How will you crack the code?

There's an entertaining and enlightening book that I recommend to anyone in the business of selling products or services. It's called The Culture Code and is written by Clotaire Rapaille.

Mr. Rapaille has made his fame and fortune by helping half of the Fortune 100 crack the code on reasons people buy (or don't buy) their products. This book illustrates how Mr. Rapaille uncovers the subconscious associations for everything from sex to food to wealth to Presidents. The word "Culture" in the title refers to the substantial differences people make of these various aspects of their lives based upon the country in which they live.

Now, marketers are famous for conducting focus groups to determine what people want, for instance, in a car. But what Mr. Rapaille reminds us is that traditional focus groups tend to provide little real insight given that they are usually attended by people giving feedback on what they think the sponsor wants to hear.

People's public thoughts about cars in a stale focus group environment filled with the anticipation of what they "should" be saying is far different from their private thoughts as they stand staring at cars in a showroom with their wallet close by. The focus group questions also tend to not delve too deeply into the subconscious. "What color do you like best?" "How does that sound?"

At the end of a radically different three-hour process lead by Mr. Rapaille, he is able to unlock what he calls the "code" for a particular product or service. Effective advertising that is "within code" will resonate with the audience and, therefore, sell product. Marketing that is not "in code" will not sell.

One example is his first client, Jeep. He was called in to determine why sales for the Jeep Wrangler were suffering, and the resulting unacceptable excess inventory of product. After his three-hour process of asking questions and probing into the subconscious minds of a room full of people, he determined the reason for slumping sales. He discovered that the Jeep wrangler represented a horse to buyers. The code for Jeep Wrangler was "horse". It was a symbol of freedom and of riding the range. The spirit of the old west in simpler days.

Now, at that time, the headlights of the Wrangler were square. But, after all, Mr. Rapaille pointed out, the eyes of a horse are round, so he subsequently recommended to the executives of Jeep that they change the shape of their headlights to round. Initially thinking this was crazy, then discovering that round headlights are cheaper to manufacture that square ones, Jeep agreed. The rest is history. Jeep Wrangler sales took off and Mr. Rapaille began a very successful career cracking the code for a long list of iconic consumer products.

One example that I thought was interesting was the code for cheese. Again, the book is called "CULTURE Code", derived from his explanation of how codes are affected by one's country or culture. In his birth-country, France, cheese is alive. It's purchased for a specific occasion, it's left in room temperature to breath and served in its prime. The code for Cheese in France, therefore, is "Alive".

The code for cheese in America, on the other hand, is "Dead". Think about it. We kill it with pasteurization, we buy it wrapped tightly in plastic (the body bag) and store it in a morgue known as the refrigerator. Mr. Rapaille goes into great detail about the code for food, but look at the fact that Americans are obsessed with safety when it comes to food: regulatory commissions, expiration dates and legions of "food police". So in America, your marketing better align itself with safety-the sound of fizzzzzz as the cap is being opened for the first time, and beauty shots of your product looking newborn surrounded by fresh, mist-covered fruits and vegetables.

For any of us crafting marketing messages to sell our products or services, we must be in code. In other words, our message must resonate subconsciously with the beliefs of our audience. Remember, your message can't be intended to change anyone's mind. Rather, the message tied to the purchase of your product or service must feel to your viewer, listener or reader like a confirmation of their deeply cherished beliefs. Marketing that tries to change people's mind about their core beliefs or that makes product claims of interest only to the marketer is a proven recipe for excess inventory and a warehouse full of unsold product.

Once you've determined that potential buyers of Jeep want the feeling of the wind in their hair and the freedom of going where they please on their trusted stallion, you create commercials of your car herding cattle and riding up impossible mountain ledges. Your viewer sees the ad and says, "Hey, that's me!" "I need one of those."

So, as a marketer, your job is to determine your audience's code for your product or service, and then communicate that code to its marketing message. That answer doesn't arise simply because you asked a few people to tell you what they think about your product. It requires from your customer sampling a fearless, honest introspection about core beliefs most of us don't even hold consciously.

For Clotaire Rapaille of culture code, it requires a three-hour process of easing people into an alpha state and then getting them to tell deeply emotional stories about their first car experience, or about cars they saw when they were a kid that stuck in their minds throughout their life, or their favorite car in a movie or book. That's how  Mr. Rapaille cracks the code!

So, what is the code for your product or service? What emotional imagery does it convey to your target audience? Not what they tell you in online surveys and Saturday afternoon focus group sessions, but what they feel deep in their heart the moment they contemplate their many options for solving the need that your product or service satisfies. Ask yourself the same question Mr. Rapaille would ask, is your marketing message "on code"?

About Mike Lake

Mike is the Senior Vice President of Marketing for Evergreen Trading. When not playing jazz trombone he is probably obsessing about writing content that will capture the attention and interest of business people and fellow learning junkies everywhere.

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