Culture in Action and What We Can Learn from WeWork

culture in action

I’ve written recently about successes that come when companies take the time to understand cultural context: the shared meaning that exists around key moments and experiences. Almost two years ago, State Street Financial captured the evolving meaning of women in leadership and struck gold with Fearless Girl. This month, I had the pleasure of watching all the Bud Light “Dilly Dilly” ads and discussed how the company and their agency used visual cues to tap into their audience’s culture of belonging around a “beer moment.”

It’s relatively easy to see culture reflected in good advertising and marketing campaigns. When the creative execution is successful, culturally-resonant ads take on a much larger role in the social and cultural conversation (witness the conversation around P&G’s “Toxic Masculinity” just this week). But can we see the importance of culture reflected in services? In product and service innovation? I argue ‘yes’ – when service organizations understand the changing meanings affecting their categories, they experience greater success.

WeWork is a great example. The shared workspace company has achieved phenomenal success because the founders understood the changing nature of work and the workplace. In the late ‘90s and early 2000s the boundaries between “professional” and “personal” increasingly blurred as technology made “always on” a reality. At the same time, values began to shift, especially among younger workers valuing a more integrated life without the work/life dichotomy. The resulting work-life integration has changed the meaning of work and the workplace.

Market analysts and academics have been quick to point out that WeWork’s success isn’t due to their offer of just shared workspace. Their success is a factor of the workplace culture they build in each location. As quoted in Harvard Business Review, University of Michigan researchers report higher levels of thriving among users of co-working spaces, and a higher likelihood of those users to find value and meaning in their work. WeWork has successfully anchored the company’s mission and identity into this sense of community – and it’s paid off. According to Forbes, the company enjoyed an almost 12% market share in terms of total co-working membership and has experienced astronomical growth since 2016.

The company enjoyed close to 12% market share and doubled its members between 2016 and 2017.  It forecast 100% growth in members from 2017 – 2018 .

WeWork is emblematic of the success that comes with understanding culture and giving voice to the emerging meaning. Easier said than done, for sure. But there are some easy ways to start identifying culture and making it relevant for your product or service.

1. Watch and listen closely

It’s true that culture can be readily apparent, but more often than not it takes some digging. Companies that conduct observational research and listen closely to their target audience can discern the more profound meaning in words and actions. What are the deep-seated needs and desires striving to be met? Understanding this meaning and how it’s being pursued is an early clue to identifying culture.

2. Contrast the past with the present

Pay attention to what’s changed in the way people interact with the category. What’s different today than yesterday (or last year)? WeWork (and, to be fair, other co-working companies) recognized that work today is different from work ten years ago in fundamental ways. They intentionally set out to take advantage of this shift in a way that was consistent with their vision and brand. Their “community” focus was a brave step that could have easily backfired on them – but the decision has clearly paid off. These fundamental differences are often reflective of evolving meaning inherent in the category.

3. Look to adjacencies

Culture is often found in the wings, rather than taking center stage. Companies that look to adjacent categories and cast a broader net for inspiration are more likely to find emerging meaning that can affect new products and services.

We love to talk about culture, how it’s uncovered, and what it means for our clients’ products, service design, and strategies! To learn more about cultural framing and product/service design, please contact us.

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