Culture eats strategy for breakfast.
This infamous quote is attributed to both Peter Drucker and Mark Fields (Ford) and is a warning to all message creators everywhere: culture is the key to navigating the perilous change agenda required for tomorrow. It is the lens through which we interpret and understand the world. It creates the world we occupy.
As the pressure to change increases, culture can be a friend or the enemy.
How does a deeper cultural understanding help leaders encourage and nurture organizational change? In a world of ecosystems – the new culture of learning demands a new set of competencies beginning with the imagination. Most failures today are failures of the imagination. Unfortunately, far too many managers don’t see change until it’s too late to change.
For leaders, understanding the cultural traditions of their organizations vis-a-vis the cultural narratives of society can help guide strategic decisions. Why? Because decisions that go against the dominant culture are more likely to fail. Sometimes the cultural shifts required to compete can be daunting, even fatal. For this reason, despite the best intentions of managers and executives, change agendas fail even before they begin.
Taking your offering to market requires a clear message that resonates with the audience. Your message is meaningful or meaningless: either your message aligns with the dominant cultural narrative and is accepted relatively easy, or your message must alter the cultural narrative before it gains widespread acceptance.
Progressive ideas shift the dominant narrative, often at great cost to the messenger. Martin Luther King, like Moses, did not live to enter into the Promised Land.
- What makes a message convincing?
- What is a narrative? What makes it dominant?
- How does a message gain cultural acceptance?
- How does one shift or disrupt a cultural narrative?
We will attempt to answer these questions by drawing on a number of diverse ideas and integrating them into a practical model.
The Message is the Messenger
No matter your opinion on Greta Thunberg, we can all agree that she has brought a new sense of awareness and urgency to the climate crisis.
"Skolstrejk för Klimatet" - Greta Thunberg (photo: Anders Hellberg)
In traditional debates, we have been taught that a message is convincing because of the three elements of persuasion: ethos, pathos, and logos (we’ll dismiss kairos). But now, in a post-truth age, in a time of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” we add one more critical element: the spirit of the messenger themselves – thumos, the messenger’s enthusiasm and passion for the message.
In the past we knew that all good salesmen believe in the product they sell, but now, this has become a far more critical component.
How does this translate to a brand? Brands must become more authentic, more human, more believable. You can’t fake enthusiasm. Employees at Costco, Southwest Airlines, Starbucks and Zappo’s are excellent examples of this culture of enthusiasm. In fact, if we investigate their hiring practices, all four of these companies “hire for cultural fit.”
What is the impact on the receiver of your marketing message?
In our theory of the structure of cultural narratives, we propose four dimensions that influence the receiver’s worldview: myth, ideology, history, and identity. Of these, identity is the most important because it is the most personal. Hence, Greta Thunberg’s message resonates with those whose identity is tied to the future: the young.
The “Greta effect” has begun affecting the political landscape as well. Even as increasing numbers of school children heed her call to action, radical lobbyist groups have begun attacking her message in a concerted campaign to discredit her. Thunberg’s activism is a model for building movements for the Common Good.
How do companies build on this movement? They must engage with the dominant cultural narratives in society.
As old cultural narratives are replaced by new ones, companies must tune themselves to the future. Now, let’s examine what makes a cultural narrative.
What is a Cultural Narrative?
John Hagel has examined the role that corporate narratives can play in driving business success in competitive markets:
First, they’re open-ended – there’s no resolution yet, it’s all to be determined. Second, narratives are about the intended audience, not the person or entity presenting the narrative. In fact, the resolution of the narrative hinges upon the choices and actions yet to be taken by the audience – the resolution is up to them.
According to Hagel, great narratives identify opportunities for the people outside the company to pursue on their own.
We couldn’t agree more. Let us add that all narratives are cultural narratives.
Joseph Campbell tells us: “Freud, Jung, and their followers have demonstrated irrefutably that the logic, the heroes, and the deeds of myth survive into modern times. In the absence of an effective general mythology, each of us has his private, unrecognized, rudimentary, yet secretly potent pantheon of dream. The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.”
A cultural narrative creates meaning for our place in the world, and provides a map for the journey. Its structure can be diagrammed as follows:
The vision is a promise (brand-promise) to take the participant (customer, member, or citizen) from the present to a desired future place or state.
Note that the future has two states – success and failure, with a trajectory of hope and a trajectory of fear. The model can be used to sketch out many different types of narratives:
- company/brand narratives
- product/service narratives
- movement narratives
- country narratives
The Company/Brand Narrative
Here’s our diagram of the company/brand narrative for Amazon.
While it’s not necessarily an inspiring vision, it is a vision based on convenience, competence, and customer service. Over the years Amazon has built a trustful relationship with its customers. However, as a platform, Amazon’s strategy presents a “private label” threat to its suppliers. Nike just decided to stop selling on Amazon, as others have before (Birkenstock, Target, etc.)
