Monthly Archives: February 2010

Criteria for Practicing Consumer Anthropology?

Because “traditional” qualitative research (e.g. focus groups, IDIs) has seen a renaissance toward more academically oriented and human-focused techniques, Consumer Anthropology and ethnography have risen to the foreground of market research.  Most top qualitative suppliers now also have ethnography specialties or some sort of anthropological offering.

I think at first I and other academically trained social scientists (anthropologists, sociologists, et. al.) were taken aback by what seemed to be the beginnings of an era of commodification of social research.  It seemed like anyone who had a career as a focus group moderator was now a practiced ethnographer and the industry was flipping jargon and semantics around to qualify the unqualified to capitalize on industry buzzwords.

I find bitterness to be distasteful, so i decided to seek first to understand.  😉

First I thought, “what sets me apart as someone who IS an academically trained anthropologist and sociologist from someone who is not, but has a qualitative background?  The answer:  knowledge of theory and research methods translated into an applied space.  The fact:  theory and research methods can be learned and understood by committing some time to reading, understanding, having dialogues with peers and testing the waters in a real-world circumstance through everyday existence.  Therefore…academic training does not uniquely qualify me beyond any others to call myself a Consumer Anthropologist.  It puts anyone practicing in this field ahead of the game, but does not make entry into the club inaccessible by any means.

Second, a good Consumer Anthropologist or Ethnographer ( I distinguish the two, as an Ethnographer is a practitioner of ethnography and a consumer anthropologist practices a more holistic approach to research….see previous blogs for explanation) must be motivated by a desire to seek empathy.  Social science is not rocket science, but it is distinctly human, which can be even more tricky…since there are not necessarily any formulas that can give us the answer.  Empathy takes work.  It means that one has to become a truly objective research instrument, remove ethnocentrism from their operating perspective and be willing and able to absorb and analyze human data.  This calls for participant observation. It calls for a level of “cool” that allows you to slip into research participant’s world in a way that makes them profoundly comfortable and causes as little disruption as possible.  It calls for keen listening skills, powers of observation and ability to see the patterns in the details that go unspoken.

The most important qualification for a good consumer anthropologist, however, is energy, passion and thirst for human understanding. Those who are best at this line of work are like routing dogs in their unstoppable desire to find the right answers.  They will dig anywhere and get creative about crafting solutions in order to get to true understanding.  They are not bound by what exists.  They understand the value of existing methodologies and can identify gaps where necessary to propose hybrid methodologies that will best get at the objective at hand.

I have seen a few different “types” of folks that fit the bill with regard to the above qualifications.  First, the young college grads (yes, even those with bachelors degrees) who are hungry to seek meaning and willing to try anything.  They bring an intelligence and energy to the practice we all could use a little of every day. Younger generations are also profoundly more empathetic by nature, i find.  They were trained that way.  😉  I have also seen a great deal of seasoned qualitative researchers or even academics who have a passion for a deeper level of understanding.  The combined years of experience in research practice along with a passion for learning a new way are an ideal combination.  I also find that the wisdom and lack of “cockiness” that comes with age makes empathy easier and ability to sift through the noise a lot more fine tuned.

This is all my opinion, of course.  I would really like to hear more from the research public on their thoughts.  I sincerely seek first to understand and would like to hear what my peers think


Separating Consumer Anthropology From Traditional Qualitative

So what’s the difference between a focus group, an-in home, a shop-along and an Ethnography?  Well, nothing if you are using the same approaches and techniques in all of them.  I have found that much of these consumer research practices, whether done in a focus group room or in someone’s “natural habitat” are much the same in that researchers tend to still rely on response-based data collection to get at meaningful insights…a fatal flaw.

In Consumer Anthropology, an umbrella term I use to describe a robust and custom set of insight gathering tools based on culture, behavior, attitudes and values…the world is your data set, not just what comes out of consumers mouths.

I have spent years revisiting and tweaking and customizing approaches to try and get deeper, bigger implications out of consumer research and found that the more diverse the data set is, the better.  When i speak of diversity in this sense i am specifically referring to the types of data collected, and from whom.

