2015.01.28 The American Culture Code

Have you ever wondered which immigrants or expats thrive in the U.S. and which don't?

Have you ever wondered why some marketing campaigns work beautifully in some countries but fall totally flat in other?

The French/American psychologist Clotaire Rapaille has wondered about these questions for a long time, and he wrote a book about it.

Strolling through San Francisco International Airport a couple of weeks ago I stumbled over his 2006 book Culture Code, An ingenious way to understand why people around the world live and buy as they do. (No, the link doesn't go to Amazon but to Archetype Discoveries Worldwide, where you can see for yourself if this is something for you.)

Dr. Rapaille is a Jungian psychologist. His approach to cultures is to look at which subconscious emotions influence how we interact with each other and with the things we buy.

To jump right into his work, what does the term American mean to the consumers of American products? And how is that symbolized in their minds? The Archetype American may be the Marlboro Man to Americans but I am sure it is something else in Japan or India or Denmark. An American product being associated with the cowboy may feel natural to an American customer but may not work as well abroad.

By aligning marketing campaigns and product design to these archetypes when it is helpful (and avoid them when it is not) the consumers get a more congruent message and are more likely to buy the products.

In many countries, Danish has had a positive connotation that has made many companies use the flag left and right on their package designs - but they also had to avoid the association after "Cartoon-gate" when Danish products were very unpopular in the Middle East.

Companies exporting to foreign markets can't always correctly anticipate how their products are received. We don't necessarily know the context in which our products are used or what the feelings are around that activity. The book mentions an urbane thing like going to the bathroom. Whether this is an activity surrounded by shame (in Japan, musical toilets are masking the bathroom sounds) or with a feeling of freedom because you can lock the door (U.S.) makes for very different marketing campaigns and bathroom appliances.

This dynamic also influences how expats thrive in a foreign culture. Given that our emotions around everyday activities are imprinted at a very young age, our scripts for what is good or bad, normal or weird, are difficult to change. But they may differ very much from the host nation's scripts.

Differences in our relationship to our bodies e.g. can influence how everything from birth control to shampoo to clothes to vacation destinations can be marketed but also influences how we feel or don't feel authentic and grounded when we live in a very different place.

Among the connections the book makes for USA are not only "the bathroom=Freedom" insight but also upbeat notions of Dreams and Youth in relation to how the nation views itself and sinister associations where absence of movement=Death. This last point may be why there is a constant pressure for "better and bigger" unlike in other countries where many organizations seem more happy with servicing their client base and providing for their employees without strong ambitions to expand.

Dr. Rapaille writes how one may have to move to another country to find the archetypes that fit with one's personality and acknowledges that he feels very much at home in the U.S. although he is originally French. My archetype for America does indeed contain pushing products so I can understand why he will feel right at home.

If that is what Jungian psychology was intended for is a totally different discussion, but many of the companies he works with are very successful in foreign markets. So perhaps he is onto something?