11/19/2013 05:24 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Culture Code

In this entry, I will be writing about Clotaire Rapaille's book, The Culture Code. The Culture Code helps us understand the different meanings people unconsciously assign to things. Our different cultures and customs lead us to process the same information differently. This is why the world has an infinite number of cultural codes.

These codes determine the very different ways people behave in similar situations. For Rapaille, it is very important to recognize these hidden meanings because, when you apply them to marketing, for example, you discover what's needed to create a good campaign that can appeal to the most basic instincts to sell a product that's irresistible.

Rapaille based the development of his methodology on the work of Henri Laborit, who demonstrated a very clear connection between learning and emotions: the stronger the emotions, the deeper our experiences will be rooted in our brains.

For example, let us consider a child whose parents have repeatedly warned him not to touch a hot pan and who does it anyway and burns himself. From that moment on, the concepts of hot and burn are indelibly written on his brain. The communicator, then, can creatively base himself on the profound meaning of this concept.

The combination of experience and emotion produces what is known as imprint: once it is created, it conditions our mental processes, determining our future behavior. The combination of all our imprints define us as people.

The Cultural Code methodology goes hand in hand with the concept of imprinting. Together, they are like the key and the lock: if you describe an imprint, you can open the code. If you open the code, you can describe the reasons behind a people's actions, preconceptions, and attitudes. According to Rapaille, it's like a new pair of glasses that shows us a totally different angle of everything that goes on in the world.

Down through the years, Rapaille has designed a methodology that leads people in focus groups to say what they are really thinking and feeling. This makes it possible to unravel the cultural code immersed in the collective subconscious.

For example, when Nestlé tried to introduce its coffee into Japan in the 1970's, it hired Mr. Rapaille to describe the beverage's imprint in the Japanese population. To his surprise, the imprint was non-existent. This was both a challenge and an opportunity. Nestlé made the decision to give coffee meaning in Japanese culture. Its long-term strategy was to sell coffee-flavored candy, which children devoured with delight. The imprint they developed was very positive, eventually allowing Nestlé's to dominate the country's coffee market.

Another of this methodology's success stories was Jeep Wrangler. Chrysler executives designed a campaign that said absolutely nothing to the public and, desperate, they sought help from Rapaille.

After hard work with a focus group, Rapaille concluded that the code for that vehicle in the U.S. is horse. With that in mind, the idea of making the vehicle luxurious was counterproductive: people don't look for luxury in a horse.

In contrast, in Europe the code for Jeeps is Liberator because Europeans associate it with the troops that liberated them from Nazi domination. Chrysler started promoting Jeeps in Europe with this code and was very successful.

Understanding the cultural code gives us the power of hidden meanings. In our case, I think there's an intuition about what makes up Mexicans' cultural codes, and many companies have understood it very well. This has made them successful thanks to their focus on certain segments of the public. We at Grupo Salinas have been fulfilling the needs of a specific segment of Mexican society for 100 years. This has led us to discern its cultural code and, thus, to understand our customers better and provide them with better service.

Note: The cultural codes described by Clotaire Rapaille are his opinion and not necessarily an absolute truth, meaning that they are subject to debate.