Management: The new executive cool hunter

Companies need a chief culture officer (CCO) if they want to survive the ever evolving zeitgeist.

Almost the instant Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad in San Francisco on Jan. 27, giddy observers around the world started in on the feminine hygiene humour. The word ‘iTampon’ was bandied around the Twittersphere, where it quickly became the second- most-popular trending topic. More jokes flooded in — from blog posts to viral videos — leaving people wondering whether there were simply too few women on Jobs’s marketing team.

This naming debacle might have been avoided if Apple had a full-time culture guru on hand. In his new book, Chief Culture Officer, MIT anthropologist and Vancouver native Grant McCracken argues that in today’s business environment, the key to long-term success is to appoint a new executive to the C-suite, whose sole responsibility is following culture – the shared ideas and activities that inform everyday living in the world outside of the corporation.

“Corporations are bad at reading and responding to culture,” McCracken says. Consider Levi Strauss, who missed hip hop’s popular baggy jeans look and $1 billion in denim sales. Best Buy flushed away $700 million when it bought Musicland just as Napster was growing. “RIM was slow off the mark on social media,” he says, “and building a living, breathing corporation.”

A good CCO, McCracken says, is no Prada-clad cool hunter. In addition to keeping track of pop cultural trends, she must act as an ethnographer and pay close attention to currents like “slow culture” or “homeyness” – the stuff that makes up people’s everyday lives.

It may sound like a dream job, but McCracken says being a chief culture officer is hard work. “There is no such thing as being ‘naturally hip,'” he writes. “Standards, knowledge, continual learning, the ability to process massive bodies of data, the ability to spot the crucial development in a perfect storm of possibilities-this, and not intuition, is the work of the CCO.”

McCracken points to Silvia Lagnado, global brand director for Unilever’s Dove, as an example of someone thinking like a CCO. Lagnado noticed that women’s perceptions of beauty were changing: only 2% of female consumers considered themselves beautiful in the face of the “young, white, blond, and slim” models that colonized advertisements. Lagnado responded with Dove’s popular Campaign for Real Beauty, which celebrated gorgeousness in myriad forms.

Another good example of a CCO in action is Rochelle Grayson, a Vancouver-based social-media and online entertainment consultant, whose clients include MTV, Mattel, and Warner Bros. Grayson describes the role of the CCO as “someone who understands both the world inside and outside the company and can make the two worlds get in sync so the business can excel.”

Grayson scours the cultural landscape, working to understand how communities act, converse and relate. “Then I match the personalities of these social networks or communities – YouTube, Facebook, Flickr – with clients’ business goals,” she says.

In the Internet age, as culture changes at an ever-faster clip, and consumers are increasingly producers of culture, Grayson believes the role of CCO is more important than ever. “Companies can no longer broadcast their message to potential customers because customers are asking their social networks for recommendations and suggestions,” she says.

The brands that succeed, according to Grayson, are the ones that tap into the appropriate networks, find the most influential vehicles for word-of-mouth advertising, and get people to feel passionately engaged in the company’s culture and “evangelize on their behalf.”

The challenge with CCOs, however, is quantifying the value they bring to a company. Russell Belk, a professor of marketing at the Schulich School of Business who specializes in consumer culture theory, says that appointing a CCO may simply be “a leap of faith” for now. He points to an ad agency he visited in Tokyo, which hired two dozen people to investigate the online game Second Life. “That was a hedge bet. They didn’t know what the potential would be or how to measure the outcome, but they wanted to be there, be aware of the hot trend at that time.”

Guesswork aside, Belk firmly believes that it is important for companies to hire someone to keep an eye on culture not only in their own backyard but around the world: “What’s happening in Hong Kong or Tokyo influences what’s happening in New York City now.”

Robert Kozinets, a marketing professor and the author of Consumer Tribes, has observed that corporate executives tend to be so disconnected from the culture of their consumers that “they can get blindsided pretty regularly.” Ultimately, the role of the CCO should bridge that gap. “It’s kind of like The Prince and the Pauper,” he says. “Get out there, walk in people’s shoes, go to coffee shops and listen to conversation. Get out beyond the walls of the castle and see what’s going on in the world.”