Cracking the Cultural Code: Understanding Cultural Insights to Ignite Your Business Strategy

Feb 8, 2024

Being tuned into unique cultural codes is no longer a “nice to have” for brands – it’s a competitive necessity. In our digitally tethered world, company growth hangs on creating deep links of meaning that transcend, but still celebrate local cultural differences. That's where cultural insights come in and the brands that understand the impact can use that to grow quicker.

Understanding cultural insights goes beyond the surface-level approach of what is going on to understanding the why it’s going on – a concept discussed in Edward T. Hall’s Cultural Iceberg framework.

But how exactly can companies embed genuine cultural insights into their DNA and business strategy? Here’s guidance on decoding cultures and driving growth in the process from the team at Sylvestre & Co., where we’ve done just that for the last five decades.

Getting Past Cultural Assumptions

Let’s level-set. Culture runs far deeper than just understanding what language people speak. It’s tempting to equate the two, but that oversimplification can sink strategies faster than you can say “Bonjour” or “Konichiwa!”

Take Canada and the United States. Just because both largely speak English, doesn’t mean they share the same cultural DNA. And just because Japan-based businesspeople speak English during business dealings with North Americans that doesn't mean they adopted the ways of living in the US or Canada.

Language is surface level. Culture guides not just what we say, but more importantly how we think, what we value and what influences our behaviours as people. That runs deeper than vocabulary.

Cracking Cultural Insights Through Primary Research

“The best cultural insights come straight from the source – your target customers within a cultural context," said Isabelle Landreville, chief insight seeker and president at Sylvestre & Co. "There is no replacement for direct engagement through qualitative research to uncover rich, first-hand insights.”

Researchers that pick up those cultural insights, actively observe and unpack the cultural forces shaping attitudes and behaviours. Genuine cultural insights are understood through immersive observation, interviews and deep conversations that uncover why people across cultures think differently, act differently and yes, even snack differently.

To understand the differences in cultural insights and to use that understanding in a business sense includes considering:

  • Unique cultural rituals
  • Nuanced perspectives on parenting, family identity and gender roles
  • Historical and religious influences on vices and prohibition
  • Humour preferences and the role comedy plays in society  

Just imagine if brands relied only on assumptions instead of engaging consumers to reveal how cultural insights impact consumer and human behaviour. That can impact brands' success.

Seeking cultural fluency requires adopting an empathetic “insider’s lens” when engaging different cultures.

Looking Through Local Eyes

When the team at Sylvestre & Co. works globally, they partner with local teams to level set on current cultural behaviours, norms and feelings. Cultural insights must take an insider’s view with local partners actively informing strategy based on their boots-on-the-ground wisdom.

“Tell them truly what your intent is. Because if they truly understand what your intent is...they’ll be able to guide you as to this is the phrasing," said Isabelle.  

Brands can severely limit their cultural understanding by allowing outsider assumptions and existing dominant cultural norms to color analysis of new target audiences.

These local guides know their cultural terrain best. They serve as translators, assumption filters and strategy navigators. They can help you convert abstract consumer insights into actionable opportunities. All while avoiding the pitfalls of assumptions blurring outsider objectivity.

So, check any existing cultural baggage at the border. And bring along empathetic, native cultural partners to guide your journey.

Uncovering “The Whys” + Making Meaning

Here’s where this cultural code cracking really pays dividends. The cultural insights extracted through primary research reveal the influential “whys” behind observable consumer behaviours, and that can include:

  • Attitudes and beliefs
  • Intangibles
  • Subconscious  

“Understanding cultural norms, we’ll tell you why they snack that way, or why your beer is better suited to a time-of-day," said Isabelle. "We can tell you why that is and understanding the why, which is where the cultural insights come in.”

Instead of just reacting to trends in mobile usage or pockets of sales growth, cultural insights provide the missing layer of strategic meaning. Maybe that sales uptick has cultural roots in religious occasions. Maybe that digital behavior ties back to a specific societal trend.

The point is cultural insights fill in the gap between causation and correlation. They add the texture missing from Big Data alone. The “whys” behind behaviours offer connective tissue for global brands to then ground innovation and experiences in cultural meaning vs. hollow novelty.

Turning Insights into Action

Then it's important to use what was learned to inform strategies and innovation rooted in those game-changing consumer truths. And given these insights can be territory-specific, the activation process still requires close partnership with native teams.

“I think the key is to make sure to surround yourself with great partners that are really culturally connected and immersed," Isabelle said, "With insiders actively co-creating and co-designing, you multiply chances of resonating through cultural relevance and authenticity."

Infuse Insights Organization-Wide

Finally, don’t hoard those cultural gems locked away with your research team. Socialize the insights across departments to ensure cultural insights can make the most difference.

This facilitates organization-wide education through empathy, squashing dated assumptions. It allows for informed decisions catering to nuanced cultural perspectives versus ignorant rigidity.

Soon product developers in Milwaukee grasp daily home cooked lunch rituals in China. Marketing leaders in Manhattan see regional Indian religious celebrations now anchoring campaign timing.

The collective cultural IQ rises enterprise wide. In the process, you dodge those cringey marketing mishaps that can spark social media firestorms. Instead, you earn brand resonance through cultural understanding and meaning.

In summary

At the end of the day, brands need to understand culturally relevant truths and then integrate them into business strategy. Do that and you just might find new pockets of growth tied to the very cultural forces making your different consumers unique.