Cultural Curiosity: the Power of Simple Questions


[Olivetti Valentine 1960s ad#]

“Many past events have taught me that culture is a very male-dominated sector.” This from an interview with philosopher Ilaria Gaspari# got me thinking about my chosen field of work. It shows as an assumption that women don't have a universal gaze.

Yet, everyone wonders about human desires in ways big and small. Questions like how could I have a more fulfilled life? People are complex beings. If you conduct any form of customer research, you'll see how it's not a straight line. It's more like a curve that dips in middle age—circa 35-40+ years of age—then smiles again.

When you find and own your worldview, that's when you start on the satisfied side of life curve. A process by elimination—labor limae, the filing work every artist performs after sketching the work (especially writers).

Companies work along a similar curve and process, but many don't make it to middle age. Which is a shame, because the best from there is typically yet to come.


You wouldn't tie apples to a dead tree

Companies are tempted to operate this way. They come up with fancy mission, vision, and value statements that try to dictate how people should operate to attain a position (fruit) that comes from lessons (seeds) that have not been planted in those same companies.

They may sneak this “fraudulent fruit” into first impressions with prospects and employee interviews without a second thought. But they will come to light in due time with customers and employees (i.e. the people that matter to business health, long term).

I borrowed this idea from Wesley Andrews,# who reminded me of the value of a similar concept I used to illustrate the difference between flash-in-the-pan and long-lived ideas. It's a perfect illustration of how culture works. Metaphors create mental models of the world.

Quality products and results still come from quality thinking, doing —and commitment. Thus, culture is the byproduct of consistent behavior. Many things contribute to it that have become invisible in modern-day accounting.


Keeping up with the Joneses

Pick any successful company and you'll find that every other company in that industry tries to benchmark itself against it. Benchmarking plays a role in a company's decision-making process. This is particularly interesting as you look at tracking how you're doing.

The phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” originated in a comic strip. It's an idiom in parts of the English-speaking world that refers to the comparison to your neighbor as a benchmark for social class or the accumulation of material goods. Failing is culturally perceived as demonstrating socio-economic inferiority.

Hence careful who you compare yourself and your company against. There are risks when money's involved.# How other people live doesn't tell you their earning-to-expense ratio. Someone else's career doesn't show you their lives' downsides.

Companies and industries are complex. Success is all the sweeter when the striving comes from your own culture and strategy. That means rather than looking too much at competitors, it's worth looking into what's happening with your customers and communities.

With a caveat that you can't ask directly what they're into. Because they won't know what to tell you. The best way to align your company culture with their thinking is by tapping into human truths that exist across groups.

Plus, what's valuable to them based on who's driving their cultural conversation.


Honoring trends by staying true to your values

Gucci is a company that has been making culture with mostly ups since 1921.# The exception was a family feud in the 1980s that took all the company's energy to jostle on multiple frontswith a consequent loss of strategic focus.

A new executive vice president and chief designer in 1989 brought the company back to its luxury heritage and roots. Fashion and style is a challenging business. It both taps into and drives culture. Gucci was touch-and-go with successes tied to the revival of styles from the '70s under the creative direction of Tom Ford.

It seems to have found its mojo again after 2014 under the leadership of Marco Bizzarri and the creative direction of Alessandro Michele. For a few years now, the luxury fashion label has topped Made in Italy companies in their category.#

Gucci was 2019's fastest riser, growing by a staggering 50 percent to $24.4 billion over the last year, according to BrandZTM Top 30 Most Valuable Italian Brands ranking by WPP and Kantar. Brand Finance also put Gucci at the top of its Italy 50 in 2019, due to the company's image and reputation.# 

Italian brands have an extraordinary presence all over the world. Many have been holding their value during difficult times. This is in part due to their heritage and the authenticity of the lifestyle associated with their products. 

2020 has seen the reappearance of nostalgia. This showed up in the research we've conducted with Not Everyday Life as well. An uncomfortable present and uncertain future for many meant refuge in the past, or at least in a more idealized version of oneself.

