Perhaps the best way to describe cultural intelligence is to first state what it is not. Typically, cultural intelligence is defined as “the capability to relate and work effectively across cultures”. This isn’t necessarily what I’m talking about. In the context of this article, cultural intelligence is the discipline that helps enterprises understand what is happening in culture as it relates to a brand, its products, its employees and most importantly its customers.
Cultural intelligence helps us find the human signal through all the market noise. It allows us to gain a deeper understanding of the customer, their communities, and their base-level drives which are integral in shaping their values, beliefs, and motivations. This information is discerned through a careful analysis of the cultural moments, trends, and fads which differ between cultures, and are critical in helping organizations shape their relationships with customers.
Case Studies in Cultural Intelligence
Let’s take the recent case of the Pepsi-Protest commercial that shows what happens when firms are not aligned with the cultural zeitgeist. The commercial, from Pepsi’s Content Creators League ad agency, shows reality celebrity Kendall Jenner magically settling a standoff between protestors and police by offering an officer a can of Pepsi. Immediately after its release, it sparked outrage and controversy, being rebuked on social media, and even being parodied on Saturday Night Live.
It’s no surprise then that it was promptly pulled from the air.
The mistake Pepsi made was one of cultural intelligence. The brand knew that political protests were on their core demographics’ radar. They knew that young people, more than any other segment, were activated and engaged with this nation-wide social phenomenon. And they thought they could tap into that vein to connect with them. Unfortunately, they made the mistake of stopping at “protest”, instead of delving deeper and understanding the reasons behind it. As a result, they ended up telling a story that offended, rather than inspired all potential consumers.
In contrast to Pepsi, there are many other brands who we can cite as positive examples that have executed such acts of marketing with elegant and sensitive cultural intelligence.
Nike, which has a history of provocative marketing campaigns – from the “What will they say about you?” campaign for Middle-Eastern women to sponsoring Chris Mosier - the first Team USA transgender athlete. In the most recent case, Nike decided to capitalize on a very tangible cultural tension which exists in the US today by unveiling NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick as the face of its brand during the League’s season kick-off game over Labor Day Sunday. The ad was met with overwhelming polarization but within two days Nike sales surged 31% and polls showed that the ad resonated positively with Nike’s core demographic.
So while companies have much to lose when attempting to connect across cultures and mindsets, it is more than worth it if it’s done with sincerity and sensitivity. Through a unified understanding of business, consumer and market a company can extract actionable insights and make sustainable plans for improving sales. Generally speaking, this thoughtful approach to cultural intelligence can help companies discern the following critical insights:
- understand the customers’ demographics, location, opinion, relationship, and social network surrounding their brand.
- understand how people are speaking about their brand and the shifts in perception of the equities that really matter to their audience.
- understand how customers differentiate their products against a competitors and why
- understand and anticipate the viability of an established sales strategy based on the marketplace demand (pre-lead) and whether the company is poised to capture existing demand relative to the competition.
Cultural Intelligence – A Business Imperative
Cultural intelligence isn’t simply about understanding the customer in a more meaningful way. Companies and Brands must innately know who they are and confidently stand for more than just their product. Ideally this is drafted as an easily articulated and understood statement of what the company or brand believes in. Rather than being a piece of aimless motivational garbage, what I’m referring to expresses something that tends to resonate deeply and employees would not feel awkward discussing it over coffee or with their partners across the industry.
Most agree that this concept is very much different from the typical enterprise vision, goal or mission statement they’re used to. For example, most mission statements simply attempt to announce in one way or another that their brand is about more than simply making more profit for their shareholders. However, as valuable as mission statements are, great brands tend to be built on underpinning values that give guidance to all aspects of brand and company activity. They project a certain point of view on the world that engages people, both within and beyond the organization, as they radiate the values and commitment needed to bring their vision to fruition.
For instance, Microsoft aim’s to make the planet smarter and improve lives by harnessing the power of artificial intelligence. Another such example is Nestle Japan and their commitment to act on the principles of “Creating Shared Value”, as a way to engage with socially relevant fields like nutrition, health & healthcare, rural development, environmental sustainability, and human rights in their local value chain.
I call this concept an “exemplary commitment”. It gets at something authentic and real, and as a consequence helps brands tap into what matters to their customers the most, as they take a market leading position.
