Anthropology Ethnography

What Can Marketers Borrow From the Anthropologist’s Toolbox?

Written by Paula Gray

What Can Marketers Borrow From the Anthropologist’s Toolbox?
by Paula Gray, AIPMM

Anthropology’s toolbox can offer much to assist business practices, especially marketing. Anthropology answers the question of what it means to be human. It is the scientific study of humankind, human origins and human variation, wherever and whenever humans have been found. This can include humans in shopping malls, boardrooms and offices. What marketers can do is to use anthropological methodologies to help inform business activities, tasks, and decisions because customers are humans, too.

Anthropology, as the study of humans, uses a particular methodology as a way of studying humans, called ethnography. Ethnography gathers data through the following methods: participant observation, interviews, life histories, photos and film, surveys, and historical artifacts. What makes anthropology more relevant than the other social sciences alone is that it encompasses much more. Anthropology encompasses sociology by addressing social institutions and relationships. It encompasses biology by addressing the environment within which humans live and how humans interact with that environment. It encompasses physiology by recognizing the limits and unique attributes that the human body has including aging, health, disease and physical characteristics. Anthropology also encompasses psychology by addressing human mental and behavioral characteristics including their beliefs, values and fears. According to the anthropologists at Palomar College,

The word culture has many different meanings. For some it refers to an appreciation of good literature, music, art, and food. For a biologist, it is likely to be a colony of bacteria or other microorganisms growing in a nutrient medium in a laboratory Petri dish. However, for anthropologists and other behavioral scientists, culture is the full range of learned human behavior patterns. (O’Neil)

Anthropologists already consult with or are employed by many of the Fortune 500 companies. Several examples of anthropologists who are using their expertise in the corporate world include Susan Squires who worked for General Mills on the Go-Gurt product. She conducted an ethnography on families and determined that mothers wanted their kids to eat healthy and kids wanted highly flavored foods and fun, easy ways to eat. What came out of that ethnography was a yogurt that was healthy while being tasty to kids and was in a unique packaging allowing kids to squeeze the product out of a tube. Squires also worked with Canon when they initially launched their color printers for home use. Consumers did not know how to utilize the technology so they sat idle. Squires conducted an ethnography and observed the surfaces of the home covered in printed artwork that families create and exchange. Her insights helped Canon create their Canon Creative software which utilizes their printer to created those posters, t-shirts and greeting cards similar to those she observed. Squires said then ‘sales of the printers took off.’ (Hafner)

Donna Romeo is an anthropologist with the PepsiCo company on the Frito-Lay line. She works in ‘consumer insights’ by studying people to understand what they want in snacks and how snack fit into their lives. Todd Harple is an anthropologist who works in product design and innovation with Intel, a computer chip company.

Ethnographies usually require a significant commitment of time, labor and money. Traditionally they have been immersive studies requiring an anthropologist to live with the group of people being studied, usually for a period of nine months to a year. As ethnographies and anthropologists have moved out of the jungles and into the corporate world, there has been a shift to condense, simplify, streamline and generally modify the process to fit in at the office. While modifications are essential to the process in order to make it relevant for use in business, the process should not be cut so short that it loses its value.

Ethnography consists of several methods of gathering data. Participant observation is the hallmark of ethnography. It involves the researcher sharing, as much as possible, in the experience of those being studied. Within the participation continuum there are two extremes: detached observer on one end, and complete participant on the other end. Detached observation involves a more distant approach while still being within the group studied. Complete participation involves a risk of losing the observer perspective altogether as the researcher converts to being a group member. Somewhere in-between is a level of participation that works for both the group and the researcher. It is in observing unexpected meaning and behavior that real insights are found.

A second method of gathering data involves interviewing members of the group. Often they are in-depth, one-on-one interviews with the researcher. The interviews may also include other members of the group who influence each other. The purpose is to explore meaning, values and beliefs by asking open-ended questions. An important factor in successful interviewing is the interviewer’s lack of opinion or judgment. The goal is to simply gather the information without adding input or making the interviewee feel that they are being interrogated.

In addition to the process of ethnography, anthropology offers marketers three key tools. The first tool is the way an anthropologist looks at people, through a holistic view. Anthropologists look at the culture of a group of people and can better understand what their needs and motivations are. A culture is a set of learned beliefs, values and ideals that a group of people share. A culture also includes the behavior patters and material objects such as tools and artifacts that a group of people share. A culture is what ‘flavors’ or ‘colors’ a humans view of the world. It is a framework that a person uses to determine what is proper, correct, normal, ordinary, or standard.

A second tool that marketer’s can borrow from the anthropologist’s toolbox is an attitude that is relatively free from ethnocentricity. Ethnocentricity is the belief that your own culture is the true or correct one. This is often subtle and translates into believing that one’s own culture is the standard to use for all people. In marketing, that translates into product messaging which does not take into consideration the cultural differences between the marketer and the target market. By being open to the idea that other cultures have different frameworks, a marketer can guide messaging and product decisions targeted to different cultural groups rather than the marketer’s own.

A third tool that marketer’s can borrow from the anthropologist’s toolbox is the ability to switch between the etic (outsider) and emic (insider) perspective of a group. Unfortunately when marketers pre-determine what holds meaning for people, they miss the real truth. By recognizing that they have their own cultural framework and knowing how to separate that out from their observations of other people, a marketer can gain valuable customer insight. When marketers can see and describe their target market with culturally neutral descriptions they can offer a non-judgmental picture of the customer.

In the global marketing environment, and at home, marketers can do well by having a better understanding of their customers. Ignorance of cultures often leads to misunderstandings which can result in ineffective marketing strategies and at worst can actually offend or repel the very customers that the marketer is attempting to attract.

In the age of relationship marketing when the focus has moved from the goal of simply moving or selling product to actually creating and maintaining a relationship with a customer, using the tools of anthropology will help marketers achieve those new goals.

Works Cited

Genzuk, PH.D., Michael. ‘A Synthesis of Ethnographic Research.’ Occasional Papers Series Fall (2003)

Hafner, Katie. ‘Coming of Age in Palo Alto.’ The New York Times 10 June 1999

Harris, Marvin, and Orna Johnson. Cultural Anthropology. 7 ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2007.

Kane, Kate A. ‘Anthropologists Go Native in the Corporate Village.’ Fast Company Magazine Oct. 1996.

Kotler, Philip, and Gary Armstrong. Principles of Marketing. 12 ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008.

Miner, Horace. ‘Body Ritual Among the Nacirema.’ American Anthropologist 58:3, June (1956).

Nanda, Serena, and Richard L. Warms. Cultural Anthropology. 9th ed. Cincinnati: Wadsworth, 2006.

O’Neil, Dr. Dennis. “Culture”. Palomar College Department of Behavioral Sciences. April 2, 2009

Podolefsky, Aaron, and Peter J. Brown. Applying Cultural Anthropology. 7 ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 2007

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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.