RapCult 06-11-164      


An Ingenious Way to Understand Why People Around the World Buy and Live as They Do


Clotaire Rapaille

Broadway Books, 2006, 208 pp., ISBN 0-7679-2056-2


“This book is just plain astonishing!” (Warren Bennis)  Trained as a psychoanalyst in Paris, Rapaille is a now a personal adviser to ten high-ranking CEOs and is kept on retainer by fifty Fortune 100 companies.  Rapaille attempts to help those who read the book gain a freedom by understanding why we act like we do. (11)  He has been using the decoding approach described in this book for 30 years.  The layers-of-discovery process is fascinating, as are the author’s understandings.


“The Culture Code is the unconscious meaning we apply to any given thing—a car, a type of food, a relationship, even a country—via the culture in which we are raised.” (5)  We grow up in different worlds.  Cultures are different.  The differences lead to our processing information in different ways. 


Learning is connected to emotion.  Without emotion there is no learning.  The strongest emotions occur in childhood and the early experiences and their concomitant emotions result in imprints that affect our thought processes and future behaviors.  Each imprint affects us on an unconscious level and in combination they define us and make us more of who we are.  (6) 


Each culture has a different interpretation, a different “code,” for the same things.  These codes guide our actions and define the differences between cultures.   The culture code provides a remarkable new set of glasses to view ourselves and our behaviors. (11)


In focus groups, Rapaille uses three different questioning techniques.  In the most profound one he asks for their earliest memories of the item or idea in question.  This elicits their strongest imprints and through the structures of their stories he ascertains how, in their deepest nature, people relate to the item in question.


For example, Chrysler engaged him to find out how to market the failing Jeep Wrangler.  The earliest memories people had of jeeps brought up images of being on open land, going where cars couldn’t go, freedom from restraints, the American West, etc.  The Code for Jeep in America is HORSE.  Simply by changing the headlights from square to round, like the eyes of a horse, sales began to climb.  The Wrangler logo now includes the distinctive grille and round headlights.  (2)  In France, however, earliest memories of jeeps were American GIs freeing their country from the Germans.  The code for Jeep in France is LIBERATOR.  Marketing in France is couched in terms of freedom. (3)


When you ask people why they do things, they really don’t know.  So they tell you what they think.  That’s why polls and surveys are often misleading.  People actually do things because of the imprinting from their early experiences and emotions.  The meaning of imprints varies among cultures.  To understand the meaning you must learn the code for the imprint in that culture. (14-24) 


The American code for cars is IDENTITY.  “Americans want cars that are distinctive, that will not be mistaken for any other kind…, and that trigger memories…of the excitement of youthful passion.”  “The German Code for cars is ENGINEERING.”  (26)  The Germans expected the PT Cruiser to fail but it was a hit in America!


As a culture, the U.S. is very young.  Adolescent.  “Our cultural adolescence informs our behavior in a wide variety of ways.  It is an incredibly powerful part of our reference system, maybe the strongest in our culture.” (30)  We are still in our rebellious stage.  “We are endlessly fascinated with celebrities and all the adolescent mistakes they make.” (31)  They are the eternal adolescents we all wish to be.  They resist growing up and that fascinates us. (33)


Some cultural traits consistent with adolescence: (33-34)

·       Focus on the ‘now’

·       Dramatic mood swings

·       Constant need for exploration

·       Challenge to authority

·       Fascination with extremes

·       Openness to change and reinvention

·       Feeling that our elders are out of date and we know more than they

·       Desire to remake the world

·       Making our own mistakes rather than learning from others

·       Preoccupation with love, seduction, and sex

·       Certainties become uncertainties in the blink of an eye


“Americans—regardless of their age—view love the way an adolescent views the world: as an exciting dream that rarely reaches fulfillment.  The American Culture Code for love is FALSE EXPECTATIONS.”  (38-9)  “Our cultural unconscious compels us to have unrealistically high standards for love.”  (41)  “Americans are fascinated with violence.”  TV and movies are filled with violence.  “When marketers use sex in advertising, they connect with this fascination.” (53)


“One of the primary tensions in the American culture is the one between freedom and prohibition.  We consider freedom an inalienable right.”  “At the same time, however, our culture is very strongly inclined toward prohibition.  We believe we shouldn’t drink too much, play too much, or exhibit too much wealth.” (55)


