Say you’re an entrepreneur with something to sell. Maybe it’s a product or service. Maybe it’s a startup venture. Your audience could be investors, market analysts, or customers. If what you’re selling is obvious to your audience—like launching a kombucha in a trendy Brooklyn neighborhood, for instance—then maybe your task is reasonably straightforward. You can assume that your audience generally shares the values and identities that embrace kombucha, even if you still have to convince them why they should choose your kombucha.
But what if what you’re pitching isn’t so obvious a sell and there isn’t a clear fit between your new thing and your audience? This is the question that intrigued McIntire Professor Christi Lockwood, whose work focuses on the interplay between cultures in organizations and in society at large.
There has been an assumption, Lockwood says, that the success or failure of an entrepreneur’s venture turns on whether there’s a preexisting fit between what investors or customers value and what the entrepreneur is offering. “When there is a match between what I bring to market and what you value, the idea has legs and is able to rally support,” as Lockwood says.
But of course, if that were always the case, then truly novel ventures or products would never get off the ground. So Lockwood and co-author Jean-François Soublière from HEC Montreal set out to explicitly name and analyze what they see as four flexible cultural strategies—based on what they call a cultural “toolkit” model—that entrepreneurs employ for either leveraging a good fit or “for creating fit when that didn’t exist before,” she says. With each of these strategies, the authors also identify inherent tensions that must be navigated within the strategy.
Anchoring and Retooling
The first strategy they identify is “anchoring,” which Lockwood describes as “how you make a new venture familiar and how you differentiate it” to help it stand out despite its familiarity. Anchoring applies when there is already a good fit between the venture and its audience. Within anchoring, the inherent tension, then, lies between that familiarity and differentiation; the more familiar your product, the easier the fit, but also the harder it might be to stand out as novel or distinct. The authors offer a Montreal venture called Téo Taxi as an example: It took on the familiar features of a rideshare company app but differentiated itself by employing professional drivers instead of “giggers” and operating an all-electric fleet.
In the second strategy, which the authors call “retooling,” the entrepreneur seeks to take on or reflect the values, beliefs, or identities of stakeholders, such as investors or customers, in order to foster greater fit. Lockwood stresses this strategy needs to be sincere and not a cynical marketing ploy, such as when politicians who have never crossed any field beyond Harvard Yard don plaid shirts with rolled-up sleeves to press the flesh at the local 4-H fair.
In this strategy, the tension lies between constraint and autonomy—between surrendering some of what you value to better align yourself with your audience or staking out your independence at the risk of alienating that audience. An example of retooling might be seen in a recent New York Times article detailing how new ventures in “adult intimacy products” are responding to retailers’ pressures to change some of the attributes of their products to mimic the look and language of the upscale beauty, lifestyle, and wellness categories; the risk, however, is that their products are so thoroughly obfuscated by minimalist packaging and euphemistic labeling as to be unidentifiable to potential customers.
Channeling and Seeding
The third strategy outlined by the authors is “channeling.” Here, the entrepreneur doesn’t try to fit themselves to their audience or change their venture in some way to better align it with that audience’s values. Instead, channeling focuses on trying to guide an audience towards a particular value or meaning. In channeling, the tension lies between rigidity and flexibility: Do you stake out a narrow and clearly defined meaning, or do you guide your audience broadly but allow them more room to bring their own meaning?
The authors argue that in choosing between these tensions, the homogeneity or heterogeneity of your audience matters. For example, if a startup meal-prep delivery service only wants to appeal to people who value convenience, then they might channel their audience’s idea of the service as one that takes all the hard work out of making delicious home-cooked meals by delivering premeasured ingredients and clear, step-by-step recipes. But if that same company also wants to draw an audience of dedicated home cooks, it might at the same time offer that group flexibility by encouraging them to put their own spin on the ingredients and share their recipes on social media. What’s also interesting, Lockwood adds, is the tradeoff in being more flexible. Ceding some control over the “meaning” of the product “can help bolster and widen its appeal,” she says, “but it also means the entrepreneur can no longer so strongly shape the meanings the product or venture takes on.”
Even more challenging or risky is the fourth strategy the authors outline, which they call “seeding.” This approach involves trying to draw your audience or stakeholders into taking on your values, which they might not already hold. With seeding, the tension lies between closeness and openness, or how much of your own unshared values you want to reveal to your audience.
As with channeling, the homogeneity or heterogeneity of your audience matters in this choice. The authors argue that it’s necessary to be more closed with homogenous audiences because they “hold a narrow set of preferences and a low tolerance for deviation,” while heterogenous audiences are more likely “to accept and even value diversity,” and thus would be more receptive to unshared values.
An example of seeding with a more heterogenous audience might be found in the outdoor retailer REI, Lockwood suggests, which has succeeded while promoting a clear set of values. “They have a specific take on outdoor sports that they champion with experts in stores and online classes and adventures they lead, and even the opportunity to join their co-op,” Lockwood says. “They really walk the talk and open up the things that make REI unique, encouraging audiences to approach outdoor sports in the same way.”
Strategies for Any Stage
Lockwood says these four strategies are not limited to the founding stage of an endeavor either. You might equally apply them, she says, when more mature industries have to adapt to changes or evolutions in customer behaviors or beliefs.
And different strategies from the toolkit might be applied in different contexts: For example, as the auto industry embraces electric vehicles, it is simultaneously trying to respond to demands from one sector of the car-buying public but also reshape the way more traditional car buyers might view these vehicles.
More importantly, Lockwood says that their work offers a more a nuanced idea of entrepreneurs and innovators. They aren’t all necessarily a breed apart of “heroic visionaries” or “technical mavericks” who tend to garner all the attention. They might more broadly be seen as “skilled users of culture” who can work to “nimbly fashion a fit between their venture and what their audiences value and believe.” Consider, for example, the creative team behind rebranding Country Crock margarine as “plant butter” to tap into the culinary zeitgeist, or the savvy, ever shape-shifting Martha Stewart, cooking with Snoop Dogg and licensing her name to CBD products.
“Our research draws attention to the difficult work, and often uncelebrated, that entrepreneurs go through to figure out who their audiences are and what they value, or instead to educate their audiences and bring them to value something they might have otherwise ignored,” says Lockwood.
She sees this cultural toolkit perspective as offering hope for any individual or organization with entrepreneurial aspirations.
“There are more avenues available to entrepreneurs or existing ventures than we might previously have assumed or used,” she says. “If you’re looking to advance a venture that’s not as clear a fit as a new kombucha in Brooklyn, there are still many ways you can help ensure it takes off.”