Have you seen it? You know. It. The big movie. Where everything is revealed. Thought you knew about the Bible? Think again.
[Cue ominous music, a low, orchestral, double bass hum.]
"From the best-selling book that changed what we thought we knew about..."
Yawn. Snore. I'm not going to see it. Don't feel the need.
Speaking of cliché, I apologize in advance for breaking one of my own rules about the use of the Seoul/soul pun or using food as part of titles for Korea-related writing. But "Da Kimchi Code" was just too good to leave lie.
I've been really busy, but that doesn't mean I don't have time to surf the web occasionally and try to keep up with "events and mishappenings" in the world. My readings of the revelations of a different kinds of "code" – through Salon.com's interview – brought me across the ideas of Frenchman-turned-eminently-American Clotaire Rapaille that got me to thinking about writing up a little blog entry; I had good food for thought.
Clotaire Rapaille's apparently the man with his finger on the "reptilian brain" of America - not to mention a few other places in the world – and has 50 of the Fortune 500 companies on his list of clients. He was responsible for America's move to bigger cars when economy cars were what traditional marketing studies pointed to, he was responsible for the PT Cruiser and by extension the other vanity mobiles out there made for the middle-class American's budget...the list can and does go on. He's also the man who got Japanese to drink coffee in the 1960's. He's figured something out.
Q: Why do people contact a Frenchman to understand Americans?
A: The fish doesn't understand the water. Americans studying American culture think that everything is natural. Watching from outside the box can be very powerful.
His upcoming book looks to be interesting, although it has gotten some mixed reviews, as has some of his ideas. Do his generalizations really have explanatory power? A question I ask is whether a micro-level approach and methodology (psychology) can really be used to make predictive prescriptions for large groups of people, even entire cultures? I think Clotaire would say,"Yes."
[Source: Jennifer Szymaszek, Detroit News]
Whatever the case may be, I find his approach – er, refreshing – and his background and methodology most interesting. As an academic who tries to be careful not to think in terms of predictive generalities, taking such an sweeping approach to explaining why people do things seems a little – naughty. But sometimes naughty is fun, as we know, and even more sometimes, thinking big picture can lead to some useful new patterns in the Matrix that we hadn't seen before.
Rapaille, as a child psychologist and researcher who worked with autistic children, was most centrally concerned with the difficulty such kids have in learning, as their fundamental ability to form basic emotions was damaged. Apparently, we humans start to learn within an emotional matrix, meaning that our early learning experiences always took place within an emotional context. Without the ability to experience emotions, either at all or in that same way as most people do, autistic children have a lot of problems learning all kinds of things, depending on the particular nature of their condition and its seriousness.
In any case, one day in the 1950's, one of Rapaille's students inexplicably brought his father to a lecture. Big Daddy was truly a Big Daddy, as he was an executive for Nestle, Inc. Apparently, Nestle had been trying to market coffee in Japan and had been failing miserably. The apt pupil in Rapaille's class had apparently thought that his prof's ideas about the "codes" that get imprinted when we learn things – what Rapaille had been teaching in class – would be of real interest to Big Nestle. It was.
Rapaille told the Nestle people that they were doing it all wrong. The Japanese are a complete 'nutha people who have absolutely no experience with coffee. Yet here was Nestle trying to get them to drink it in the way that it's drunk in the West, whereas the Japanese already have a drink that serves the same function – tea. There is a deeply-imprinted cultural "code" for tea in that culture, carrying with it many strong associations from childhood, some of the earliest and deepest associations, in fact. How are you going to break that? Rapaille said that you simply can't.
But like any true American-to-be, Rapaille had the solution: Nestle had to write the code themselves. So what Rapaille suggested they do was take it one step at a time and build a whole different code from scratch by marketing coffee-flavored chocolates and candies. The Japanese youth of the late 1950's would associate the taste of coffee with youth and candy and fun – sort of like I think a lot of Americans do with Hostess Ho-Ho's and Twinkies – so when Nestle would begin marketing actual coffee when this generation became adolescents, the taste would evoke a strong feeling of nostalgia and familiarity, instead of puzzlement at this strange new flavor that one might be puzzled as to whether to decide to like. And Japan has apparently gone on to like Nestle products quite a bit.