To give some examples of what i feel separates consumer anthropology (as I and many other trained social scientists practice it) from traditional qualitative and to spur further discussion, here are some thoughts:

The Sample: (can include any or all of the following, depending on project scope):

  • Passionate / Leading Edge consumers:  those who exist in the “influencer” realm
  • Mainstream consumers:  to understand how culture gets communicated and adopted from the “influencer” realm as well as from media
  • Tangential Experts:  thinkers and doers with a right to a point of view on the client-focused objectives:  from the clients category or those that operate in spaces that may influence that category
  • Professional marketers: YES…marketing and advertising professionals are humans and consumers too!  And they can offer a unique consumer-culture based perspective when seeking innovative solutions.  Oftentimes market research dismisses these types flat out, assuming their bias will hinder the research.  this isn’t always the case.

Data Collection methods:

  • Response-based group discussions (among complete strangers, groups of friendship pairs, or peer groups).  This type of data collection should be used to gain consensus on pre-explored topics / hypotheses and FOCUS on specific topics at a surface level
  • Response-based one on one discussions:  to get at deeper look at attitudes, values,  motivations and behaviors.  Should be reserved for discussion with influencer or those most passionate, articulate and iconic of a consumer target group
  • Ethnographic immersion:  one on one or among a family / subculture group.  Data collected here includes observational data of behavior and context as well as discussion probes.  Spend at least half a day.  An hour in someone’s kitchen will only get you bits and pieces of information (unless this tool is combined with other types of data collection)
  • Metaphor elicitation:  asking participants to create collages of words and imagery around a specific topic gives you a whole new data set and allows the research participant to be able to think more critically and abstractly about a topic.  usually assigned as homework
  • Ethnographic Photo Essays:  directed, consumer generated photography of their lives.  Often related to the client objective (i.e. a week in the life of their car, beverage consumption in context)
  • Semiotic analysis:  of packaging, media, retail environments.  Pattern recognition in visual stimulus can add an entirely new layer of information and help innovation teams understand residual, dominant and emerging codes of communication in a cultural space.

I would love to hear some other perspectives from the insight community on where they see as the distinctions between qualitative and consumer anthropology….and where they see value in each.

The Brand Sherpa Perspective On Co-Creation Starting At Home for Marketing and Market Research Teams

I have been working recently on a marketing innovation project for an emerging brand.  It was the first time that a truly diverse team of internal and agency stakeholders as well as experts from outside the brand had gotten together in one room to collaborate and leverage one another’s best practices and creative brains. At the end of the day there was one loud and clear implication:  this brand also needsto leverage it’s target consumers to be a part of the definition of it’s brand essence and guide it’s communication strategy.

Open Source innovation is a driving force in emerging brand strategy practice:  bringing outside inspiration from cross-functional teams within your company, consultants from outside as well as consumer points of view.

From experience in dealing with many a brand team, that the issue with co-creation is not necessarily intent, but budget.  Who puts up the cash to make it happen?  Is it a marketing spend?  A market research spend?  Who antes up from their budget to start engaging consumers from the beginning and then keep them involved as brand advocates as well as ongoing voice of customer?  Especially with emerging brands, it’s a tough call to get funding before you can show sales volume.  That is why co-creation is so important.  what you can’t make up for with marketing spend, you need to supplement with insight,  intuition, guts and creative collaboration.

It is pretty intuitive to most forward thinking marketers nowadays that the co-creation story is one that can turn your most influential consumers into ROI machines by virtue of word of mouth alone.  To use a hot market research buzzword, they become “meme” spreaders who pass on your brand message with a strong sense of personal ownership and use whatever mediums are most relevant to them to spread the message.

The added value here is that not only can these open-source innovator consumers be a voice of inspiration and co-creation for your brand, but they can be a valuable marketing and PR asset, continue to participate in research to build and maintain the brand, and help both your marketing and market research teams stay relevant locally by keeping you connected on the ground and connecting more consumers to the cause to participate in further insight and innovation initiatives.

The first step, however, is for co-creation to start at home.  Time for the research and marketing teams to join forces with a unified  vision of  open-source return-on-investment that starts with a shared  budget! Isn’t it amazing how innovation can come from something as simple as accounting? 😉  I have seen this model work so well with clients from CPG sectors to B2B automotive.  Collaboration needs to start with the budget spreadsheets.  It’s exciting to see the new and innovative information and methodologies  and unexpected good will that can come from shared initiatives….both within the company / brand teams itself and especially with your consumers.

