Culture. Eats Strategy. For breakfast.

May 1, 2018

Culture. It’s a quaint concept that we often dismiss at our peril.

Sort of like aesthetics. In business we pretend that everyone is rational and that neither beauty nor culture play a big role in a brand’s success or failure. But then we leave the office at 5pm, and go and accidentally buy those cool sneakers because they were just …cool. And they will make us look cool, which is most definitely a culturally defined issue.

In looking for new markets, whether they be the next town, county or country, involves taking local culture into account. Ways of doing things, talking about things, that are so ingrained as to be part of social fabric, is what makes up culture. In business, inside companies, these are the unwritten rules that influence individual behaviour and decisions, that no matter how many rules are laid down, still affect the outcome more than the “plan”.

Culture can be benign or malign. In many cases the idea of helping your fellow human are just an ingrained piece of culture. But as witnessed throughout hundreds of studies worldwide, applying for a job with a foreign name gets you less interviews than with a local name.* Malign culture rears its ugly head.

In an increasingly interconnected world where business is done across countries and continents, it is easy to presume that the “example of me” is a good platform to expanding abroad. Ironically, we are more likely to sensitive to our neighbour’s cultural differences than to those of countries that are far away. The presumption is, that “business as usual” will probably work. That because “our” solution is technically superior and cheaper to run, that implementing it “over there” will be a no-brainer.

The above situation almost always fails to take into account the broader historical and cultural context, which puts up obstacles to adoption of “the better way of doing things” in ways, you couldn’t even imagine. Failures of this kind usually stem from wilful ignorance. Because understanding, and empathising with the target group is time consuming and difficult.

In principle, it is failing to acknowledge that in going where you have not gone before, requires a learning curve. In service design this learning curve is referred to as the fuzzy front end. It defines the beginning of a new project, where in order to understand what is going on and how it is going on, requires the designer to explore the territory without presumptions and agenda, in order to determine the best plan of action forward.

In fact, the discovery process of service design, whether it is applied to improving the service on a existing market or to find the best way onto a new, foreign market, is remarkably effective for understanding the culture and unwritten rules of the target group. Being able to empathise with the people you want to eventually sell products or services to, will allow you to place your offer into the local cultural context. Whether this context is that of the people you are facing in negotiations directly or the whole market you eventually want to sell to, doesn’t matter. In either case, fitting your brand into the context of the customer will make it relevant and a realistic option for them, rather than a foreign element that makes no sense to the local situation. Like being a fork in soup restaurant.

A customer’s journey for a product or service goes from need to satisfaction. Most companies at most times are focusing all their attention on the moment of transaction, and therefore, by default, ignore the broader context of the customer’s life and what he or she is actually trying to get done. By mapping this customer journey, you can clearly see that it is your brand that has to fit into the customer’s life. It is never the customer that has to fit your brand.

Service design is sort of like understanding culture, isn’t it?

Culture eats strategy for breakfast is a quote often attributed to Peter Drucker.

* Swedish research, English research, American research