The Product/Service Narrative
Now let’s look at a product narrative. By default, products compete on the job-to-be-done, which is an essential part of the vision. That said, an effective narrative helps establish the culture for the company. In Dyson’s case, this means engineering and performance.
An example of a service narrative is Google Search. The threat to Google? Antitrust.
The Movement Narrative
As we showed earlier, the “Greta” effect is an illustration of the effectiveness and urgency of the movement she’s inspired:
The Country Narrative
The “American Dream” was the narrative for the USA, until Donald Trump:
After Trump, the cultural narrative for the USA shifted to “Make America Great Again”:
For the sake of argument, of course M.A.G.A. does not necessarily mean white nationalism, but in this case it does. The “Southern Strategy” dreamed up by the late Lee Atwater has been driving Republican strategy since Reagan. It has now become the foundation of the polarizing strategy used by Bannon and Trump. By using racism and white supremacy as a cultural narrative, Trump has poisoned the social fabric of the US, just as it was healing from the wounds of the Civil Rights era. It has emboldened fringe elements, and mainstreamed hate.
Changing a Cultural Narrative
Changing a cultural narrative is not an easy task. It requires a deep understanding of the levers of culture and how those levers shape our views.
What will disrupt Trump’s M.A.G.A. strategy? In a post-truth age, where facts go unheeded, we must find a way to reverse the vicious narrative of hate.
How does anyone fight this framework of hate?
By talking about it. By digging deeper into the root causes of social injustice in the USA. By flipping the narrative using its cultural elements.
What are the cultural elements that make up the personal worldview of the M.A.G.A. voter? Let’s examine the dimensions of myth, ideology, history, and identity.
Myth: Trump as a divine father/king figure – leading America back to greatness.
Ideology: White Nationalism – the idea that the US must become a bastion of white supremacy.
History: Economic hardship; anger at government programs like affirmative action.
Identity: Rural, “low-information” voter, feeling powerless; identification with “strict father” value and a sense of “moral hierarchy”
George Lakoff‘s views on “framing” are highly relevant in this situation. He explains:
…Trump is a Betrayer of Trust. He is acting like a dictator, and is even supporting Putin’s anti-American policies.
He is betraying trust in a direct way, by refusing to put his business interests in a blind trust. By doing so, and by insisting on his children both running the business and getting classified information, he is using the presidency to make himself incredibly wealthy — just as Putin has. This is Corruption of the highest and most blatant level. Can the media say the words: Corruption, Betrayal of Trust? He ran on a promise to end corruption, to “drain the swamp” in Washington. Instead, he has brought a new and much bigger swamp with him — lobbyists put in charge of one government agency after another, using public funds and the power of the government to serve corporate greed. And the biggest crock in the swamp is Trump himself!
What we see here is the flipping of the M.A.G.A. narrative. By pointing out the specific ways in which Trump is not helping make America great, we have an opportunity to turn Trump loyalists against the narrative they have bought into.
Here is a range of examples to show how “truth” can trump the M.A.G.A. narrative:
- Comedienne Samantha Bee’s explanation of how the religious right rose as a political force in opposition to desegregation.
- Why is the U.S. Department of Agriculture paying $40.1 million to buy pork from JBS USA — a subsidiary of Brazil-based JBS SA — using American taxpayer bailout funds intended to help U.S. farmers?
- Counter Trump in court, eg. Constitutional Accountability Center, ACLU, etc.
The list can include hypothetical scenarios:
- Jesus was a refugee in Egypt. What would have happened if there was a family separation policy and baby Jesus was separated from Joseph and Mary?
- Documentarian Ken Burns asks: “What Part of Donald Trump Reminds You of Jesus Christ?“
Bottom line, the M.A.G.A. narrative falls apart when Trump is viewed as a traitor – when his “base” learns that they have been taken for a ride. #TraitorTrump!
From Narratives to Social Change
For social change, another perspective comes to us via Aaron Hurst‘s insightful work which breaks down the process of larger change into five basic strategies:
- By example: look for examples of success and then use them to bring attention to the issue. Use the examples to replicate the desired change.
- Research: by focusing on data and insight, we can learn more about what actually works, and use this knowledge for social change
- Public Opinion: by changing public perceptions, we can change behavior and outcomes
- Policy: changes to policy can affect change across companies and society
- Disruption: through technology, or, we add, cultural and/or behavioral shifts
It is easier to scare people through tactics of fear and shame. But that does not help society – in fact it is regressive and harmful to the future. What is needed now is a new dialogue – a unity of purpose and purposes, to meet the urgent needs of the planet and its inhabitants. We hope that cultural disruptors will work on this.
It is past due.