Anthropology

What’s All the Fuss About Anthropology?

Written by Paula Gray

What’s All the Fuss About Anthropology?
by Paula Gray, AIPMM

The reason that the social science discipline, Anthropology, is gaining emphasis and focus in the business world is that someone very learned and insightful, remembered that people drive all business decisions. They took a step back from being product-focused and turned the focus to people. People buy your products, people design your products, people analyze and write about your products. People do these things – not industries, not corporations, not media, not demographic data. A person or a group of people form opinions and make these all-important decisions. This is precisely where cultural anthropology, the study of human culture, comes in. Cultural anthropology offers us a peak into the context within which all decisions are made, including buying decisions. Culture is the framework that cultural anthropology uses to create this context.

The American Anthropological Association states that “Culture represents the entire database of knowledge, values, and traditional ways of viewing the world, which have been transmitted from one generation ahead to the next — nongenetically, apart from DNA — through words, concepts, and symbols.”

In anthropology, culture is also described as the lens through which an individual sees the world. Individuals who hail from the same cultural background will share this lens in common, even though their individual views and experiences may be different. Through this lens your product, marketing campaigns, and customer service efforts will be viewed. By understanding the common cultural lens shared by a group of people, you can better understand what they view as important, how your product fits into their lives, what traditions or taboos you may be up against or on which you can capitalize.

So how does one go about understanding a group’s culture? Anthropologists rely on “participant observation” to gather information. This involves observing the group from the inside and participating in their activities, where appropriate. This may sound complicated and time consuming but, in the age of technology, much information can be gathered online. Recently UC Irvine anthropology professor, Tom Boellstorff, conducted an ethnography (an in-depth study of a group of people who share a culture) on the virtual world, Second Life. He found the online community replete with similarities to “real world” cultures. He was able to decipher “shared symbolic meanings and beliefs” held by the group.

If your goal is to increase your market share for a software application to teen gamers, find out where they “hang out” online. Read, listen, and learn about their lives, not just how they use your product. Learn their language, symbols, attitudes and traditions. Discover what magazines, blogs, or forums they read, then read them. Discover what events, conferences, or meet-ups they attend, then attend them. What are their favorite vendors, not just in your category? Who do they idolize, respect, scorn or condemn? By learning about the “teen gamer culture” you learn what motivates them, moves them, inspires them or repels them. Key information for your marketing efforts.

If you are marketing to manufacturing businesses, the same rules apply. Look for trade associations that represent a wealth of information about your target market, but always remember you are ultimately targeting a person or team who makes the decision, not a business. Ask yourself who these people are who make these decisions. Where do they live, is there a concentration in one geographic area? Where did they go to college? Discover what industry magazines, blogs, or forums are popular, and read them. What issues are most important to them, not just in relation to your product? What industry “horror stories” does everyone remember? Is there a particular calendar for their manufacturing cycle, how does that impact their lives and business? What are the industry success stories? Discover the important industry events, conferences and trade shows; attend them with the purpose of watching, listening and learning about the people. Determine the shared beliefs, language and symbols held by individuals in the industry. Let this understanding inform all of your strategies, tactics, and programs with regard to these individuals.

In the end, your efforts will result in a deeper level of understanding of who your customers are and how your product fits into their lives. It will also lead to a more rewarding experience for your customers because you will be more successful at targeting their real needs, desires and motivations and applying your unique solution to them.


Paula Gray is Vice President and co-founder of the Association of International Product Marketing & Management (AIPMM). With a background in cultural and applied anthropology she uses tools from the anthropologist’s toolbox to assist product managers and product marketers in understanding customers and their behaviors, in context.

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About the author

Paula Gray

Paula Gray is an anthropologist and the Director of Research and Knowledge Development at AIPMM. She has traveled the globe to work with companies throughout the US, Europe, Africa and Asia-Pacific to help them gain a deeper understanding of their customers. She is featured in Linda Gorchels' book The Product Manager's Handbook and has contributed to several books on product management including The Guide to the Product Management and Marketing Body of Knowledge (ProdBOK). She is also the author of numerous blog posts and papers including Business Anthropology and the Culture of Product Managers.