That's pretty darn smart, if you ask me. And his lists of successes go on and on, as he broke the "codes" of specific products, concepts, and ideas and helped Fortune 100 companies break the bank. Ole' dude apparently lives in a baroque-style mansion with multiple Rolls-Royces; his level of bling is a constant testament to the accuracy of his readings of cultural codes, despite the criticisms he receives that he thinks in terms of reductive stereotypes and overgeneralizations.
About America, he says it's an "adolescent" culture, obsessed with and afraid of sex, vice, and marked by an exuberant idealism that is all-too-often short-sighted and not well implemented. He calls Americans "doers who don't think" while he looks at his own Frenchpeople as "thinkers who don't do" who enjoy and appreciate things in a way that Americans do not know how to. But France is a "senile" culture in his eyes. If I were to channel his words, Americans are concerned with filling up, getting the most bang-for-the-buck, getting Supersized, whereas the French would rather savor the flavor and would abhor the gorging that Americans do.
"I don't want to know what I'm going to do when I grow up even if I'm 75 because I don't want to grow up. I want to have fun, to be rich and famous now, to play. Now, I choose to be American because I'd rather be part of an adolescent culture than a senile culture."
At least, that's what I read about him. Lotsa interesting ideas there. When he was hired to market research cars for Big Auto Companies, he eschewed traditional marketing styles and simply told them to speak to the "code" for cars in American culture, which he saw as "power" and "domination." Make them bigger, he said, and they will come. And they did. Damn SUV's.
This led me to thinking, "If I were to think about Koreans in pure market terms, how would I do it?" What is, to be vulgar and cliché, 'the kimchi code?'" Let the armchair anthropologizing and marketing begin.
I won't lie about having some pretty strong notions in my head already. "Proud" springs to mind. "Envious" is another word. "Status-obssessed" is clearly another, one that goes closely along with "insecure" about appearance to the point of being apparently "narcissistic." But in my mind, status in terms of the self trumps any nationalist pride – if something can feed the need to feel assured about the self in a way that makes me stand out in the status game against others, it will sell like hotcakes.
"Really," you say? Let me trot out some examples to explain what I'm thinking.
Let's take Apple's iPod – something dear to my heart. For a long time, that venerable little device couldn't succeed here because it was crippled by the very thing that made it appealing in the States – it's sleek, minimalist simplicity. Korean electronics makers and their owners – of the electronics, not the owners, hehe – are obssessed with fancy buttons, flashing displays, blinking neon lights, and bright colors. Look at Korean cellphones, blenders, air humidifiers, computers, portable radios, etc.
People like things that tend to proclaim, "I'm fancy and expensive and unnecessary!" Status is linked to this, which can be seen in the nouveau riche naming of apartment buildings – "Golden" and "Mansion" and "Palace" and "Tower" and "Castle" can be combined in any way you like, along with specific words that connote feudal status, such as "Noblesse" or "Noble" or "Rich" or "Intelligent." The furniture that people like a veritable parody in itself, a hodge-podge of European baroque gaudiness and apparent "luxury."
The Richensia Apartments in downtown Seoul.
The legendary Tower Palace Apartments of southern Seoul.
"Luxury" as a concept is a new catch-phrase, and there is even a magazine bearing that name. The way the loanword is used in Korean is a bit different than its English meaning, although the general meaning is the same. "Luxury" in English is more of a concrete concept that doesn't necessarily apply to many areas of real life. One can "live in the lap of luxury" or there might people who live a "luxurious lifestyle," but most of the time, these things don't apply to "us" – the everyday people. If it occasionally does – say, on a trip to Vegas or in a rented limo for prom night – we might say, "Wow! This is so luxurious!"
In Korea, 럭셔리 "luxury" is a style. People will see a new piece of clothing or fashion accessory and say (usually half-teasingly) "It's so luxury!" If it makes the wearer look more attractive in a sophisticated way, or looks expensive, or somehow ornate, that's the word used. And I don't mean when a woman comes to the office in a fur coat and mink stole; I'm talking about nearly any kind of conspicuously consumed object that can described this way.
