Analyze This

Chrysler believed all these things because their customers had told them so. The focus groups had been nearly unanimous, the market research conclusive. The Wrangler had been a consistently profitable model for many years, however, and several decision-makers at the company remained ambivalent about reworking one of their signature brands. One consultant, a former clinical psychologist named Clotaire Rapaille, was particularly skeptical of the research and asked to personally conduct a new series of studies on the car. This investigative episode is one of many crusades against conventional wisdom Rapaille proudly recounts in The Culture Code, his new iconoclastic marketing primer.

Like many pollsters and social scientists, Rapaille–whose advice was sought in 2004 by advisers to John Kerry–had come to understand that interview subjects are animated much more by a desire to please than by a searching, contemplative sincerity, and that they overwhelmingly provide those answers that they believe will satisfy the expectations of their interlocutors. Worse, Rapaille writes, even those participants prepared to bare their feelings about the Wrangler didn’t make reliable subjects, since so very few of them had ever bothered to think in any penetrating way about what they wanted from cars in general, and from a lightweight, unsafe, fuel-inefficient convertible jeep model in particular. They, too, grasped at straws and took their cues from some vague sense of conventional wisdom. Customers had real preferences, Rapaille believed, but those preferences were buried beneath several layers of socialization that prevented them from being expressed clearly. So rather than interview potential customers, Rapaille decided to psychoanalyze them.

When he returned to Chrysler with his results, he announced that the main thing Americans wanted from their jeeps was for them to look more like horses. Across the boardroom, the Chrysler executives had their doubts. They had invested a great deal of time and money in Rapaille, and he was now telling them to ignore their customers’ unmistakable requests for more luxury and safety, and instead to make only one small cosmetic change. The Wrangler’s headlights should be round, he said, because horses don’t have square eyes.

Eventually, Rapaille convinced Chrysler to modify the design of the Wrangler rather than overhaul it, and to include round headlights in the new model. The resulting re-launch was “a smash.” In its advertising campaign, Chrysler presented the Wrangler as a noble, nomadic hero that arrived serendipitously in perilous situations, resolved them thanklessly, and rode off quietly into the sunset. The car tested well and sold better. Jeep has since made the Wrangler grille, with its round headlights, the company logo.

When asked to replicate the campaign for Chrysler in Europe, however, Rapaille insisted on devising a new marketing strategy from scratch. The iconography of the American West, he argued, had no resonance in France and Germany. For those markets, he concluded after several continental sessions, the Wrangler still evoked the American military model used in World War II, and retained great positive associations with the liberation of Europe from Nazi rule. Rapaille helped design instead a campaign that emphasized the proud history of jeeps in the region and the profound freedom of postwar Europe. Sales soared.

When Rapaille, who had a flourishing psychoanalytic practice in his native France, began to consult for corporations in midcareer, he was intrigued by the idea of the marketplace as an objective sociological experiment. He hoped that, unlike his clinical work, purchasing patterns could provide immediate, comprehensive, and reliable feedback, and offer an ideal testing ground for several pet theories of human behavior. He believed, for instance, that most social learning and acculturation takes place as a series of intensely emotional experiences in the early lives of children–the pain of a hand on the frying pan, the shame of wetting the bed. These experiences, Rapaille says, are imprinted on the limbic region of the brain and form our most fundamental sense of who we are, what our culture expects of us, and what we aspire to be. A marketing goldmine, in other words, if only one could excavate it.

The Culture Code attempts to map those imprints, which Rapaille believes are not merely vivid memories but the very emotional grammar of our social existence, invisible impulses and associations that overrule our reason, direct our behavior, and brand us as unmistakably American. (Or French, or Japanese, or Eskimo). He calls them culture codes, and argues that they comprise a “cultural unconscious” that deserves a place on the psychoanalytic ladder between the Freudian individual unconscious and the Jungian collective unconscious. He does not quite earn this company.

In his research sessions, which he calls “discoveries,” Rapaille has participants lie down with pillows and blankets, plays soothing mood music, and asks them to relax. Then, like a hypnotist instructing his charges, he guides them back in time, through their childhoods, to recall their earliest memories of a product or brand, and diligently records their responses for analysis. (After one study, he advised the Swiss company Nestl to abandon efforts to introduce coffee to Japanese adults, whose childhoods were saturated with memories of tea, and instead adopt a long-term strategy, normalizing the foreign flavor in Japanese culture by aggressively marketing coffee-flavored sweets to Japanese children).

The chapters of The Culture Code, which are essentially annotated notes from several dozen discovery sessions, proceed in discrete thematic installments and yield several analytic diamonds in the anecdotal rough. In a chapter on engineering, Rapaille argues that we care less about mechanical perfection than we do about the built-in opportunity to trade up when our computers and cars do, inevitably, fail; later, he writes that we do not demand perfection from our political leaders, either, only that they demonstrate a capacity for self-improvement. In a meditation on beauty, Rapaille suggests that obesity might not be the problem we generally understand it to be–a failure of nutrition, health education, and a gluttonous national appetite–but the sad, incidental result of widespread anxiety and self-doubt, much like the high rate of high-school dropouts or the common cosmetic use of pharmaceuticals.

These are incisive bits of observation, worth a contemplative chew, but they do not add up to a comprehensive model of human behavior, as Rapaille had hoped. The Culture Code is not a major work of social psychology, as it turns out, but a gregarious, ruminative professional memoir, offering here and there real insight into the character of our frenetic consumer culture.