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The Code That Unlocks Customer's Hearts & Wallets

Furniture World Magazine


Part 1: Dr. Clotaire Rapaille’s Five Important Customer Code Principles.

A great leap forward took place a number of years ago when furniture retailers started using focus group techniques. At last, a merchant could find out ahead of time what people read, watched, listened to, thought, and what made them buy furniture. It was almost too easy. The “bean counters” uncovered lots of useful information. We learned that color flyers work much better than ROP. We learned that customers require acknowledgment within a very short time of entering your store, or they will walk. We learned that—to the customer—the salesperson is the store. Unfortunately, we also began to learn many other things that were not so. Over time we became aware that people in focus groups don’t always reveal what they really think. They tell you what you want to hear.

That’s when the horror stories began. One large furniture chain paid a lot of money to learn that people like large illustrations. So the chain began to use huge photographs with virtually no copy. The ad department welcomed the idea—it was much less work—fewer items, fewer details. In one oversized flyer they ran a sofa sideways, measuring almost 15 inches from edge to edge. The predictable result (to any good ad person) of the “large illustration” strategy was a disastrous decline in sales.

Another difficulty was that the bean counters presumed to became marketing experts. David Ogilvy was a famous ad man who researched advertising extensively. Ogilvy spent millions of dollars to establish the basic, timeless principles that govern effective advertising. Ogilvy also studied the body of knowledge that great ad persons had accumulated about why people respond to certain appeals and ignore others. He would never have fallen for the “big illustration” feedback or blundered into creating sterile, no copy advertising reminiscent of the ‘50’s. Ogilvy cautioned us to weigh what people tell us against previous research, and to use common sense.

When All Else Fails Call  An Anthropologist
Several years ago, when Jeep Wrangler’s focus groups were getting the wrong answers, they called in anthropologist Dr. Clotaire Rapaille. He determined that Wrangler was getting the wrong answers because they were asking the wrong questions. Rapaille solved Wrangler’s problem, and now has dozens of Fortune 500 companies as clients. Rapaille’s secret is that he conducts focus groups in a unique way, penetrating through the socially acceptable polite deceit of subjects, to get to the visceral feelings that really drive their decisions. He also introduced a breakthrough concept of marketing research that he explains in his recent book: The Culture Code. By applying this code, Rapaille helped Chrysler unlock the secret desires of car buyers and build the PT Cruiser (the most successful American car launch in recent memory). He used it to help Procter and Gamble design its smashing advertising campaign for Folger’s Coffee. He used his Culture Code to help GE, AT&T, Boeing, Honda, Kellogg and L’Oréal fatten their bottom lines. The purpose of this article is to show furniture entrepreneurs the significance of the codes that relate to the American home. In the May/June 2007 issue of FURNITURE WORLD Magazine, we will show several ways to apply Dr. Rapaille’s Culture Code ideas to lift home furnishings advertising and point-of-purchase efforts to new levels of cost-effectiveness.

Rapaille’s Culture Code formula is predicated upon the fact that the urge to buy does not come from the logical cortex of the brain—it springs from what Rapaille calls the reptilian part of the brain. Deep rooted feelings and passions operate below the surface in the reptilian brain and drive your customers’ buying decisions. Once you know the code that can unlock these deep feelings you can relate to and engage authentic buying motives. The problem is that uncovering these drives requires more effort and study than are practiced in typical focus groups. Rapaille realized that five principles must be addressed in order to acquire authentic marketing research information. What his research indicated about the home and codes for unlocking the buying motives of American furniture shoppers may surprise you. But first, let’s examine Rapaille’s five Culture Code principles:

In focus groups, people give answers that sound logical. These are often answers that marketing experts expect. They are not, however, the answers that truly drive buying decisions. So Rapaille disregards consumers’ first answers. He adopts the role of a puzzled outsider who has no understanding of the product. He probes until he successfully separates people from their logical cortexes and they begin to reveal their authentic feelings about a specific product. For example, every good sales consultant knows that when a customer tells us she is looking for a sofa, what she really wants is fresh beauty and comfort for her home. And, on a deeper level, it is the desire to create an awesomely beautiful and inviting home that drives her buying decisions and stirs her emotions. We know it takes time to establish the rapport and relationship that makes it possible to win her trust. Once this is accomplished, we can connect the dots and grasp her personal vision. In a personable, warm way Rapaille strives to uncover the source of his subjects’ secret emotions about a product… usually feelings that were inspired by their first encounter with it. By the third hour of his session the participants are lying on the floor and listening to soothing music … and they are finally beginning to reveal what they really think and feel.


During the third hour of Rapaille’s focus groups, a flood of memories bring joy, and sometimes even tears. When it comes to the home, and what it means to people, powerful and rich emotions are triggered in Americans. These feelings have nothing to do with large illustrations of furniture or hot prices. As we shall see, no one expressed it better for Americans than Dorothy, when she clicked her red ruby slippers together and said: “There’s no place like home.”

When it comes to the early memories of home, it doesn’t matter whether an individual lives in a tiny cottage or a mansion. The important elements are recollections of family relationships, plus the sights, sounds and smells that evoke nostalgic emotions when she thinks of home. Even on a micro level, it is not a recliner of a particular price, style, and color you must deliver on time to your customer’s home. Your primary mission must be to deliver a memorable gift for dad’s birthday that will warm his heart and relax his weary body.

