Monthly Archives: November 2010

Seeding the Winds of Change

I have spent an adult life thus far doing a good deal of exploring. I have explored the human experience and human culture. I have explored academic approaches to human understanding. I have explored the practice of turning human and cultural insights into extremely valuable business, brand and marketing strategy. I have explored the nuances of sociology and culture within the professional spaces of marketing research and brand / product strategy.

I have also done a lot of reading.  As I know all of these authors (and others I know have unconsciously  left out and will fill in later) have influenced my point of view, I thought i would mention them here in no particular order:  Watts Wacker, Grant McCracken, William Gibson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Daniel Pink, James P. Carse, Patricia Sunderland and Rita Denny  and anyone who has written really good Arthurian Legend.

The result as it stands today has led me to awareness of a guiding principle that drives both my personal and professional ambitions:

Culture  – the force that drives change in humanity – comes from instances whereby time-sustaining traditions are given new relevance and resonance by a such unfamiliar twists  and movements we view as “deviance”.

Deviance is what busts the boundaries enforced by a society and brings new vision and traditions.  By understanding the boundaries of a society, one can know with a good amount of certainty where the next deviance will come from.  And if one understands the traditions associated with the inhabitants of that society, one (or a collection of “ones”)  can begin to simultaneously predict and influence culture.

It is  this awareness of the reality that we (researchers,marketers, innovators and others interested in a blog like this) can have this influence, that drives our passion.  At least I believe it’s what drives mine.

It’s why for my career path  I chose to practice Consumer Anthropology, which studies the sociological constraints of consumer society to enable tactical understanding of human culture.

This pursuit of human and cultural insight not only helps me deliver highly valuable strategic implications and recommendations to my clients, but in doing so to also have the opportunity to influence human culture toward a bigger goal – perpetuation of the game for all fo us to enjoy.

It is why I have chosen to accept a role as VP of Consumer Anthropology at Northstar Research Partners ( beginning in January 2011.  By doing so, I will joining an army of  individuals whom I believe to be truly passionate and innovative researchers and humans.

Northstar Research Partners  is a team that has proven itself time and again to be harnessing its collective power to deliver great work and I am excited by the opportunity  to help lead this team and our clients to even more rewarding opportunities for strategic growth.

– Again – for all of us.

Cheers to change!  Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. May we all truly be thankful for our opportunity to be human, and go in to the coming (and every) new year with renewed energy and passion!



“People-Powered Research” in Consumer Insights

I was just reading an article in a back issue of Ode Magazine on “People Powered Research”   The concept is simple with regard to applied social research in the public sector:  If you are trying to solve a problem that is going to involve the people you are studying in applying the solution, then get them involved as early on in the research process to help develop the study.  This will help the research team get a firm understanding of the problem from a ground-level, applied human perspective and significantly improve buy-in and efficiency of application of the solution as the very people whose behaviors you are seeking to impact have skin in the game from the beginning.

I find this approach to be particularly applicable in consumer research, although not necessarily always readily adopted.   And it is slightly more involved as well.

For starters, brand teams often forget that the first audience for adoption and application of strategies that derive from the implications of consumer insight work is their own internal system of functional teams.  It is, therefore, extremely important at the beginning of any project to make sure the time is taken to engage stakeholders from a breadth of functions that touch the business; from research, to marketing, to external execution agencies.

When this time is taken at the beginning, as well as throughout the process (with team members present and active in research fieldwork, strategy and ideation sessions), efficiency of strategic implementation dramatically improves.  And not just from a speed-standpoint, but also with regard to application of all or most points of strategic recommendations…as opposed to the “chinese menu” selection approach that often happens if certain stakeholders weren’t personally invested in the work and feel threatened or challenged by certain insights or results.

I have found that some organizations do this better than others.  Toyota Motor Sales, for example, requires a Nemawashe process before the start of any project.  ( see an explanation here: )

This process takes a little bit of time at the up front but goes a long way in ensuring a successful project.

I have also found that the more work you can do with consumers or consumer-facing experts (those who engage on a regular basis with the target consumer and have a right-to-a-point of view on culture and behavior patterns) in a hypothesis-formation phase of work before finalizing the scope of a research project, the better.

Most of the time in this business, you receive a one-page RFP that outlines the client’s best estimation of the problem they are trying to solve that asks for a fully baked solution in the form of a pretty tight proposal.