“Why are so many of us fat when we know fat is bad for us?  Because fat is not a problem.  Fat is a solution.”  Discovery sessions showed that being thin made people feel proud and successful.  Being overweight related to “being punished,” “keeping inside,” and being “a real turn-off.” (68)  “The Code for fat in America is CHECKING OUT.”  “Getting fat is the most common available unconscious way to check out of the rat race, to adopt a strong identity (as an overweight person) without have to fight for it, to move from active to passive.” (69)


“Before we can conquer the solution of fat, we need to answer one fundamental question: from what am I checking out?” (70)


“Americans are doers.”  Nike says, “Just do it.”  “This culture-wide call to action informs the way we look at our health.” (76-77)  “For Americans, health and wellness means being able to complete your mission.”  “Americans believe that if they are strong enough to act, then they are healthy.  Their greatest fear about being sick is the inability to do things.  The Code for health and wellness in America is MOVEMENT.”  This explains why it is so hard to lose our driver’s licenses, or be confined to a wheelchair or nursing home.  (80) 


“The Code for doctors in America is HERO.”  “The Code for nurse in America is MOTHER.”  (82)


“Americans are fascinated with youth and the fanciful notion of staying young forever.”  “We look at Europe as the old world and America as the new.”  “We tend to think like adolescents, even when we are in our sixties.” (85)


“For Americans, youth isn’t a stage of life, but something you can hide behind, something you can wear instead of your actual age.  The American Culture Code for youth is MASK.  There is evidence of the youth-mask connection everywhere in our culture.”  “…any attempt to look younger is a version of wearing a mask.” (88)   


In America, when we ask, “What do you do?” we are asking, “What is your purpose?”  “Americans work longer hours than any other culture.  “Americans celebrate work and turn successful businesspeople into celebrities.”  (112-13)

“The American Culture Code for work is WHO YOU ARE.”  “Americans very strongly believe that they are what they do in their jobs.”  “If our jobs feel meaningless, then ‘who we are’ is meaningless as well.” (116)


“A billionaire still works sixty hours a week because he needs constant affirmation of who he is.”  “…we believe that if we work hard and improve our professional standing, we become better people.”  “We’re always seeking the next promotion, the next opportunity, the next chance for something big.” (118)


“Deep down, we believe that you never have to be stuck in what you do.  Self-reinvention is definitely on Code.” (119)  “None of us want to feel that we are ‘done,’ that who we are will remain stagnant for the remainder of our lives.”  Even retirees seek new jobs. (119) 


“…the notion that we ‘come from nothing’ pervades America.  …even those who accumulate huge sums of money think like poor people.” (122)  “The American Culture Code for money is PROOF.”  “We rely on it to show us that we are good, that we have true value in the world.”  “Money is our barometer of success.”  “Money is a scorecard.”  “Money earned via hard work is admirable, proof that you are a good person.  We have little respect, however, for those who inherit money rather than making it on their own.” (124-25)


“We truly believe there is a link between goodness and monetary success and that those who cheat and lie their way to the top ultimately meet their comeuppance on both the spiritual and financial planes.”  “Studies show that Americans are the most charitable people in the world.”  “While the generosity seems to be heartfelt, there is a strong sense of obligation that comes with being wealthy in this culture.” (127)


“What the Codes for work and money show, though, is that work is an essential part of who we are and that we just want a chance to proves ourselves and receive tangible evidence that we have succeeded.” (129)


The Japanese commitment to zero defects never took hold in America.  Perfection is not particularly desirable here.  It’s the end of a process: DEATH.  “Trying, failing, learning from our mistakes, and coming back stronger than ever is an essential part of the American archetype.”  “The path of American progress is filled with high peaks and low valleys….” “Americans…find perfection boring.”  (130-36) 


“At the same time, though, we have a simple and clear quality demand for our products: they need to work.” (137)  “…Americans put a premium on functionality.” [That’s why they like the Stuff CD. dlm]  “We expect our products to break down.  However, because our Code for quality is IT WORKS, we expect problems to be resolved quickly and with a minimum of disruption.”  “The bottom line is that great service is more important to Americans than great quality.” (138-39)  


“The American Culture Code for food is FUEL.  Americans say ‘I’m full’ at the end of a meal….”  “Americans regard their bodies as machines.”  “All of us know…that we need fuel to run these machines.” (146) 


“Alibis give ‘rational’ reasons for doing the things we do.”  “Alibis make us feel better about what we do because they feel logical and socially acceptable...”  “…an effective marketing campaign needs to consider the alibis while addressing the Code.”  “Alibis…are the kind of thing you are likely to hear in a focus group.  While you can’t believe what people say, it would be a mistake not to listen to it and incorporate it into your message.” (155-56)