Your customer’s emotions are triggered by “imprints” that were made long, long ago... usually by the time they were seven years of age. Rapaille noted that American’s third-hour stories about their early home lives recalled an essential circle of warm comrades, mingled with the bittersweet feelings of loss. This is why authentic, carefully staged “friends and family” nights are always a successful direct mail appeal. How do you light the emotional fire of a prospective customer? You must know the codes and how to apply them. Which leads us to principle five…

Among the issues that Rapaille discovered was a treasure-trove for the furniture marketer who is looking for fresh ideas. The balance of this article will be devoted to Rapaille’s insights into a few of the two dozen codes Rapaille offers in his book. I selected these as the primary codes that stir the hearts and minds of American homemakers. In the next issue of FURNITURE WORLD, suggestions for applying this information will be made.

The Cultural Unconscious. Rapaille’s thesis rests upon the conviction that, contrary to popular belief, it is not an appeal to “logic” or for “feeling good” that rules the mass market. Rather, it is the more powerful instinct for survival. A marketing appeal has greater prospects for success when it makes a connection to the reptilian brain rather than the logical or emotional mind. Why? Because it is in the reptilian brain that the imprints of powerful childhood memories lie. Once these imprints are activated, the emotions and rationalizations that will inspire a big ticket purchase naturally follow. The foundation of Rapaille’s sensational marketing breakthrough is wrapped up in this simple idea.

One other point. To make a connection with a prospect’s cultural imprints you must first win her confidence. This takes time. And this is why Rapaille spends so much time developing a rapport with his focus group subjects. A relationship of trust and confidence also remains critical to the selling sequence. There are no “magic” shortcuts around this.

The Cultural Codes For The American Home
How did a house become a home in the minds of most Americans? Some of the answers can be learned by studying Thanksgiving dinner. This powerful archetype is the driving force that makes the period around Thanksgiving the most traveled days of the year. Wherever they may happen to be, millions of Americans make their way home. This astounding exodus affirms the powerful American desire to re-establish their connection to the home by gathering the family together—usually at the residence of a mother or grandmother.

The term “home” is intertwined in the American culture. It resonates in the American heart. Why did the movie Apollo 13 jolt us out of our boredom about space missions? Because it embraced the theme of bringing people home. Folger’s coffee and Hallmark greeting cards build successful advertising campaigns around the idea of returning home. How does a baseball player score? He must get to home plate. And on and on. But why does the theme of returning home have such an impact on the American mass market?

Our country was founded by people who came to a wilderness to build new homes. They were followed by the huddled masses of individuals who sacrificed everything for the opportunity to create new homes. No nation has a passion for the home as powerful or deep rooted as Americans. Rapaille researched the resulting cultural imprints and defined several codes that enabled some of his Fortune 500 clients to craft “on code” marketing appeals. Perhaps no industry should pay more attention to this research than the home furnishings industry.

The Key Codes And "On Code" Messages For Home In America
When Americans think of home, they think of a haven in which predictable things happen, unlike the volatile turmoil of the outside world. Rituals such as Thanksgiving dinner can be repeated, creating a sense of renewal. Rapaille described the code for “home” in America with the prefix “RE” … (repeated, renewal). Think of Apollo 13 and Thanksgiving … returning home and reuniting the family. Americans long to experience the joyful episodes of their lives, in the company of the people who mean the most to them.

An interesting sidelight to Americans’ sentiment and nostalgia is our attachment to mementos and “stuff” from our childhood. Rapaille discovered that we often carry boxes of stuff around with us as we move from house to house. We rarely look at them, or even open them. But the stuff in those boxes are precious connections to a home that may live only in our memories.
The central room in the American home is the kitchen. Modern homes create a traffic flow around the kitchen, and making dinner is “on code” for American homes. In other cultures, such as France, guests rarely if ever even see the kitchen. Icons such as Betty Crocker and Martha Stewart persist because they represent the code “The Soul Of The Kitchen”.

Keep in mind that in his early focus group sessions Rapaille got the impression that most Americans thought of a family dinner as an out-of-date relic that was no longer important. It was not until the in-depth third session that people relaxed and revealed their real feelings. The third session conversations bore no resemblance to the casual and sophisticated attitudes of the first session. Make no mistake, the memories of home and family persist in the American heart.

“Wait a minute,” you might think. “Very few people sit down to family dinners anymore. Themes about the family gathering are out of date.” But, you would be wrong. It is true that we do not sit together at dinner very often anymore. But the family values of the circle of loved ones are undimmed. According to Dr. Rapaille, the American code for dinner is ESSENTIAL CIRCLE. The concept of gathering together in the essential family circle is definitely “on code”. True, we Americans are busy and we rarely gather together for gourmet fare. Actually, fast food is just as important as prepared meals. Kraft even promotes its DiGiorno pizza as being as good as takeout pizza—not homemade. And pizza is right “on-code” because it forms the basis for a circle in which everyone can gather around and share. (In fact Kraft used the on-code phrase “gather around” in their successful marketing campaign.)

Also on-code is a sense of extended duration. People in focus groups talked about lingering over dinner with their family. A fast-food dinner with the entire family is on-code, provided the TV is off. In fact, the family meal does not need to be at home. McDonald’s strives to create a family-friendly atmosphere of fun, relaxation, and informal talk. The take-home message here is that when Americans think of home, the primary recollections that come to mind are related to the family eating together.

In the next issue of FURNITURE WORLD Magazine we will address the most important issue: How do you apply these codes to your home furnishings business? You will learn how to “five-sense” the shopping experience and how to get your marketing and sales messages “on-code.”
Contributing Editor Larry Mullins has 30+ years experience in the front lines of furniture marketing. Over the past ten years he has developed a Visionary Management program that can impact the culture of an entire organization and bring it to life. He also produces state-of- the-art promotional advertising packages for everything from quick cash flow to complete exit strategies and store closings. Larry is the President of UltraSales, Inc.. Questions on any aspect of this article can be sent to Larry care of FURNITURE WORLD at mullins@furninfo.com.