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(This is part of a series of ongoing posts we’re calling Brandcrumbs, which are bits and pieces of branding advice left over from our regular conversations about real-world brand positioning challenges.)

Like many in the branding and marketing world, we use the word “culture” a lot. We say things like “a successful company needs to create a culture of authenticity” or “a good marketing strategy takes cultural trends and preferences into account” or “the Gen Y social media culture demands this or that.”

There’s nothing wrong with using the word “culture.”

Unless we don’t understand what we mean when we use it. My hunch is that most of us don’t. That when we use it, whether we’re conscious of doing so, we hope or, worse, assume, that someone will know what we mean by it, and that since it sounds important, it must be meaningful. But I’d be willing to bet a BLT Muffin at Pint Size Bakery (our new neighbors) that if you ask the 14 stock models sitting around this table to the left to define the word “culture,” you’ll get 14 different definitions.

If you’re one of the majority of us who, when pressed, can’t readily define the word “culture” or explain how understanding what it means can actually affect business—especially our marketing and communications efforts—I’d like to propose a basic definition, which you’re free to adopt, adapt, or reject outright. I don’t suggest that my definition would pass muster even with my child’s Charlie Brown Dictionary, but if nothing else, at least you’ll be more likely to understand what I mean when I use it.

At its root, “culture” refers to a set of answers to specific questions of meaning. When I refer to a group of people as a culture, what I’m saying is that that group provides the same answers to certain questions of meaning.

Take, for example, this very human question: How do I show appreciation? To the degree that we answer that question differently, we differentiate ourselves culturally. Some show appreciation by bowing (e.g. some east Asian cultures, formal European culture); some show appreciation by giving very practical gifts (e.g. funerary culture, the culture of masculinity on my side of the family); some show appreciation (baseball culture, anyone?) with a slap to the butt.

I realize that this is a very basic, simple way to demarcate culture, but when you start thinking about it in these terms, you’ll see how much sense it makes. In terms of business, then, when we talk about appealing to a specific buying culture or targeting a culture with our advertisements, it’s helpful to begin by asking, “What questions of meaning does this group of people ask?” If we can identify those questions, then we can more specifically shape our message and our products as answers to those questions.

Some of those questions are huge: Whom can I trust? Who will love me? What defines my personal value/worth? How can I leave a lasting impact? Some of those questions are small: What makes a meal worthwhile? What’s the best time of day to commute? How do I communicate that I’d like to take you out for a BLT muffin but without risking personal rejection?

The reason that it’s important to consider every size of question is that there are endless sizes and types of cultures (definitely in America, among the most multi-cultural, pluralistic countries in the world).

It’s easy to continue using the word “culture” and hope it means something. What’s harder is to actually understand the culture that you’re creating and to which you’re hoping to appeal. It’s hard, but it’s crucial, because it’s only when you can identify the questions being asked that you have a shot at providing answers.

Jeremy Higgins
Jeremy Huggins is a MarketPlace alum. He oversaw our creative and writing teams, led naming projects, and ensured that all of our brand development work is thorough, thoughtful, and meaningful.