Culture Mapping the Route to Business Success

How ‘culture mapping’ can allow companies to make better business decisions

With the business landscape full of uncertainties, knowing the mind of your consumers has never been more important. Following textbook solutions, tried-and-tested ideals, and age-old patterns can often be ineffective, and can prevent companies from optimizing their business decisions. ‘Culture mapping’ has emerged as a possible solution to this problem, using data to reveal patterns and nuanced changes in culture.

scenarioDNA, the New York-based consultancy behind this technique, realized that most businesses neglected the importance of a primary factor that could affect their success – the ‘human’ aspect. Humans, being social creatures, are highly influenced by their immediate physical and cultural environment, which in turn shapes their mentality.

Tim Stock, Co-founder of scenarioDNA, says that he “saw how the synergies of a cross-discipline approach could help clients get comfortable with an evolving world.”

This influenced the company to come up with ‘Culture Mapping,’ a highly interdisciplinary concept that uses machine learning to find patterns that reveal nuanced changes in culture. In 2015, the method received its U.S. utility patent, and has now become a well-established differentiator for businesses seeking insights and intelligence to act upon.

Tim Stock speaking at Knowledge of Design Week 2019 in Hong Kong. Image courtesy of KODW.

The technology behind tracing trends

scenarioDNA’s culture mapping matrix is based on a semiotic square that organizes how language is formed with regards to social behavior. By investigating ‘language’ in this manner, the company uses machine learning to leverage large amounts of data from textual sources.

“The language is mapped on the Culture Mapping matrix around certain narrative archetypes that allow us to see these trends as stories that represent cycles of change,” says Stock. “By measuring these social phenomena we can better help clients develop future scenarios for how products are more likely to work over time.”

As ‘culture’ is a fairly broad term that is subject to perception in highly contrasting ways, the accuracy of culture mapping might seem questionable. However, scenarioDNA’s process allows for a spatial understanding of things, concepts, conditions, processes, or events. The fact that culture mapping acknowledges the extent of their interrelatedness attests to the accuracy of the process.

How much does culture matter?

Stock believes that some markets remain ahead of others in terms of adopting new trends. This disparity boils down to the cultural dimensions and conditions in these regions, which is why scenarioDNA’s insights can be valuable to those who wish to know how culture is affecting business in those regions.

He uses the analogy of COVID-19 to demonstrate the vitality of culture as a factor which affects business success, explaining how some regions with a more “collective response” have battled the pandemic more effectively than others. He speculates that global health trends might evolve if these responses are studied further.

“Success cannot exist without an acute understanding of culture. You can have short term sales, but not meaningful sustainable success without culture,” says Stock.

Speaking on a panel at Knowledge of Design Week 2020, Stock also referenced the ‘ghost trends’ that have come about as direct or indirect results of the COVID-19 pandemic. One such trend, he said, could be found in ghost apartments – properties intended to be rented out, but currently lying empty.

A quick look at major projects

Ever since its inception, the company has taken on major projects with a number of large corporations, including Waldorf Astoria, Time Out and Verizon. Recently, the company worked with American food producer ‘Land O’ Lakes,’ a company that had been engaging in co-operative farming for nearly a century.

Land O’ Lakes’ strategy involved distinguishing itself from publicly owned big food competitors by placing an emphasis on environmental care and working in cooperation with other farmers, but working with scenarioDNA showed the farming company that the tenets of the concept of stewardship weren’t as relatable to consumers or as widespread as the company might have hoped.

Stewardship in farming refers to the responsibility of caring for the environment, but this role has evolved with time. scenarioDNA’s analytical process delved into the implications of stewardship in multiple spheres of food production and consumption, “from rethinking university food services in the midst of student protests to challenging beliefs about how food systems should be.”

The company’s discoveries of factors that affect an ecocentric approach to farming, including gender dynamics, ultimately culminated in the brand campaign “All Together Better,” which Land O’ Lakes used to highlight its longstanding collaborative spirit while also incorporating modernity and contemporary values into its marketing.

Similarly, scenarioDNA worked with Nike, a leading global producer of sports apparel, to trace changes in the perception of sports among youth in Japan. The company used photojournalism for its research, unearthing data that hadn’t been apparent through traditional video interviews.

One pattern that revealed itself through this process was that post-Fukushima, youth increasingly exhibited a distrust in authority, prompting them to shift away from the traditional “bukatsu” clubs and activities found in universities, and toward more “visceral expressive scenarios” in a sports context.

Sport was no longer a way to move further from Japan; youth were developing a sense of loyalty to their country and there was increasing interest in ancient regional games. Their priority was shifting from moving to the West, to learning more about their heritage. These trends allowed Nike to speculate where the youth were headed in terms of their interests, and how they had to react in terms of marketing, the messages they propagated, and product development.

Peering further down the route

scenarioDNA is on a constant endeavor to fine-tune its natural language processing (NLP) algorithm and find better ways to apply visual information. An emerging business niche for the company lies in making changes in the writers’ room process for television development.

“We want to use Culture Mapping tools to help writers and showrunners develop new genres of content and better contextualize creative content in regional markets,” says Stock.

Delving further into the intersection of business and culture can potentially yield landmark discoveries for companies, which revolutionize how they perceive and conduct their business. After all, like conceptual artist Michael Craig-Martin once said, “Cultural influence is very deep, it is not on the surface and this is true in every culture.”

Images courtesy of Matt Duncan on Unsplash and Knowledge of Design Week.


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