“While shopping is wondrous and life-affirming, buying sends a very different unconscious message, especially to women.  Buying signals the end of shopping, the point at which you sever your connection with the world and go back home.  While you are shopping, you have access to myriad choices.  When you buy, you narrow your choices down to one.” (160) 


“Just as different cultures view various archetypes differently, they also view America according to their own Culture Codes.” (170)


America and France have their problems.  The hatred of George W. Bush relates to the conflict in culture codes.  Bush is “brash, with a strong adolescent streak, he’s uncultured, he’s an action figure who shoots first and asks question later, and he’s not concerned with getting things right the first time.  The French are thinkers; they believe that intellect and reason provide the answers to big questions.  In other words, George W. Bush is the antithesis of everything that guides the French on an unconscious level.” (171)


“The French Code for France is IDEA.”  “The English Code for England is CLASS.”  (176)  The Culture Code for Germany is ORDER. (177)


Lego blocks were great for marketers in Germany.  German kids carefully followed the instructions, built the model on the box, and Mom put it on the shelf.  Presto! They needed another box of Legos!  American kids threw out the instructions, built something themselves, immediately tore it apart again and built something else.  Only one box of Legos needed!  Bad for marketing! (177)


“The bottom line for business is that it is not possible for an American company to succeed in the world marketplace with one global message.”  (179) Remember, the code for Jeep Wrangler in America is HORSE.  In France, it is LIBERATOR.  Different marketing messages are needed.


“…the key to successful immigration (here or elsewhere) is connecting with the Code of the local culture.”  (181) [This is true of foreign missionaries also. dlm]


“The American presidency placed the finishing touch on the rebellion against British rule.”  “In choosing George Washington, the electors selected the leader of that rebellion.”  “This meshed effectively with a culture in its infancy…and it connects especially well with our current adolescent culture.”  “…we are happy to follow a rebel as he leads the charge.  Several of the twentieth century’s most successful presidents had strong rebellious streaks.  Bill Clinton was a Washington outsider with decided adolescent tendencies.”  (183)


“This is a very powerful notion and one that never existed in history before the founding of America.  Our leader is the person who leads the rebellion.”  “We are always changing, always moving forward, always reinventing, and we want a president who can direct this process.”  In the 2000 and 2004 elections, George W. Bush led the rebellion toward the conservative right.”  (183)


In politics the person wins who appeals to our gut survival instinct over both the thinking and emotional part of us. [The author calls it our reptilian brain. dlm]  The one who exhibits the most cortex (thinking) generally loses.  (184)


“The Culture Code for the American presidency is MOSES…, a rebellious leader of his people with a strong vision and the will to get them out of trouble.  Moses also made his people believe they could do the impossible.” (186)


“In many ways, ideology and platform are not the basis of decision.”  “The basic components of the country really do not change very much during one presidential administration.  What does change is the spirit of the country, the sense of optimism or the lack thereof.  This largely relates to the president’s ability to fill the shoes of Moses, to make us believe that he can take us to the Promised Land.” (189)


“Presidents who resonate deep down with the American archetype are excellent entertainers-in-chief.”  (189)


“The Code for America encompasses all the other Codes in this book.  It addresses the way we think of ourselves from the widest perspective within our culture and touches on the other Codes at least indirectly.”  (191)  “The American Culture Code for America is DREAM.”  (195)


“We are the product of dreams and we are the makers of dreams.  Discovering this Code puts many of the other Codes in this book into context.” (195) “We’ve built our culture on dreamlike stories that, amazingly, are true.”  “We have become the most powerful, most influential culture in the world because we believe in the power of dreams.  Optimism is not only absolutely on Code, it is essential to keeping our culture vibrant.”  “Pessimism is off Code in America, as is self-hatred.”  (196) 


“Remaining on Code means supporting our dreams and our dreamers.  We want to encourage people to have big ideas, to take risks, and to learn from their mistakes.”  “We want our teachers to inspire creativity.”  America should never shut the door to exploration and discovery.” (197)


America can never stop welcoming immigrants because to do so would be to quash one of our most enduring dreams.” (198)


“The Culture Code offers the benefit of great new freedom gained from understanding why you act the way you do.  It gives you a new set of glasses with which you can see the world in a new way.” (198) 



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