Applying Semiotics To Brand Strategy Innovation

Semiotics is the study of sign processes (semiosis), or signification and communication, signs and symbols, both individually and grouped into sign systems. It includes the study of how meaning is constructed and understood.

Semiotics is frequently seen as having important anthropological dimensions, for example, the famous Semiotician and Author, Umberto Eco proposes that every cultural phenomenon can be studied as communication.

Semiotic analysis is used to get at cultural insights that consumers are either unwilling or unable to articulate. This is accomplished by using symbolic communication as data points, which include:

•Behavioral cues such as: rituals, social organization, and consumption of symbols (e.g. brand marks, instructional signs, use of space / environments and visualization of ideas and emotions)

•Communication representations such as: speech, music, imagery (literary, media), literature (i.e. mythology and lore), clothing and fashion, popular media (print, television, film, etc.)

Application of semiotic analysis as a part of a consumer anthropology process allows for identification  patterns that lead to truly forward-thinking innovation

My goal for application of semiotic analysis is to help my clients understand the evolution of cultural phenomena that influence their category. Actual territory maps are produced that plot brands in comparison to the competition as well as providing innovation direction through functional and aesthetic  design opportunities (strategic, packaging and creative)

To gain the data needed for semiotic analysis we utilize many tools and tactics:

•Ethnographic data capture: still photography and video footage of human behavior, product features and use (intended and unintended) consumer-oriented environments and actual human artifacts (a.k.a. their “stuff”)

•Media review: collection of current to historical media examples: film and television reels, print media and marketing materials

•Brand Audits: Identity, product, packaging, experience and life-cycle: assessment of sensory values communicated by the brand at all ‘touch’ points including during and after its intended life span.

•Decoding work sessions: immersive team work sessions where sensory cues from all stimulus are broken down and reconstructed into meaningful and actionable themes, focused on past, present and future expressions of cultural phenomena.  (this is a great way to get stakeholders more rooted in the essence of the brand as well as great creative and bonding opportunity).

Semiotic analysis is used in many  types of Journeys, providing valuable insight for initiatives like:

•Brand & Product identity development: understand current perceptions of your brand within it’s competitive space as well as opportunities for differentiation through all sensory touch-points: logo and identity (including color, shape, size, smell, feel, taste, etc.) retail environments, packaging and even post-lifecycle

•Communications strategy development: identification of future-focused communication themes, new media and creative executions for your brand

•Whitespace identification: identification of cultural territories within and tangential to your category that can lead to innovation opportunities for new products, product design, packaging, services or marketing

A well rounded journey means that your insight and strategy  projects can do more of the legwork, both in the short term and long term, having implications for both the larger innovation vision and the smaller-but-important details.  Semiotics can complement consumer qualitative in that it will allow you that future, big picture vision while keeping an eye on symbolic details that consumers cannot necessarily articulate.

Charting the path to the future

I have been spending a lot of time with a more social-conscience oriented reading list these days, including books like Blessed Unrest, by Paul Hawken. I captured some thoughts on the airplane back from an Ideation gig in Las Vegas (let me just say, “there’s no place like home”) that i would like to share, then elaborate on.

Journal entry:
Every human is born their own person-not bound to the trespasses
or victories of their ancestors, but a blank slate defined only by
their chosen purpose. We can change the path to the future
if we forgive one another our past and work together to create
meaningful change, unhindered by preconception and motivated by

Those who came before us got us where we are now – for better
or worse. What happens next, however, is entirely up to us. It is
our obligation as humans living right NOW to consider our choices
actions and beliefs (Erykah Badu on New America states “you don’t
have to believe everything you think”…i like that). Those
behaviors will impact EVERYTHING that happens next – to you,
your family, your community, country and ultimately the world. It
all matters and it all makes a difference.

Your power is the power of humanity. Together we can make or
break the fate of the world, because the choices of those who
came before us gave us that power. Again – for better or for
worse. What will we do with that power? I vote for “better”.

One thing I also know from my years of studying consumer culture and the role of Brands as a part of our culture, is that manufacturers, marketers, corporations and especially brands can apply the same principal of unhindered responsibility outlined from an individual perspective above.

A brand driven social renaissance is upon us and this Sherpa has been enjoying the work she has been doing charting that path with forward thinking client partners who have the foresight to know their power to create positive change. I can’t wait to see what we do next!