Anthropology Product Management

Diplomacy Across Divisions: The Culture of Product Management

Written by Therese Padilla

Anthropologists describe capital “C” Culture as the entire database of human knowledge, values, and traditional ways of viewing the world. A small “c” culture then, is how these three sectors of human experience interact and intersect in smaller groups. As a product manager (PM), it is essential to understand the culture of your organization and maintain an ethnographic view of stakeholders, both internal and external, including customers, designers, suppliers, marketing teams, and the C-suite.

The culture of product management is complex and nuanced by nature. Applying an anthropological lens provides a deeper understanding of the work and fortifies a PM’s proficiency. Professional PMs develop the skill to navigate across divisions — internal, external, literal, and metaphorical — and exert influence with or without a specified leadership role. Culturally, PMs inhabit a liminal, in-between space in the corporate hierarchy. They lack direct or official authority over various parts or processes of the business necessary to their work. Without authority, a PM must create access by acting as both relationship builder and able negotiator.

The culture of business relationships

Building effective business relationships gives a PM the resources to call on when they need help accomplishing their goals. Strong negotiating skills support relationship building and give the PM a fallback position for dealing with new people and establishing their value throughout the organization. From an ethnographic perspective, PMs aim for a culture based on collaboration and mutual support.

This perspective is enhanced by the brand team-based design pioneered by Procter & Gamble (P&G) in 1931. By creating brand teams to manage product lines, and ultimately focusing on external instead of internal competition, P&G set the standard for consumer brand management. The success of P&G’s internal collaborative culture has been duplicated throughout business and industry in the decades since.

A professional PM can apply the same lens to the internal workings of their company to build more effective relationships and reinforce the team approach. With an ethnographic approach — understanding a culture for what it is independent of comparison with other cultures — the PM can work with the marketing team, the materials pipeline, production, and logistics, each on their own turf and in their own terms. Cultural context allows for more effective communication, stronger relationships, and productive negotiations.

Single happy female business owner with smile and eyeglasses on phone and working on laptop computer at desk with bright window in background

Culture and the customer

The professional PM is the customer’s ambassador within the company. Understanding internal and external customer cultures allows a PM to tailor product information and marketing content — and even the product itself — to expand the market and improve customer satisfaction. Internal customers include the frontline sales force and customer service personnel, whose investment in a PM’s product line plays a significant role in its success. If the sales team frequently hand delivers samples to prospective retailers, the PM can help develop packaging to make sample distribution easier. This simple example illustrates the importance of understanding internal customers.

With all these internal cultures to consider, it is the end user — and their satisfaction — who must remain the PM’s top priority. Without a thorough comprehension of the end user’s culture, the PM risks “going with their gut” when making crucial product development and marketing decisions. Gut level decisions account for the 90% failure rate of new products.

Market research originated at P&G the same year modern brand management was born. Professional PMs still follow in the footsteps of Neal McElroy — the father of “brand men” — and D. Paul “Doc” Smelser, whose groundbreaking field research went straight to the source to identify and understand the culture of P&G’s target market. McElroy and Smelser brought Camay® soap to the market with strong internal representation and solid consumer data, which may account for its market presence ninety years down the line.

Familiarity with the culture of the people who buy, sell, and use a product grants a PM essential insight into the values and habits of their target market. Identification is the first step to fulfilling a customer’s wants and needs. In an era of unprecedented access to consumer data and buying habits, it’s easier than ever to gather and leverage cultural information to develop the products consumers want. When products are developed using known cultural touchstones, the professional PM can use their anthropological lens to create buy-in from stakeholders of every stripe.

Anthropology has broad implications for — and applications in — business, which is why many large companies now employ business anthropologists. It’s a particularly powerful tool for professional PMs as they navigate across internal and external — literal or metaphorical — divisions in pursuit of the best possible product.

Learn more about business anthropology and the culture of brand and product management at

Join the newsletter

Subscribe to get our latest content by email.
We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

About the author

Therese Padilla