Changing a Culture

I really love how Seth Godin thinks about marketing as ‘changing a culture’ and how he defines culture as ‘people like us, do things like this’. And in light of that, every startup, every ‘disruption’ is about changing the culture. We ought to recognise that culture is temporary, and regardless of how you think they are entrenched, they are continuously being assaulted, dislodged by various forces in the world.

Every single startup trying to enter a marketplace is trying to change a culture to some extent; and those successful ones managed that change so well we are quick to forget that it happened. More importantly, sometimes the change is so gradual that it is almost imperceptible. Think about Grab and what they did to quite a few different cultural norms that are supposedly so entrenched:

  • Flagging taxis on the streets or queuing at taxi stands
  • Not wanting to call private hire cars for fear of untrustworthy drivers or companies
  • Having to call cab by ringing a number and then getting to the operator and trying to describe where you are, get the license plate number from the operator and looking out for the taxi
  • Having different numbers to call different brands of cab because they all have different call centers
  • Not being able to call the taxi driver you’ve booked directly to ask him where he is when he is on the way to you

How many of these ‘norms’ still exists today and how much have we taken Grab for granted? The new behaviours they introduced includes:

  • Calling for grab even when there is taxis waiting for passengers at the taxi stand
  • Going down from the building only when your grab has arrived or about to arrive
  • ‘Grabbing’ as a verb to mean you’re using grab to call a cab to get to your next destination

And the list goes on; you get my point.

Likewise Alibaba changed the culture of the Chinese internet where online merchants were not seen as trustworthy and scams seem to abound. They convinced users to buy from listed merchants, and persuaded merchants to use them as a trusted intermediary, then introduced escrow services to hold on to payments so that both sides can trust each other, effectively mastering the two-sided market in China.

When we think about a startup in terms of the culture they are seeking to change, the norms they are looking to dislodge, we discover how difficult a challenge they have. Yet it is also a way of thinking about their marketing, the story they tell themselves and everyone else, as well as the manner they design their products. All of these will feed somehow into the forces gradually dislodging the current power structures and cultural norms.

On a separate note, if you’re a startup that is just following the culture or feeding off the norms, it is quite likely there can be a dozen of you around to do minor variations of the same things. Of course, it need not always be about making big bucks; and as Seth Godin would say, it’s about making the difference.