Category Archives: codes

Czechs: The Code of Contradiction

I say black. You say white.                                                                                                                                               You say beer. I say wine.                                                                                                                                                        I say happy. You say sad.                                                                                                                                                You say dog. I say cat.

And always with a knowing wink and an ironic nod.


McCann croppedThis is the Czech Republic. A country and culture of contradictions, the meanings of which are often inaccessible to outsiders. For the past ten days I have immersed myself in the Czech Republic. I explored Prague (it is too beautiful to miss), Brno (it is too desolate to disregard) and Beroun (it is too quiet to forego), each with ethnographic treasurers abound. I visited three ad agencies: Leo Burnett, McCann and Ogilvy – Agency of the Year, and two global clients: Mondelez and Unilever.

The more I learn about Czech culture the more normal the awards wall at McCann appears.

It is my third visit and still the cultural contrasts, the irony of nearly all things surprise me. This land was invaded and occupied during World War II, and on and off in the centuries that preceded the war. World War II was followed by a brief glimpse of democracy from 1945-48. Then communism arrived. Not until the velvet revolution of 1989 did the Czechs breathe anatomy and freedom. Its history fuels a deep and abiding cultural distrust, with displays of apathy from silence to brusque irony. But the truth behind these markers is not what you think.

As Clotaire Rapaille, author of The Culture Code, has said, people do not tell you what they actually think. Czechs are no different. But they are more extreme in this regard. No self-respecting Czech will tell you his or her personal truth. In fact, no self-respecting Czech is even likely to admit to speaking English, unless they are working and it is required or they know you. And even then, there will always be a wink and a nod.

This is not just an us versus them behavior. It is a cultural norm that pervades interactions among themselves. I once termed it “cultural shyness.” It may be. But on my third visit I have come to think of it as an all too knowing nod to the absurdity of their history, to life as they know it.

It shows itself in their advertising with over the top ironic self-deprecating humor. Consider Bohemia chips sending a Czech guy to Austin Texas, behaving ridiculously while handing out bags of Czech potato chips unavailable in America. It bubbles up in a barrage of characters and creators in sectors we Americans would never dream of. How about a cheetah (think Tony the Tiger) for Gepard mortgage services? And it reveals itself in the repackaging of the Clavin capsule (Czech Viagra) in the upright position. These are Czech, spreading joy wherever they go.

BrnoSuffice to say that the contradictions that surround you as you travel this lush land are beloved. They amuse the Czechs. And so, there is no surprise when riding the bus across the country the attendant rattles on in Czech, while the screen in front of you provides the following English translation: “Dear Passengers, please pay attention to the announcements that is being broadcast. Thank you.” You smile and think, but of course.

Nor was I surprised when in Brno two beautiful baroque buildings frame a lovely modernist structure. Indeed its colors compliment its neighbors and the rectangular shapes on the facade rather musically play off the windows of the adjoining buildings. Yet, it is a massive contradiction to the nearby structures. It is so Czech. B Esclator

In the end it is the escalators in Prague’s metros that perfectly signify the Czech cultural code of contradiction. The stairs move at one speed, while the rail travels at an all together different speed. But, of course, it is subtle. Keep your feet on the step and your hand on the rail and – with a wink and a nod – you will arrive at your destination on your face or your derriere, surly not upright.

In the Czech Republic you must always chose. In the metro the Czech generally choose their feet.



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Global Brand Tracking

I’m off to London and Prague May 19 to June 7 teaching my Global Brand Tracking class. The three product categories we’re tracking this year are: mobile, shoes and savory snacks. 

A OgilvyIt’s a three-week cultural immersion course that examines the intersection of branding and culture within the context of the global marketplace. I use ethnographic exercises to help guide students as they uncover cultural insights and, eventually, the ever-elusive cultural code for each sector in each country.

We’re visiting great agencies too: Flamingo International, Havas Worldwide and Stein IAS in the UK and in CZ we’re visiting Garp, Leo Burnett, McCann and Ogilvy.

Check out our blog and follow us on twitter at #mubrandtracking.

Welcome and vítejte!


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The Cost of Free Labor

Internships have long been essential to landing a job. However, at least in advertising and most other facets of media, they have also long been unpaid. That might be about to change.

Earlier this month William H. Pauley III, a federal judge in New York, ruled in favor of a plucky intern who filed suit for working without pay. He ruled that unpaid internships are a violation of the Fair Labor Standards. A report by Cullen Setzer in Slate suggested that Pauley got it right. “The benefits of the intern economy don’t outweigh the pernicious costs: distorted wages, exploitation of interns, a race to the bottom of the wage scale, and an erosion of the law’s protections for workers.”

