Q. What is the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis?

A. We are a research institution that studies how people actually make buy decisions, what their optimal choices look like, the environments in which those choices are made, and the values that drive those choices.

Our answers to these questions have proven high-end value for a wide range of clients, from universities to theme parks, auto transmission repair to private banking for the super-rich; from milk to tires, diamonds to kiwi fruit.

Q. How is cultural analysis different from other kinds of consumer research? 

A. While marketing research generally begins with the product, we start at the other end of the scale, with the consumer.  We study how products are regarded and used, what mind-share they occupy, their cultural “valence,” or value concept and ranking, and their relationship to other products.  By looking into the black box of the user mind, against the history of its use over hundreds and sometimes thousands of years, we construct a long-term multidimensional “map” of the product—as it already exists in the buyer’s mind.  The “Age of the Customer” means better research that goes deeper into the consumer mind.

Since any product’s success begins and ends with sale and satisfaction, knowledge of the buyer is Job One for all successful products and launches. This knowledge affords an instant edge over the competition.  However, few companies actually begin their research at this fundamental level. 

Q. Why is that?

A. Corporate management assumes they already know the answers because they live so close to the product.  In reality, we’ve found only about a 20% shared appreciation and understanding of products between companies on the inside and consumers on the outside. That’s because the insider are overwhelmed by the day-to-day business and product management while the consumer universe outside is constantly evolving. It may take a market disruption before they stop to ask what that product or experience means to the person who actually buys and uses it. 

Most often, this meaning is something quite different from what insiders think it is.  This is especially true of “public trust” organizations: museums, education, cultural institutions.  On the consumer front, Jewelry, as just one example, is not about the values of the industry—craftsmanship and materials—but about bonding and hierarchy within the family unit and beyond.

Q. Aren’t focus groups the best way to do research by directly asking people what they want?

A.  No.  The reason for that is focus groups were never designed as research tools, but as idea-generation devices intended to produce a wide-ranging field of concepts from which to focus the most promising avenues of inquiry. The leading problem is that they don’t really serve this function very well.  That’s because the client company doesn’t have any sure way to sort through the results: the ideas that focus groups generate.

The problem lies not with the researcher, but with subconscious Human Factors. People can’t tell you what they want because they don’t know until they see it. People can’t tell you what they will do in the future because they make decisions in context – and that context won’t be sitting around a table with a group of strangers.

Then there is the fact that, true to human nature in groups (and of primates in general), almost from the moment the focus group is assembled, it begins to act out two agendas, neither of which serve the client’s interests: the compliance to the authority of the facilitator in charge, and the subroutine of the natural leader within the group.

Focus group outcomes are conditioned heavily just by this double dynamic alone.  In addition, their answers to many questions are socially conditioned as part of group behavior.  So when the facilitator asks people what they eat, they over-report fresh fruit and vegetables, and underreport sugar, fats, and starches.  Yet by every objective measure out there, Americans are eating more of the “bad” foods and less of the “good.”

When used as intended, to generate a field of ideas from which to focus your research, it’s an effective tool. But it’s a tool designed to focus your research, not a substitute for the research itself.

A focused cultural analysis is a far faster, cheaper, better way to high-leverage intelligence.  CCS&A proves this time and again for top companies.  We are called in to “make sense of” focus group data, for example, for a leading international consumer goods company.  Our work is evidence-based and grounded in behavior, versus the testimony orientation of most market research.  We deal with the proven record of decisions in action, rather than anything people might say about their actions. 

Q. So what do you look for in your research?

A.  We have synthesized, and continue to draw upon, knowledge from many fields, including social history, anthropology, neuroscience, cognitive science, brain research; design and behavioral disciplines like architecture and psychology; plus the hard science of physiology, physics, and statistics.  We consult a world-wide index of experts in every imaginable field for our studies. 

This synthesis has been distilled into a matrix of models, including age development, gender, affiliation, environment, and values.  Through these models, we are able to search the world’s largest database—the living record of human decision-making history as popular culture—to discern the major patterns that show how people have made decisions over time with their time, energy, and resources within various social dimensions. 

And we focus on the aggregate: the largest part of the bell curve that deals with mainstream, shared behaviors and beliefs.  We deal with specialty or subcultural topics as separate, dedicated subsets of the larger culture, in parallel to the way they actually operate.

Q.  This sound like a lot of data.  How do you consolidate and make sense of it?

A. The same way a computer filters big data.  By running data through algorithms and models, these patterns yield reliable, time-tested, long-term, and cross-cultural results that can be applied to any product or experience.

