FOE: The ROI of ROFL: Why Understanding Popular Culture Should Matter to the C-Suite

WARNING: LIVEBLOGGED so not checked. (Also this was a fairly chaotic panel, so not everything captured)

Too many corporations outsource their understanding of culture to trend hunters, cool watchers, marketing experts, consulting firms, and, sometimes, teenage interns. The cost is in the billions, for data and insights that often don’t help companies better understand their role in the cultural landscape. In his forthcoming book Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation, Grant McCracken argues American corporations need a new professional — a Chief Culture Officer — to prioritize cultural knowledge into the C-Suite level. American corporations need to look not at the internal culture of a company but instead outward, understanding entertainment, leisure, and word-of-mouth trends. This panel will explore how major brands and entertainment properties are, or should be, listening to the patterns of popular culture to make their brands, products and services more responsive to and reflective of the desires of relevant audiences.

McCracken will introduce the concept of the “Chief Culture Officer,” followed by a panel discussion of the promise and pitfalls of applying cultural knowledge to a for-profit infrastructure, how the humanities intersects with this mission, and the benefits and limitations of concepts such as “the CCO” for advocating deeper cultural knowledge into a corporate setting. What new trends are developing that might impact the appeal of a brand’s products or services tomorrow, or even today? How does corporate America understand the developing etiquette and ethos of social media platforms? What benefit does knowing popular culture bring to brands and entertainment properties? What are the benefits to our society if brands are more tapped into cultural trends?

Moderator: William Uricchio – Principal Investigator, Convergence Culture Consortium; Panelists: Grant McCrackenChief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation (Basic Books); Sam Ford – Director of Customer Insights, Peppercom, and C3 Research Affiliate; Jane Shattuc – Emerson College; Leora Kornfeld – Research Associate, Harvard Business School

Starts with presentation from Grant McCracken (very quick presentation that was difficult to capture)

  • GM: we want something more from a corporation; we want a more porous corp, that listens more carefully and is more responsive; in all matters and in cultural matters.
  • GM: Inside the corporation there is a sense….you could buy in cultural intelligence or by buying up startups.  but the dynamism of future is too quick for this to happen.  the silo corp feels like a joyless place to those inside it. They ask people to forget contemporary culture when they are inside it, an act of self-willed amnesia.   They bring in knowledge but are forced to forget it.  But there is a vested interest.
  • GM: Quaker bought Snapple, buying something for the warm channel, but failed to understand it and had to see for $1.4b less than they paid for it.  They failed to understand the alternate trend. They had spent a lot of money and examined it strongly but were wrong.
  • GM: outside the corp, we see it as cool-hunting, catch-up, preying on culture. the corp falls out of synch, separated out of the culture, can be cluelessly, miserably shut out.
  • GM: In facebook, Zuckerberg claims all the photos on the site and caused a blacklash.  Chris Hughes – the empath, was away at this point. Facebook got it right because of Chris Hughes, he had an intelligence that allows him to think about culture and what people want from it.  He moved to the Obama campaign…the old regime asked him to fundraise.  Hughes challenged them on this – social media gives you into every nook and cranny, get the network to send the message out to the world
  • GM: so the corp is fully participating, no more rights and power than anyone else. It should be a producer of culture not a consumer, that people want to work their, they don’t have to forget culture.
  • GM: so long term strategies, Cluetrain, co-creation etc
  • GM: there’s Weberian gesture,,,,a corp is littered with failed projects….a corp has to appoint a senior manager who has thepower and resources to do this. put them in the C suite. you would hop they have a deep knowledge of American culture, not just the bright shiney object.  Only some part of cultural intelligence works this way. So the hot stuff is about 20%, the rest of the proposition is vast.  you have to know the latest AND the deep foundations.
  • GM: politics begins with a declaration of the possible (Stpehen Duncombe).
  • GM": a re-animated corp could be a fascinating producer of culture.  Most of all it is a place where people want to work.