I often find it challenging to define a solution without having had the time to engage with client teams as well as conducting a deeper, more immersive and anthropological  / sociological dive into the sociocultural realities of the “universe” being studied.  It is why I often work with teams to suggest more loosely defined research scopes that include at least some level of exploration at the beginning of a project that will then help tighten up the research and strategy approach moving forward.

It means the pricing and scoping in a proposal are necessarily more of a straw-man approach open to shift once the project is started .  While it may be hard to stomach going in to a large-scale project with uncertainty, in the long run I have found over and over that client teams appreciate the higher quality of result even though the effort may take a little more time and a few more meetings.

I believe the research world is getting to a place where both clients and consultant teams are starting to take a step back from a speed-to-market based mentality to one of seeking first to understand and generally remembering the value of taking one’s time and involving more people in the process as opposed to isolated decision-making.

For me, it is one of the foundational processes of Consumer Anthropology and one I hope to teach and deploy with every client and team I work with.

As always, I am genuinely interested in hearing perspectives from other practitioners.  Do you think we can take notes from a more “People-Powered Research” approach?


Prioritizing Practice As A Thought Leader In Consumer Anthropology

When looking at professional practice in any field, it is often the case that as at the junior levels you spend all of your time practicing…”paying your dues” working long hours and learning your trade / craft / profession.  Upon development of significant expertise, you begin to manage others and take a little bit of the “grunt work” off of your plate, so that eventually you can sit pretty at an executive level and spend most of your time “supervising”, “directing” and otherwise dispatching sage wisdom to those who are up and coming.

In research organizations and especially in client organizations, it seems that the more senior you are, the less time you spend in field…actual practice and interaction with consumers becomes secondary to your day-to-day executive management of business strategy.  You develop processes, publish, attend industry events and,for the most part, rely on others with more youthful energy to go out and do the work of data collection, analysis and insight generation.

In Consumer Anthropology, which is only recently (in the past couple of decades) starting to  truly mainstream in research practice for consumer products / brands and other commercial / social enterprise, I wonder if this same pattern will apply to those pioneers who have been shaping the discipline.

Fieldwork is exhausting.  Long hours / days / weeks / months away from home.  Living out of suitcases and spending your days exuding energy and enthusiasm with research participants, strategically working through research objectives laid out in field guides, as well as listening and observing to collect data from several sources simultaneously (language, behavior, environment).

It is also extremely energizing and rewarding.  It connects us with the human energy and sociocultural realities that create the patterns we are identifying and applying to our client’s business.  It helps us truly understand and be able to predict patterns of cultural change in a way that can’t be fully understood through quantitative methodologies alone.  It helps us develop new ways to customize our  approaches data generation and collection based on observed practices in human communication.

It is why practice is necessarily an essential part of any thought leader’s day-to-day in this space.  I know it is why it will always be a part of mine.

As I have been simultaneously treading and charting my path as The Brand Sherpa, this has been a dilemma I have wrestled with.  For about a decade now I have spend the majority of time in field. When I was working full time I would often get frustrated by the rigorious pace of work that kept me from furthering my pursuit of knowledge (from the academic sphere, from peers, from the industry) as well as being able to document process and educate / inspire other researchers who were just beginning to learn the practice.

After spending over a year on my own, I have learned to truly appreciate the freedom I have had to learn, read, write, share, interact, network and truly inspire others while taking on a less exhausting schedule of fieldwork.

I have also had the opportunity to spend time analyzing years of data generated from client-side experience on how to most efficiently customize work depending onthe culture of a client organization.  In addition to that, I have been learning a great deal from my peers (thanks to active dialogs on social networking sites liked LinkedIn) about the path to understanding we all take in brand strategy / innovation / consumer research spaces.

It has been nothing short of invigorating.  I look forward to next steps where I can actually make the time to spend at Industry conferences learning from others and sharing my point of view. I also look forward to the opportunity to help this practice grow, whether on my own or at a respected research organization with the talent, resources and desire to innovate.

That being said, there is one thing I know for certain.  I will NEVER give up fieldwork.  Given the empathetic nature of this profession, it would be a grave misstep to think that evolution can come from spending all my time learning, writing, speaking and managing.  In order to INSPIRE, which is a core priority for my journey, It is critical to stay grounded in practice.

I am hoping that the pioneers who have preceded and inspired my journey and those who will follow chose the same path.  I am interested to hear from others who have a point of view on our continually emerging field of consumer research via Consumer Anthropology.