It has long been industry practice to hire interns without pay. However, I want to be clear that the ruling applies only to for-profit companies. Non-profits may still legally offer unpaid internships. The theory behind unpaid internships was that it offered the “educational experience” students needed to land their first job. In practice internships have become the old entry-level jobs – without pay.

Worse still, internships tend to privilege those who can afford to work for free over those who need income to survive. Those who need income lose out on the opportunities internships might provide. Yet, according to The Atlantic, even networking is looking less and less like a payoff especially in unpaid internships.

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Source: The Atlantic June 19, 2013

Let me add another wrinkle to this. Students generally have to pay for internship credits. Thus, if they need an internship to graduate and the internships available are unpaid, students get to pay to work. How crazy is that? The Wall Street Journal recently ran a piece talking about how some schools are now funding internships. Surely this is true. But, which school and who does it benefit? I suggest it generally benefits those students whom are already privileged; those who can afford a school that can afford to pay for internships.

Here’s the thing. Legally it matters little whether the internship is “for credit.” According to Jef Richards, JD, chair of Department of Advertising at Michigan State, “The determining factor tends to be the extent to which it is the intern is really benefiting.  If the employer benefits from the work of the intern, more than incidentally, it likely should be paid.” In other words, most of the internships that our students participate in are illegal, regardless of whether the student gets credit.

In the end, Judge Pauley ruled that unpaid internships are not only unfair – they are illegal. In essence his ruling strongly upholds the Fair Labor Standards. But who is watching the hen house? The government agency which enforces labor laws is the Department of Labor, which historically has not stepped up to enforce labor laws as they apply to internships. With this ruling that might be changing. And with more law suits pending, such as those against Condé Nast and Hearst, for-profit companies might begin to rethink their internship practices.

In the end, it seems that the price tag for an unpaid internship may not be free.


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Branded Codes

Finding the essential brand truth – the brand code – is like a treasure hunt. Circuitous routes, long roads, many dead-ends, endless clues, but ultimately a treasure worth its weight in gold.

Brand planning, particularly planning that utilizes ethnography, semiotics and projective techniques can provide a client with rich data leading to the brand code. From there it’s up to the creatives to create stories that link the brand code with consumers, many of whom may not yet know their passion for the brand. Amassing the legions of qualitative data (in my opinion the only way to find the sweet spot) is where the best planning begins. Distilling the data down becomes the challenge.

Understanding the cultural myths that surround your brand is essential. So too is understanding consumers’ earliest memory of your brand or product category. Clotaire Rapaille has a lot to say about finding out how brand experiences imprint young minds. More importantly he has a lot to say about how imprinting impacts how marketers speak to consumers today.

Yesterday I presented two models to my Italian and Austrian students. The first helps identify the brand essence on a bridge between consumers and the brand. Using their work from the ethnographic class exercise and pairing it with fieldwork in cafes the brand code for illy coffee, targeting Italian college students (not the expected target), might look like this.


From there we moved onto a great model that employs the concept of brands as friends. Among a list of nine possible friends students considered what Italian and Austrian or German brands might be soul mates or close friends. Considering that the idea of brands as friends is culturally bound to an American ethos, I found their choices spot on. Almost. Two Italian brands battle for the two tops spots. Perhaps my Italian students will jump on the blog and defend why their brand choice is truly the soul mate of Italy. Friend

Later a student shared McDonald’s as the forced Italian friend. How often does a brand lust for this position? Almost never. But to be the forced choice of fast food in Italy could not be better positioning. Rapaille would be delighted. There could be no better imprinting, as fast food roots itself in Italy. Ah, but the thought of fast food in Italy seems a sin. A pitiful sin McDonald’s happily commits.

I’m off to lecture on early Nike women’s advertising and The Gender of Branding. Ciao!


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Le possibilità sono infinite!

Yesterday, at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, I lectured on ethnography. I have no doubt I rattled the brains of my Italian and Austrian graduate students. (Even my American students tell me I speak too fast.) Yet I trust they got something out of it as the results of a small exercise, exploring the essence of Italian students, were intriguing.

Using ethnography marketers seek to successfully posit the brand at the confluence of consumers and culture. Further, ethnographic tools can provide insights that allow brands to create their own culture – a culture that resonates, in highly personal ways, with their target consumers.