  • WU:  in the first chapter, you talk about various examples, eg I heart NY. One way to look at is to say it is about an instinct, but is it training, study.  Some have a nose for it others can be trained.
  • GM: there will always be naturals. People who are good at it have a vested interest in keeping this knowledge, traiing. Look at film schools, lots of training, so are the good people naturals or training. It seems to be wring to think……it feels to me that one of the things we take for granted is that peopel are mre cultural literate…that’s soem indication…..the rise of media literacy tells us that people have masters the grammar of culture.
  • WU: is it a language….is it a way to converse
  • SF: language matters quite a bit. we have had discussions. Spreadable media…language matters and how you frame it from the beginning.  Language matters in measurement, setting up what you are going to do. William is framing question about what training.   What GM is saying is that it should not just an outsourced resource, but they should make the org as a whole smarter. That many have struggled with in the past as many companies outsource marketing, advertising etc.  Talking to someone yesterday, trying to give a strategy, he was not interested, he wanted me to think of something and go do it…he was too busy. the question that GM is raising is it possible to place value on learning about culture.  Traditionally we don’t place value on cultural knowledge, so what do we do.  How many places have sites locked?  can get to these different sites. (eg Twitter etc). I talk to people and they can’t solve this issue. There is the feelign that employees will just surf facebook – it is not an issue of access it is an issue of trust in employees.   There is a suspicious nature of cultural knowledge,.
  • WU: you talked about outsourcing…so a Chief culture Officer, if we think of a corp as culture, then a CCO has a different issue..the CCO understand the org, the triggers, the data flow. It is nice to be able to siphon this off.
  • GM: the corp is famous for shooting the messenger. The average CMO is the go to blame person.  In my worse moments, I think I’ve just created a better target.
  • JS: in the TV industry, the creative act is with the writers etc, there is no CCO, not in the marketing people. People go to LA and get immersed it. they no longer in the culture of outside LA, so creativity and cultural change drives out.    TV shows pull people who are immersed in culture, they come in and last a year, it is a liquid pool of employees; there is no way I can make something sophisticated that can be understood…..
  • GM: I love this idea that there is a cheat into the system, they realise people from traction, then come back in, they get the culture out and they throw them out again. It is a difficult and damaging process.  If you had a more porous corporation, then you would not have to fire/rehire to get the culture back in. 
  • JS: but how can a CCO exist in the corp if they don’t live in the culture
  • GM:  you may be right, but this is a questions…it should not be difficult…you build the position to people remain in touch. Otehrs can feed things in.
  • SF: the CCO in theory to CCO in practice is the tensions…so you look at what happens in the C suite schedule. Do you get a calender you get stuck in. Is there time for cultural knowledge. this is the real cultural difficulty that is not understood, . Corp america knows it needs to happen but don’t understand what it was. 
  • LK: doesn’t this sound like 1999 again, with all these weird job titles.  all they want to do is show you how cool they were…the new facial hair etc..How do we get away from the conception to someone with credentials..I did not find that in the book….some of these things are key to grasp…See the Wedding video….that all have seen..the music was by Chris Brown…big selling artist who had a scandal. it was used in videos without being licenced. It was a home video made to be seen by 15 people…so someone at Sony made the good idea…they did not issue a takedown notice, they put an overlay notice. It improved Chris Brown’s sales and his reputations.
  • SF: To turn this question around a little…Cultural knowledge is beneficial to ways to make money and new ways to become knowing of risks before they happen. But why is CCO good for the people? the books gets at some of those ideas..could this trend help pull corps into a more cultural aware space.
  • JS: popular culture and your definitions….Pop culture usually happens on the margins. My students are wonderful pirates, the take over of culture. You say it is the people’s culture…you say the margins resist and the corp absorbs…
  • GM: at LK question, this is not Cool, cool is the enemy.   people I’ve talked to..are not in it for the cool, just interested, curious. it is there for the tapping…with SF, the issue of benefits, I have no defence, corps that are more responsive…they either enter the conversation or has no connections.  On popular culture and resistence..I cast the notion very wide, (as an Anthropologist), it is all culture, I don’t want to privilege the resistive part, it is all part of it. it is part of the general culture, it has gone wide.
  • JS: but popular culture..the people, the people who are outside, ot in power. Once in power you are part of a high culture.   The power in corp comes form that resistance, innovation happens in the margins.
  • SF: one thing you say on the book, the idea of makign the corp breathe in and out. On media corps are pushing culture out, through shows etc, popular culture will play around with that, will resist etc, then the corps again will become responsive to it..but corps are on a respirator, so how do we speed up the process, we can’t corporatise popular culture,….
  • WU: this is about issues about thing I stress America. A lot of corps are multi-=nationals. what do you do with a corp where cultural products circle the globe.
  • GM: the fact that there is something like a global culture…it may be possible, We will have local specialists to speak to local cultures. Even f things were still, it would be impossible for US changes all the times..and that is why you need a  ziggurat of advisors….
  • SF: the academic model…they all have their own specialism, that we know one areas, the academic conference gives you time to hear about other areas. that model doe snot work well in corp america, a series of carefully guarded case studies. So does this play about how corps change, how they change. Should the CCO come together and share?
  • LK: the idea of ownership is what our culture is based on….
  • GM: the gift eceonmy…the old model is dead – finding and keeping to yourselves in dead.  We are looking at a change in our culture…mainstream, avant guarde etc,…this is breaking down, so invention takes place on both sides of the divide.
  • AudQ: don’t hate on cool…it comes off as the same kind of degrading….it’s like ‘ism’ is different to corp culture is weird..the person on the scooter may have some good ideas.  People who indulge in difference is something a CCO has to take time to touch that, be participant.
  • GM: well said..a CCO should be the beginning of the end of the vilification of someone for their own end..well said
  • SF: for my purposes..maybe cool is the wrong terminology, a CCO is not the trend spotter…
  • Aud: Piers (PSFK) is doing a good job so he is important
  • AudQ: Metrics..without a way to prove the CCO is making money, how do you evaluate them?
  • make themselves useful, so you could not get rid of them. Managing some revenue stream, innovation stream is critical. You are the barometer int he box, you can think deep thoughts,..
  • SF: it only works as well if it is cross-silo. 
  • WU/AUDQ: what is the place of ethics,,,does the CCO need an external ethical check?   There is apushback in university, that has an ethical tint…form business it is about talking 2 years not next quarter.
  • GM: being more responsive and engaged there will be ethical issues. the CCO should not be a moral guard-dog, everyone should be doing this.
  • AUDQ: is a CCO a misnomer..should it be a trend officer, cool hunter etc.   isn’t this why you have college interns?
  • JS: students are often a liquid cultural exchange, huge number of people. Not sure, are you talking trends etc. what is the depth you are looking for
  • GM: there’s trends that stream through as well as the depth, the full body, it is the full navigational stuff. just the latest things is just what is cool now. 
  • LK: if you have to know the metephors….
  • AUDQ: Samsung hired a bunch of kids to play and invent…gave them power in organisation. to create new products.  There’s a lot more in the process to bring culture in and CCO is too formal
  • GM: P&G have a skunkworks, everyone has a different way of doing it.  CCo makes sense to me as it obliges a corp to make the max symbolic gesture it can do . They already bring in interns…it is a gesture of good faith
  • AUDQ: Blocking sites…does understand digital culture fall under CCO?
  • SF: would not just have to be outsourced….we can;t limit this to new, trendy etc, it is much deeper than that. fast and slow culture is there.