Creating an “exemplary commitment” is not a silver bullet for driving brand growth or doing great communications, however it can be extremely helpful when it’s deployed correctly, and is useful in such situations:
- when an organization needs its purpose articulated
- when the company’s market lacks a thought leader
- when a brand or company needs greater cultural connection
Brands need an extremely practical tool that can help them realize the power of their purpose, and use it as a means to guide the overall direction of their marketing and communications issues. This starts by staffing the right talent and integrating 3 seemingly separate disciplines into one team with a shared mission of better connecting their brand at a deeper level with their customer’s values. These three disciplines are:
- Anthropology: a team of experience designers focused on exposing what connects consumers, critics, and culture to content and media.
- Economics: a team of economists focused on understanding the relationships between those connections and valuable behavior indicators.
- Analytics: a team of data scientists focused on establishing the calculations and algorithms that allow us to anticipate those behaviors.
At work when I speak with companies and help them use cultural intelligence to their advantage they usually get it right away. The concept itself is not particularly novel or ground-breaking. The challenge however is to scale their intelligence gathering in relation to what’s happening in culture (i.e. tap into the cultural zeitgeist) and act upon it in a way that authentically aligns with their brand’s purpose and commitment. In other words, how to take one successful site or campaign launch and replicate that success across multiple business units and a myriad of product lines. What if things change with the customer base (as they invariably do) mid-rollout?
Today, companies and brands put too much effort towards rough ad hoc qualitative analysis that struggles to keep pace with the rapidly changing landscape of cultural connection and trends. This is where the power of analytics and cultural intelligence makes for an interesting thought experiment. Analytics has allowed businesses to quantify and model vast quantities of data and decipher meaning out of the chaos. It is at the intersection of cultural intelligence and analytics where we find the discipline of cultural analytics to emerge.
Don’t get me wrong; cultural analytics is not necessarily a novel idea in the broader scheme. It exists today, albeit still in its formative stages and has yet to be fully tapped by business. Cultural analytics is being developed to help organizations discover shared value systems from the pattern of behavior witnessed in managerial decisions, employee behavior, and companywide operational procedures.
By quantifying these data sets and applying analytic modeling solutions, we can understand and predict the organizational decisions and behaviors for the future. Or at the very least, shed light on currently existing problems and devise the means to solve them.
This is exactly what German company Multigence claims to do – use technology solutions to measure and evaluate individuals and groups – to better establish a cultural fit. Another example is the ad agency Sparks & Honey that evangelizes cultural intelligence and its infusion with technology with their in-house proprietary tool “Q” – an active learning system that deciphers signals and patterns within unstructured data to generate insights.
Currently, each of these solutions only targets a very specific and relatively controlled domain within culture and business. The Multigence Cultural Profile tool is able to measure, evaluate, and match a company’s culture with employees, candidates, and even other organizations, while Sparks & Honey observes consumer markets for cultural shifts and trends for marketing campaigns.
And while much of this may seem like science-fiction, we have only to look around at the significant progress being made in the field to realize that the era of cultural analytics is nearly upon us. Consider the groundbreaking work being done by Michel and Aiden, Harvard-Google data scientists in the development of Culturonomics, a field of study that deciphers human behavior and cultural connection and trends through the quantitative analysis of digitized texts thanks to computational lexicology.
This method of analyzing culture via language has tremendous potential on the social web where the overwhelming exchange of publically shared communication is via text. And while, culturonomics is far from a perfect system, it has proven successful in retroactive predictive studies that covered the Arab Spring, demonstrating its rigor and validity in the real world.
Cultural Intelligence in Analytics and Customer Centricity
I imagine a cultural analytics system that is able to untangle the much larger web of human interactions in an automated and user-friendly manner, across dimensions and use cases. With next-generation cultural analytics, we will be armed with an unprecedented, deep-rooted understanding of organizations and people like never before.
We can imagine a simple framework that demonstrates how scalable cultural intelligence would work in an organization by referring to the illustration below:
With this degree of cultural nuance factored into strategic business simulations, organizations will be able to offer their customers an empathetic and human connection unlike ever before. Businesses will be able to simulate how business decisions and strategic operations will play themselves out in the real world and take steps to engage them.
In the not so distant future, pioneering 21st century enterprises will lead the way in cultural analytics, using it as an essential tool in the creation of a truly customer-centric experience. The only question that will remain then is – will you be one of them?