Why you should use cultural anthropology as a business tool
Is your business planning a significant product launch? Are you planning a major reorganization that will impact your employees? How deep is your understanding of the needs and behaviours of your customers or employees?
Johanna Faigelman, CEO and founding partner of Human Branding, argues that traditional market analysis is too superficial. It relies on “consumers as experts” and simply reports on what “consumers know they know.” This is a risky approach given the scope and potential exposure of many business investments.
Faigelman is a cultural anthropologist; she uses this discipline and research methodology to decode human behaviour. Decoding facilitates an approach to business innovation that is predictive. Putting human behaviour at the centre of marketing research allows a business to develop a deeper understanding of the needs of potential customers … needs that may be unmet — or not even articulated.
A successful product launch or innovation must account for three factors, Faigelman says: “Human-centric insights, business needs and realities, and socio-cultural factors.” To accomplish this, a business — with appropriate support — should do a deep dive into societal trends, gain an understanding of unmet human needs, and the dynamics of the business category. Layered onto this complexity are cultural and generational differences.
So how can cultural anthropology be applied in the business world?
If the aim is to provide the client with a rich and predictive understanding of a culture, study the appropriate group of people. Faigelman and her staff immerse themselves in the world of the target group. For example, for a client who wants to launch a new product in a convenience store, they might closely watch teens shopping in those spaces. Or, on behalf of a drug company rolling out a new medication, they might observe doctors prescribing to patients. The research may also involve “naturalistic unobtrusive observation” (being the fly on the wall), in-depth respondent-driven interviewing, and participation.
The discipline of cultural anthropology has been applied successfully across a variety of business categories that include pharmaceuticals, food and food services, automotive and financial services.
In a case cited by Faigelman, a business planned to launch an innovative product in what she called a “mature food category.” Human Branding’s research showed there were four societal trends at play in this category: “pursuit of wellness, simplicity, everyone’s an expert (or foodie) and multiculturalism is a fact of life.” Throughout the research and development process, assumptions about consumer behaviour were identified and challenged. This allowed the business to focus its innovation planning on three streams: the interests of foodies, nutrition and cultural diversity. They found a need to respect deeply held emotional and intellectual positions. They discovered, for example, that their plans to create new and interesting flavours could trigger negative reactions, as this was a food category seen by some as “belonging to Grandma.”
But an anthropological approach can be used in-office, as well. Human Resources management and organizational development can benefit from such an approach. Employers can develop an understanding of cross-generational management, such as a case where anthropological research supported the rollout of a client’s updated benefits plan.
Human Branding also conducted research for a pharmaceutical company that was developing a new cancer drug. It was important for that company to understand how different cultures think about and talk about cancer, how caregiving is delivered and how physicians are viewed by patients and families.
Every business is under pressure to grow and to anticipate market and competing trends. Even before a new product is developed, for example, anthropological research and insight can help a business decode socio-cultural factors that set the context for what people are saying … and what they are not saying. This can help a business think in a way that is future forward. They’ll be able to identify latent (and therefore unmet) needs, define and harness unarticulated emotions and predict real life behaviour.