It translated into a search for quality products and experiences: vinyl, for example, has made a comeback. Many wonder if its' here to stay. The trend has been observed since 2015.# We do know that crises accelerate and could expand the evolution of tendencies.

Alessandro Michele engineered Gucci's Renaissance by innovating on the company's storied past. He tapped into contemporary culture and produced a post-gender style that appeals to the geek as to the chic in the evolution of lux culture.


Walking the talk… and talking the walk

Italian brands are phenomenal when it comes to tapping into culture. They're steeped into it, and companies tend to stick around longer. They could use some help talking the walkcommunicating their value more broadly.

There's incredible taste and design, product innovation, and not just in fashion. Robotics and life sciences come to mind. Humans are tool makers and Italian craftsmanship has a storied tradition.

Talking the walk is the inverse challenge many companies face: not walking the talk. Millions go toward shiny company presentations extolling values and change messaging. Yet, often those same companies don't reflect (internally) the change they're trying to invoke.

Virtue-signalling is a slippery slope. Without ongoing commitment to supporting and uplifting a cause or community, the messages sound hollow. Maybe not at first, but eventually they will deflate and disappoint.

When Patagonia makes climate-related statements, you know they're in line with the company's founding values. They're not trying to capitalize on a sexy new trend. Gucci's revival story reminds me a lot about Apple's after 1997—take away the clutter, find the seed and replant/nourish it with care.

In other words, you build the company you wouldn't sell. There's no amount of easy in that, by the way. There's this misconception that it's all in the idea, that if you tell enough people about a brilliant idea, it gets realized automagically.

It takes a tremendous amount of craftsmanship to take even a great idea and turn it into a product. You'll need to negotiate gaps between your taste and what's possible, making trade-offs all along the way—without loss of enthusiasm.

Then, you'll have earned talking the walk.


The power of culture

But without cultural curiosity, none of this is possible. You won't be able to stick it out in difficult times without conviction and commitment to turning out a great product. Culture has power over our behaviors.

Gracie Cunningham, 16, opened up her now-viral recent TikTok video with, “I was just doing my makeup for work, and I just wanted to tell you guys about how I don't think math is real.” She was mocked for asking simple questions. But not by the experts.

Mathematician Eugenia Cheng sent a detailed answer to the questions.# Intelligence is about asking better questions. That's how we learn; it's a known process in science. It's also how culture evolves.

We're naturally curious. It's the fear of looking stupid that keeps us from continuing to ask questions that seem silly… but lead to profound insights and discoveries.

Companies get into a business through initial curiosity—and luck, too. Many Italian companies were poised to conquer the world through taste and the cultural reference to beauty and carefree lifestyle. They tapped into an expressed and welcome cultural change after the ugliness and destruction of World War II.

If there was a question at the time, it might have been a version of “why not?” Simple observations like how women did their laundry led to fantastic and enduring products like the Moka espresso maker by Bialetti. Or how do you skirt the rubble to get from point A to point B in a city efficiently—which led to the Vespa.

Many of the companies that have successfully reinvented themselves continue to embody a cultural curiosity experts forget—the beginner's mind. They keep asking seemingly silly questions, especially around what's not happening and could. “What if we had a bicycle for the mind?” is a question 12-year old Steve Jobs wondered about that spun a whole industry.

Great innovators stay with the questions and keep tapping into culture as they walk the talk. That's the secret power of simple questions. Companies that embody this spirit of inquiry find ways to infuse their product with that same spirit.

That's how customers come to love your product. Those products become cultural icons: Olivetti's Lettera 22 and Valentine typewriters, Apple's Macs, Piaggio's Vespa, Persol 649, Gucci's double-G logo design with its style origins in the company's tradition of upper-class, equestrian equipment.

“Direction comes down to taste,” said Steve Jobs in a 1995 interview. What he meant and demonstrated, is that the initial idea you might have needs an incredible amount of craftsmanship. Designing a product is keeping 5,000 things in your head and trying to fit them together.

It's the same process for finding clues in culture. You keep at the filing work until you uncover the essential elements—what makes your company move and what gives your product joy for the people who use it.


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