Monthly Archives: May 2010

Truth in Consumer Anthropology

The art of storytelling is at the core of the inherent skill set for any brand or individual that wants to connect in a meaningful, enduring way with consumers.

A compelling story, among other things, requires the telling of relevant truths, which is dependent on context. Watt’s Wacker and Ryan Matthew’s book, What’s Your Story: Storytelling to Move Markets, Audiences, People and Brands (  is one of a few timely texts that discusses this art in a branding context, using social sciences as well examples from industry to tell their tale to professional marketers.

I often get asked to explain the relative significance of consumer anthropology in the marketing research space.  Specifically, what sets it apart from traditional qualitative and quantitative research techniques.  I explain it as an exercise in understanding context through the use of observation and other participant and researcher-generated data collection methods.

It is an exploration in the culture that surrounds and shapes consumer lifestyles and their relationships with brands.  It is also, in my definition, an exercise in defining the context and culture of the client organization for which a consumer study is being conducted in order to most efficiently develop approaches and deliver results so that they are socialized and activated efficiently.  The objective in mind is l speed to and sustainability of innovation.

I have a post-it note on my wall above my desk that hangs next to several  others as reminders of skills i need to work on.  The one in question says “brevity”.  I will try and exercise that here.   😉

My point is that I believe consumer anthropology to be the merging of science (anthropology, sociology, semiotics) and art (storytelling) toward helping those who create products and culture understand and connect with those who consume it.  Story is what communicates culture. It is the delivery of those universal truths that have stood the test of time by way of repetitive patterns of action, reaction and belief.

I like to think that Consumer Anthropology and those innovative corporations, brands, research agencies and rogue “sherpas” who practice it are paving the way for a different kind of journey to meaning.  I look forward to hearing from my peers on their vision of the future of Consumer Anthropology.  What do you think the story will look like?  How would you like to see it told? What is your ideal happy ending?


Consumer Insight Gathering Without Talking To Consumers?

I find that in many cases, people will generally talk for the sake of being heard, whether they actually have anything to say or not. I am probably guilty of this myself from time to time. It’s why I try to keep myself from speaking one out of every three times I feel like saying something. It turns out that you can learn something if you stay silent long enough. 😉

I find that consumers in market research often fall into similar talking traps. If you ask a question in a focus group, in-depth interview or even a more immersive, ethnographic setting, chances are consumers will feel compelled to answer, whether they have a meaningful reply or not. Consumers often feel obligated to share an opinion or response since they are being paid to answer questions…as far as they are concerned. What can end up happening is you end up with a whole lot of data that says much of nothing.

I find that the best way to counteract the response-based research effect is to supplement data collection in qualitative research with consumer-generated content that has nothing to do with talk.

I read this article today on Ad Age about Added Value’s technique of using consumer-generated narrative that got me going on this topic. (Thanks to Lenny at BrandScan 360 for bringing it to my attention).

I think you can get a great deal deeper into consumer’s lives, heads, hearts and souls by taking a more creative approach like this one.  Asking consumers to write stories allows the benefit of context and adjective generation when it comes to finding out how they relate to a brand, product or category.  The trick is, making sure you use this tool with the right target consumers:  creative types often are better at constructing narratives, for obvious reasons.

Another tool I, as well as other practitioners, have found valuable is collaging.  Asking consumers to construct portraits using words, images  and their own drawings can unleash some powerful metaphors.  And when you have a large enough sample constructing collages on a topic, it’s fascinating to see the patterns of metaphors emerge that can really help give meaningful direction to communication and product development strategies.  I’ve seen it work wonders in categories like automotive, apparel and in FMCG food categories.

Photo diaries and journals are also exceptional tools for understanding lifestyle context.  It allows the researcher the benefit of being immersed in a consumers life for a period of time where the relevent context is concerned, without having to be there.  If given the right direction, consumers can generate a week or two’s worth of snapshots into their world that can be used as a part of a more holistic data collection regimen.

Part of succesful research is understanding enough about the culture of the target for whom you are seeking to generate understanding and customizing approaches that allow for collection of a depth and breadth of insights.  Dialog and observation are often only one piece of the bigger data-pie when it comes to qualitative research or consumer anthropology.

And the fun part is, the more qualitative data you get from different sources, the closer you can get to actually quantifying the patterns you identify.  I believe they call that “quantilative” research.  I can’t wait till the day that art and science makes greater strides.

My final point is this:  don’t limit your approach to consumer research by relying solely on conversations with consumers and short spurts of observation of their world.  Get more bang for your research buck by allowing consumers to work harder and be creative.  The result is not only more data to chose from, but data with much richer meaning that comes from perspectives neither the research or consumer can consciously articulate otherwise.