Real life tools. Real life time. Ethnographic tools allow marketers to explore the inner lives of consumers from the inside/out. Thus, the insights found are not only relevant, they are actualizable.

Show me. Don’t tell me. What people tell us and what they think are not necessarily the same. Enter ethnography. Spending time immersed in the lives of consumers’ ethnographers can begin to tease out the cultural truths using sensory observations and insightful interpretations. We find tribe leaders and learn how to tell resonant stories that connect and changes. Through ethnography the ordinary become extraordinary.

ModenaArtifacts speak truth. Yet, the truth is not obvious. We must dig and sort. Going back again and again to tease out insights. Like the finest Italian wine, superbly distilled insights reveal exquisite truths. So, what do our initial findings suggest about our young Italian subjects?

Italian students love communication – and cigarettes fuel the conversation.

And so they began. Faced with a completely different style of teaching, and a single lecture in a language not their own, these students gathered data that opened the door deeper insights. Given more time and ethnographic training, imagine what their explorations could distill for brands trying to reach young Italians.

Le possibilità sono infinite!


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Screw It.

Harley-Davidson is an iconic American brand. The free wheeling American Harley rebel was recognized across the globe, with its bold take no prisoners brand persona. Yes, Harley had an aging problem. Yes, Harley had a gender problem. But, it had one hell of an image and a solid platform from which to tackle its aging baby boomer boy problem.

Like the Marlboro Man, Harley was iconic. It screamed freedom, which screams American. It leveraged every sensory experience to create a great brand experience and its advertising sang it praises. You didn’t have to ride a Harley to love the brand. It was as American as, well, apple pie.

A year after breaking up with Carmichael Lynch and having a wild fling with crowd sourcing, the brand is still playing the field. It feels wrong. For as in your face and raw as the old brand was, I trusted it. It was real. It was American.           It was mine – even if I don’t own a bike.

No Cages. is preaching to the choir. And the choir is getting old. It’s not what the brand needs. It doesn’t embody the American spirit. It doesn’t ignite passion. The Harley I once knew was the embodiment of raw American passion.                 No Cages. is not Harley. Screw It, Let’s Ride – again.

Harley in JSonline Check out what Rick Barrett, a Harley blogger, and I have to say.

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Italian windows are purposeful. What they keep out is as important as what they let in.

Heat, light, air and people, too, all are closed out or welcomed in depending, in part, upon the season. Each window has multiple layers. From within one sees top to bottom curtains, long slim simple natural-colored panels of cotton with perhaps a hint of lace. Behind them are long paneless sheets of glass, which rattle in the wind. Beyond are rolled slats of wood or aluminum or folding wooden shutters creating a protective barrier against the outer world – light, heat, sound and people. If one lives on a lower level, between the long sheets of glass and the rolled slats lays gridded metal bars.

Open only occasionally, Italian windows keep the heat of the summer sun out and trap the fleeting winter heat within, no doubt, a functional visual expression of Mediterranean life. In summer the sun blazes casting long hot, sweaty shadows that invade interior spaces. In winter, if you live in a communal flat, heat visits only during the day and must be trapped within for nighttime warmth.

All the day they remain closed. Wondering down Italians streets, save for the multitude of voices that rise and fall (mostly rise) and the clatter of dishes long preparing lunch or dinner, it seems that no one resides within the flats that line the street. Blocks of windows with wooden slats rolled down or shuttered pulled closed.

All the night they remain closed. This time wondering down the street there is silence. Only later, long into the morning hours, can one finally say “bouna notte.” For in Italy dinners often do not end until well beyond ten and then still it is “bouna sera.”  In le notte, there is a visual silence that is strangely repetitive of the afternoon, windows rolled shut.

Day or night, a sort of visual silence permeates Italian streets, a longing for security. But, in brief moments the windows fly open – and then wide–open. A moment, perhaps a few hours, as if washing hot winds out and sweeping cool breezes in, or welcoming some light that they had not previously noticed. Then, again, they fly shut. The open windows appear like periods at the ends of long Italian sentences spoken with flying Italian arms.

Flatted frames of brown, like long sentences, repetitively dot exterior walls. By night they sing a silent lullaby. By day their voices echo emptiness. Yet the closed windows of Italy belie a deep cultural warmth – or perhaps they exemplify a cultural irony. For as warm as Italians may be it is a warmth felt, only, once on the other side of their cultural window.

All photographs copyright: Jean Grow

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