I have found that most of them are also at an evolved stage of internal communication. This link between culture and communication cannot be overlooked. After all, one doesn’t live or work in total isolation, communication is mandatory. With a poor culture, communication is terse and transactional, it’s unlikely to possess much value beyond informing completion of the task at hand. In the worst cases, there is no communication at all, and the results can be deadly. This may sound extreme, but bear with me.

In a study called “Silence Kills,” researchers found that poor communication in healthcare facilities can and has resulted in catastrophic harm and death. Nurses might feel nervous to ask a senior doctor whether or not she has washed her hands, or are often hesitant to question a doctor’s choice of drug treatments in light of potential allergies and contraindications – particularly when previous interactions in the workplace have been negative. The study shared that, when treating a patient, one nurse proceeded to follow the formal protocol for inserting a central line utilizing a “maximal sterile barrier” to prevent catheter-related bloodstream infections. The presiding surgeon ridiculed the nurse for instituting such a formal procedure and proceeded to break official protocol, refusing the maximal sterile barrier.

The organization that led the study, VitalSmarts, happens to be a training company that focuses on improving communication skills. Their “Crucial Conversations” and “Crucial Accountability” workshops have been some of the most rewarding learning experiences I have ever gone through, and I’d suggest them to every organization struggling with internal communication. The methodology prepares people with a framework for approaching complex, high-stakes communications with colleagues. The result is increased workplace respect, less mistakes, more collaborative achievements, and a huge step forward for building a strong shared culture. Surely, the grandest vision for company culture cannot be realized without first ensuring that colleagues can hold respectful and productive communication.

We cannot communicate effectively and sustainably to buyer audiences before mastering internal communication.

Sure, we can hire brilliant copywriters and pavement-pounding, rainmaking salespeople, but in the absence of strong internal communication, they will excel only on their own. They will make their mark, achieve success, burn out, hit a wall, and suffer through tough times all on their own. As a marketer, I have noticed an extremely high correlation here: The best campaign results happen when internal communication is highly evolved. Highly evolved internal communication is above all things “low friction,” it’s easy to get opinions from colleagues, your boss is quick and constructive with feedback and criticism, and judgment is accepted and not taken personally – resulting in a great place to work.

So, let’s bring it home… Be deliberate in building a strong, shared company culture, and the market will gravitate to the company. People want to do business with people they admire, appreciate, respect, and trust.

the author

Lateef Mauricio Abro

Lateef Mauricio Abro is a market strategist who writes about culture, commerce, and the human experience.