Analysis is a complex process, but culture is a system, and all systems can be modeled, studied, described, and even predicted.  Basic to this process is an appreciation of systems theory, themes, which are recognized as carrying multiple values (we call this “thematics”), fractal and complexity theory, and related ways of detecting order and design in very large, interactive sets of information—the “big data” of culture.

A current case study is the “universal city” discovering the drivers of design that have shaped all cities across cultures and history, ancient and modern.  Findings will reveal why cities exist in the first place, for what purposes, in what types, to tell us about the ways they can or can’t be developed for the future.

Q. How can this research be applied?

A. Immediate research results can be used to predict how a new product will do in the future with what kinds of consumers.  They can reveal the reasons products have been successful or failed, which products have disappeared while others endure, and what types or classes of products are most likely to prevail in the future.  Linking products with the way people consistently think about and value them is the key to the most effective communications design, or to modifying that design over time in response to shifts in demographics and cultural context.

But cultural values themselves are remarkably stable over time, creating the baseline for cultural studies.  Clarifying the cultural issues to explain why people make decisions about products, services, and experiences gives you the platform on which all other business decisions can be made with confidence and to best effect. 

Currently, one of our in-house research projects is a guide to designing experiences based on the “hidden system” of human needs, behavior, and perception.  Designers of public spaces work on intuition. But it’s our experience that the essential principles of human-based design can be assembled and understood for far better based design with fewer unintended consequences.     

Q. Does CS&A get involved in implementation?

A. As a research think-tank on consumer values and decision-making, our expertise is in the Intelligence phase rather than in Strategy and Tactics.  Our best value to clients is in this high-leverage front-end stage of planning by setting out the core theme: defining the most basic concepts of a product’s cultural value to buyers.  This is the highest-value tool in the research box.

We can monitor the action steps of a project to be sure they are true to the baseline analysis.  We have been involved in high-level crisis analysis (recently we advised to a successful rescue operation in the UAE) as well in identifying stakeholders, issues, and public perception that can prevent crisis from happening in the first place. 

But the best use of our resources is at the fuzzy front-end of the problem-solving process, where the problem itself is framed.  Problem framing is by far the most difficult task for most organizations, and if not done or done improperly, the entire process will be off-base, as will all outcomes.   Most time and spending waste occurs in failure to see and leverage the leading “buying point” of any product or experience. 

Q. How do you measure results?

A.  The same way the client measures success: sales rise, pitches are won, attendance or enrollment increases. We measure results by what the customer “votes for” in the most meaningful way possible – with their time and dollars.

There is more than enough data around: the problem is converting all these factoids into actionable intelligence.  This is our performance point of distinction.

In all cases where our research has formed the core intelligence, from diamond sales to museum exhibits to roller-coaster PR, we have seen excellent outcomes.  For our clients in PR/advertising, this means winning pitches.  In new product development, major budgets have been saved by gathering full information on consumer thinking and use before the launch--instead of after.  In issues of public perception, we are able to prevent fires by pointing out the real values of major players – not always the ones they espouse, but those that emerge from a study of their performance and motivation.  Branding and image-building are natural to cultural studies because they deal with mental positioning, symbols, and cueing—which is where all brands must rise or fall.  And issues of future consumer tastes and needs as New Product Development are always based on a cultural database: what human beings have done again and again over time.  We use the past to predict the future.

Q.  What are some issues with applying cultural analysis?

A.  The simple fact that nobody knows they are in trouble until they are in trouble. So we get called in to put out fires rather than at the beginning of the process where we can frame the problem and spot issues before they occur.

The American cultural tendency is to start projects in the middle unlike, say the Japanese who will spend years on research and then jump straight to the goal. Americans tend to start as soon as possible and then fix problems as they arise. (The “don’t just stand there, do something!” paradox). This gives us a first-start advantage in a good economy when there is unlimited money to throw at problems. It doesn’t work as well in today’s down economy.

Bringing us in at the beginning of a project saves companies the cripplingly expensive “Stage 2” (and 3, and 4, and…) projects to fix unexpected, undesirable, outcomes.

We have been asked to help save nationally recognized projects far too late in the game, when the budget is depleted and the media has already framed the project narrative as a mistake, failure, or embarrassment. You don’t know you’re in trouble until you are in trouble, but sometimes it’s too late.

We would much prefer being on hand for the take-off instead of the crash-landing.   The best practice is to do the best research, trust the results, then ride out to glory.  As Davy Crockett, popular culture hero, put it, “Be sure you’re right.  Then go ahead.”

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The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis is a think tank that decodes how consumers determine value in products, concepts, and ideas.

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