The Culture Code

Last week, I picked up a book called “The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way to Understand Why People Around the World Live and Buy as They Do” by Clotaire Rapaille. Earlier this year, our investor pointed me to one of the marketing VP’s for one of their companies who had done a workshop on identifying the emotional needs of a customer and fulfilling them. When I talked to the VP, he pointed me to Clotaire Rapaille’s work and I did some research into what he was doing and also read “The 22 Laws of Marketing” which was recommended by this gentleman. Aparently, he worked at Iomega and hired Dr. Rapaille to help them identify how people perceived storage. The result of that work was the Zip drive (which you may have heard of). Anyway, this all set the ground for wanting to read this book. Fortunately, the Fremont Library had a copy so I put it on reserve and read it last week.

The essential idea of the book is that people are imprinted early on with some particular way of viewing different things, their first experience. These things are often imprinted as a reflection of the culture that they are born into. Dr. Rapaille essentially holds focus groups to identify their earliest memories with the product or idea being discussed. What is interesting is that often the way people think about something logically is different then how they feel about it emotionally. What he tries to do is come up with a code word that best describes how a particular culture feels about a particular item.

His first example in the book is on the Jeep Wrangler. Jeep was thinking that people wanted more luxury in their SUV and they were starting to push their Jeep to have more of this (after all this is what people said they wanted). Dr. Rapaille asked people to describe their earliest memories of a Jeep in American and it was essentially the vehicle that can go anywhere. In the end, he said that people see a Jeep Wrangler as a HORSE. He suggested that they change the Jeep Wrangler to have round headlights instead of square ones since horses have eyes, and the customers loved it. So the aids essentially market the Jeep as a horse and this resonates with the consumer. In Germany, however, the code for the Jeep Wrangler was LIBERATOR because of the ties to WWII. Therefore, the adds focus instead on that aspect of the Jeep.

Anyway, the idea is best described by actually reading the book which I highly recommend. It’s a quick read and it does really give you a different view point on how people feel about certain things. A lot of the ideas do resonate (but not all, we all have our own personal code as well). I’ve captured the code words from the book below. If you plan to read it, you might just want to wait to read below. One final note, most of his pshychological background comes from a Jungian view. This is also the foundation of Myers-Brigg. I have not yet looked into Jungian psychology to see whether I really agree with the premise, but the ideas are interesting.

There is also an interesting segment on advertising from PBS called The Persuaders


  1. You can’t believe what people say -> They can’t explain why they feel what they feel so they make up “intellectual alibi”
  2. Emotion is the Energy Required To Learn Anything
  3. The Structure, Not the Content, Is the Message
  4. There is a window in time for imprinting, and the meaning of the imprint varies from one culture to another
  5. To access the meaning of an imprint within a particular culture, you must learn the code for the imprint

As he starts talking about the American culture, he talks about it being a very adolescent culture. Where as other cultures end up killing the king, America rebelled from the king and continues to live in that state of rebellion. Immigrants perpetuate/add to this culture by essentially rebelling against their own culture to come here. Americans like weird eccentric people. Individuals who stand out. While I’m not entirely sure I agree, the more I think about this, the more I think that the way one might characterize an adolescent teenager is not far from how our culture acts as a whole.

Here are the codes revealed in the book. The book offers a much better description as to why these things are true:

  1. Jeep Wrangler (America) = HORSE
  2. Jeep Wrangler (Germany) = LIBERATOR
  3. Toilet Paper (America) = INDEPENDENCE -> The first time your parents are excited to have you close the door and lock them out
  4. Coffee (Japan) = No code -> Nestle introduces coffee flavored kids dessert with no caffeinne to introduce culture to coffee
  5. Cheese (France) = ALIVE -> Let it breath, live out in the open, develop flavors
  6. Cheese (America) = DEAD -> Pasteruized, wrapped in plastic, safe to eat, stored in the refridgerator (morgue)
  7. Cars (America) = IDENTITY -> Lead to PT Cruiser
  8. Cars (Germany) = ENGINEERING -> Caused Daimler-Benz not to understand why PT Cruiser
  9. Love (America) – FALSE EXPECTATION -> Have puppy love, but it doesn’t stay that way forever
  10. Seduction (America) – MANIPULATION – used, not something you want to advert with
  11. Sex(America) – VIOLENCE – often desribed in violent terms
  12. Beauty (America) – MAN’S SALVATION (as opposed to provacative which leads men astray)
  13. Fat (America) – CHECKING OUT –
  14. Health & Wellness (America) – MOVEMENT
  15. Doctor (America) – HERO
  16. Nurse (America) – MOTHER
  17. Hospital (Americal) – PROCESSING PLANT
  18. Youth (America) – MASK
  19. Home (America) – Prefix (RE-) – Reunite, reconnect, renew, return
  20. Betty Crocker (America) – SOUL OF THE KITCHEN
  21. Dinner (America) – ESSENTIAL CIRCLE
  22. Work (America) – WHO YOU AREF
  23. Money (America) – PROOF – of goodness, of worth
  24. Quality (America) – IT WORKS – explains why we put up with stuff that is functional, but has poor design or other aspects of quality.
  25. Perfection (America) – DEATH – This and the view of Quality explain a bit about how well quality processes work in America
  26. Food (America) – FUEL
  27. Alcohol (America) – GUN
  28. Shopping (America) – RECONNECTING WITH LIFE – Buying is the end of this process which makes an interesting conundrum for stores
  29. Shopping (France) – LEARNING YOUR CULTURE
  30. Luxury (America) – MILITARY STRIPES – Like a badge of honor. I’ve worked hard, I deserve blah
  31. America (France) – SPACE TRAVELLERS
  32. America (Germany) – JOHN WAYNE
  33. America (England) – UNASHAMEDLY ABUNDANT
  34. France (France) – IDEA
  35. Germany (Germany) – ORDER
  36. England (England) – CLASS
  37. President (America) – MOSES – rebellious leader with strong vision to get them out of trouble
  38. Canada (Canada) – TO KEEP
  39. America (America) – DREAM







One response to “The Culture Code”

  1. […] plastic and stored in a cold, dark place). I wrote about this a long time ago in a post on “The Culture Code” which discussed how different cultures relate to a lot of different […]

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