Anthropologists Deliver Competitive Advantage to Businesses

Competitive Advantage with Anthropology
Written by Paula Gray

Anthropologists deliver competitive advantage to businesses by understanding the complex, deeper symbolic meanings that underpin so much of what customers think and do.  That information then increases a business’ competitive advantage because they can tap into those meanings through messages, visuals, and other pathways.  Ultimately it helps the customer understand the business’ products and all the potential and complexity that they offer.

The once-popular producer’s view of the world which consisted of creating goods and services first, then looking for customers who might buy them, is terribly outdated.  Through the influence of some key anthropologists, most businesses today understand that the customer is a valuable source of insight and innovation that should be addressed throughout the product life cycle.  According to noted anthropologist, Marietta Baba, this is a more enlightened view of the value that the customer brings and the need for engagement with them beyond the purchase.  This view has had a huge impact on how consumer behavior is studied, analyzed and translated into actionable steps.

One of the first influential anthropologists was Steve Barnett in the 1970s.  He influenced such companies as Procter & Gamble, Campbell Soup, and Union Carbide.  By the 1990s he was Director of Product Strategy at Nissan Motor Company where he helped “reconceptualize the automobile as a cultural artifact.” [1]

For a more in-depth look at the relationship between anthropology and business, read the white paper Business Anthropology and the Culture of Product Managers by Paula Gray.


According to anthropologist, Daniel Miller, anthropology’s unique view recognizes consumption as a demonstration of cultural creativity and diversity.  It also defines the relationship between consumer behavior, cultural meaning, and the market.  Miller’s research also found that products act as mythic structures, classification systems and even as a way of making moral values tangible[2].  Think of how this level of understanding changes how businesses address solutions and value for customers.

History has seen a solidifying of the relationship between anthropology and business, and we continue to see the relationship strengthen as the competitive advantage delivered by an anthropological perspective is acknowledge by savvy businesses.

[1] Baba, M. (2006) Anthropology and business.  Encyclopedia of Anthropology.  Thousand Oaks, CA:  Sage Publications.

[2] Miller, D. (1995) Acknowledging Consumption.  New York, NY:  Routledge

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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.