So when marketing objects to Korean conspicuous consumers, "luxury" is the operative adjective. For many objects in America, many of which are not so much status objects – for example, as cellphones are in Korea – people tend to value function; if that function can come with an "elegance" (not in the traditional, Grace Kelly sense of the phrase or the Korean loanword sense, which overlaps with "luxury") of form and function that combines into an elemental simplicity, Americans these days seem to be all over it.
In general, everyday American consumer products are the red-headed stepchildren of industrial design. We have traditionally made boxy cars that just did their jobs, the standard color of stereo compenents was black and the shape boxy, computers were always white or gray, we had exactly three models of phone from Ma Bell for years until she was broken up, but generally didn't complain; the list can go on.
The original Bell Telephone. Mine didn't look too different when I was a kid.
An American will use a cellphone until its buttons are falling off; Americans need to be convinced to upgrade to new technologies; Americans were convinced to give up their vinyl record, 8-track, and cassette tape players kicking and screaming every step of the way. The DVD was purposefully designed to convince skeptical Americans that it was ok to upgrade: "It'll play DVD's, too." Sony, JVC, Panasonic, and Toshiba all remember what happened to the Laserdisc. Or the "minidisc," which Japanese bought up at the starting bell, but Americans pretty much ignored. Even better, anyone remember the "videodisc?" Didn't think so. If the Laserdisc was like the CD, then the videodisc was a vinyl record. That format lasted about a year.
Yes, we had a videodisc player. Suckas.
A videodisc – like a laserdisc...but retarded.
Back to the iPod. Why is this suddenly an "item" in Korea, where the iRiver had been king and was a product wrapped in patriotic marketing – literally – I saw a full page newspaper ad with the iRiver wrapped in a Korean flag and characterized as the last bulwark against the "other" American company pushing Koreans out of their own market. But when the Nano came out, that shit was just too cool to ignore, emblem of American "elegance" in form and function or not. And it was priced to beat even the best ratio of byte-per-buck – to the point that Koreans were finally starting to abandon the age-old complaint about the iPod: "But it doesn't have a radio!" Apple finally addressed this deficiency as well.
But more important than anything else, the iPod had become enough of an item of cool – a status symbol in itself – that finally it started to make headway. Even my PC-only system admin at UNESCO – a guy who works in UNIX and maintains his own Linux install just for fun and who had been admiring OS X from afar for its security and UNIX core, who had bought an iRiver just the year before against my consternation – finally bought an iPod. Then another coworker went over the fence. Then another. There were iPods everywhere, and their owners just couldn't stop touching them and obsessing over them. Apple cultists in Korea? Naw – couldn't be.
A case in which status had conquered the gaudy appeal of luxury? Or, could you interpret to the success of the iPod to mean that this was a case of American over-simplified elegance – from a Korean point-of-view – had actually become luxury in itself? Whatever, whichever. Clearly, status and luxury now overlapped, and people are wearing Nanos around their necks. Hey, it does help that they're smaller and thinner, too, since Koreans always complained that iPods were too fat – especially women, who seem to be plugged into a listening device of some type far more than men.
But the size and form factor problems are things that traditional marketing can easily figure out, like knowing that buttons on the American versions of Korean Samsung cellphones have to be bigger to accommodate generally bigger American hands. No, the success of the iPod was due to that little something else that explains why iPods have done well from the beginning, which PC-heads who complained "I can get more megs per rambyte and with an iRiver that has more read-write heads per millimeter of Google space than an iPod!" never quite seemed to get.
The iPod just "gets" the code for what Americans seem to want in their portable music players. Form, function, sexiness cum status symbol. We've joined a community of cool, but it's gotta be for a reason. For Koreans, object finally became a status symbol in itself that made it important enough to make people want to buy, which is why certain young people switch perfectly good $700 cellphones every year. And yes, to many Koreans' surprise, the inherent sweetness of the iPod's handling and sheer feel made it a keeper. To put another way, for Americans, the design elegance and sexy simplicity made it into a status symbol, while for Koreans, the Nano made the iPod acceptable enough to allow Koreans to finally "get" the pre-existing status of iPod as status symbol, with the sexy, sheer elegance in function being a deciding factor after the fact.
In America, iPod means design elegance. In Korea, the iPod is just so...luxury!