The Brand Plays On

Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation BY Grant McCracken. Basic Books. Hardcover, 272 pages. $26.

The cover of Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation

Corporations are struggling in the new millennium to connect with consumers. After all, as we’ve been told over and over again, in the brave new branded world of marketing, business is no longer about selling products or attracting customers; it’s about forging personal relationships. Grant McCracken realized that “the days of a simple-minded marketing, of finding and pushing 'hot buttons’—these days were over.” And so he conceived the Chief Culture Officer—the eponymous hero of his new book—who “has the weather maps” for the “North Sea [of culture] out of which commotion constantly storms.” The CCO provides a “deeper, slower knowledge” of the world by eavesdropping on design collectives, supping at the latest bistros, wandering into the undiscovered nooks of the Internet. The CCO is out to “reverse-engineer the [Martha] Stewart sensibility.” Who needs ideas to start a company when you can hire someone to gather the best from what’s already out there?

Once just a humble anthropologist, McCracken was pulled into the limelight by an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, where he was paired with a hotshot New York designer in a home-makeover episode. While the designer fretted about the drapes, McCracken spotted the father and daughter dancing and championed their play as evidence of “homeyness.” Homeyness is part of what McCracken calls “slow culture,” the matrix of associations that gives meaning to our objects and interactions. In essence, the operating manual for the CCO works out to an extended version of that homey, Oprah-fied insight: an admixture of sociology and anthropology combined with a healthy dose of cool hunting.

McCracken’s examples of unofficial CCOs are, perhaps inevitably, those who are good at their jobs. There’s the creative adman who helped position Microsoft as the ordinary guy against Apple’s snobby geek. There’s the programming head of HBO who got his company to back idiosyncratic fare like The Sopranos. McCracken even offers up the example of Mary Minnick at Coca-Cola, developer of that lasting beverage hit Fruitopia. She foresaw the trend away from soda and toward “healthy” drinks—nevertheless, in what McCracken views as a slight to the CCO ethos, she was passed over for CEO. But the Coca-Cola Company certainly jumped on the “noncarb” bandwagon—witness Dasani and Vitaminwater. Weren’t they just being a good corporation and rewarding the idea, not the creator?

Now, McCracken—who formerly published dour studies on consumerism like Culture and Consumption (1990)—is here to help us deliver the zeitgeist to the C-suite (that would be the clutch of senior management whose titles begin with chief ) and ensure that, unlike Minnick, we land the promotion. Borrowing from film, he encourages us to “dolly back . . . to see the consumer in her life, in her culture.” We should recognize the way bumper-sticker slogans like “Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty” have garnered their own Wikipedia entries. (Just wait until he discovers the epic stand-alone wikis devoted entirely to television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lost.)

As you might expect, the means of tapping into this cultural awareness are . . . awkward. He questions strangers. “The results are sometimes ugly . . . but my job as a student of culture is minding your business, and your personal life.” McCracken goes beyond nosiness! Editors get a shout-out (they “mediate” what makes it “into the net”). So do cultural critics (he has a soft spot for the wisdom of those lucky enough to have kept their writing jobs). In appendix B (“A Tool Kit for the Budding CCO”), you’ll find a list of twenty expert advisers CCOs-to-be should cultivate with lunches and thousand-dollar checks.

And now that he’s found a homey application for his research outside the university, McCracken’s quick to caution us that actual anthropologists are irrelevant. What’s interesting about his enemies list is how closely it hews to his list of go-to consultants, but without the big names attached. Cool hunters are shunned: “The moment someone wants to sell you consulting advice and he shows up wearing Prada and really cool glasses, put a hand on your wallet and run for your life.” But he extols designer Russell Davies, one of the founders of the Open Intelligence Agency, whose mission—“Our collective experience includes brand and communications thinking and creative ideas”—sounds an awful lot like cool hunting. The takeaway seems to be that you should only trust those with a sinecure.

In many ways, Chief Culture Officer is no different from the management tomes that have preceded it. In his attempt to resuscitate the corporation, McCracken seems to have forgotten his premise: that independent culture must be harvested in the wild by CCOs. After all, McCracken points out, corporations are perfectly able to create culture! “Consider public life before Starbucks. In North America, people in public were objects of curiosity and suspicion.” This core conceptual confusion between corporate retail engineering and self-created culture fuels McCracken’s argument. Be it art or public space, nothing truly has meaning until a corporation has transformed it into a vehicle for commerce.

And that is where the harmless amusement of the book turns a bit grim. The triumphant personalization of corporations has been a failure—the market doesn’t only struggle with culture, it has a difficult time with ethics as well. A masterful CCO, we learn, can “earn her income for the year by lunchtime . . . every day.” But as the past year of corporate malfeasance has shown, McCracken’s subjects and readers alike are better off heeding that old-economy refrain: There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Phoebe Connelly is the online editor of the American Prospect.