Category Archives: innovation strategy

A Perspective On The Context Of Millennial Brand Engagement From the AMA

I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel hosted by my company, Northstar Research Partners, for a discussion on Millennials at a meeting of the Toronto chapter of the AMA.
Below is a clip from that event where I am responding to a conversation about Millennials as consumers and the importance of brands having a dialogue.  It was such an interesting conversation and I was delighted to share the stage with Nicole Galluci from Boom Marketing and Greg Ambrose from Coca Cola Canada.


Self Driving Cars: What Is The Ultimate Impact of Low-Effort Mobility?

Self Driving Cars: What Is The Ultimate Impact of Low-Effort Mobility?.

Guest Blogger Feature: Coke’s Tom LaForge On “The New Logic For How To Succeed In Business”

Tom LaForge

Tom LaForge (Photo credit: sociate)

A client and friend of mine, Tom Laforge; Global Director of Human and Cultural Insights at Coca-Cola, sent me a note with the content below and asked if I would allow him a forum on my blog to express his thoughts.

My response was an effusive “but of course”.  I am always eager to hear and spread the thinking of thought leaders in brand strategy, marketing and research.  I have frequently gotten inspiration from Tom, who is a force for spreading the imperative of human understanding at Coca-Cola and a change agent who is helping direct the culture of global brands toward helping to make the world a better place.

I thank you for your insights, Tom.


The overall environment in which business is operating is changing in a very simple way. Civil society is becoming more and more empowered every day. This is caused by a lot of things, particularly the internet which provides a ton of information and social media which allows them to share how they feel about that information. Social media also empowers them to do something about it. Smart businesses realize this trend will only continue. If it is not already the dominant force in your industry, it will be by 2020.

This is not a problem for companies that civil society likes. Which ones do they like? The ones that demonstrate that they “care and want for the wellbeing of others as they do their own.”

Business has always been about making money and it still is. What is now becoming increasingly clear is that the best strategy for making money is to be an ally with civil society. When everything a company does and says conveys that they “care and want for the wellbeing of others as they do their own” they are simply employing the most effective strategy for doing what they want to do – make money.

Alexis de Tocqueville called it “self-interest properly understood” by which he meant that you pursue your own self-interest in a way that does not impede others from pursuing their self-interests. Nobody wants to deny companies the right to pursue their own self-interest – they just have to do in a way that does not harm others. Simple.

So do people believe that your firm does indeed “care and want for the wellbeing of others as they do their own?” I hope so, because this is how your company will thrive! When consumers find a company that “cares and wants for the wellbeing of others as they do their own” they flock to it, they Tweet and Facebook about it, they become loyal to it. They recommend and love it.

This is the new logic for how to succeed in business.


Macroforces And Changes In Global Consumer Culture: Mass Urbanization

Normal, crowded street in Bombay.

Normal, crowded street in Bombay. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a part of my day-to-day and that of the Chief Culture Officer at Northstar Research, we stay pretty keenly focused on the macroforces that are shaping the world and what that means for humans and consumer culture.
We always encourage our clients and our internal teams to ask three big questions:

“What’s going on out there?”

“Does it matter to us?”

“If so, what are we going to do about it?”

These are pretty basic questions but also pretty big questions.  And in order to really grasp the magnitude of the task it’s important to start with a solid foundation of understanding based on the big picture.

At Northstar, we have focused on 7 big-picture macroforces.   To start off, I would like to talk about one that has been a topic of interest among several of my clients lately:  Mass Urbanization

  • Today, half the world’s population (i.e. 3 billion) lives in urban areas.
  • Three million people move to cities in the developing world every week – mostly from subsistence farms (OECD 2010).
  • Global urban populations will grow by nearly 2 billion in the next 20 years, and by 2050, about 70% of the world’s population will be in cities in the developing world (Nielsen 2011).

So, what does that mean for consumer-focused brands?  Well, for starters it means taking a look at how your organization defines “urban”.  Chances are that conception is skewed by a fairly ethnocentric, western context.  What we view as the realities and lifestyle impact of urban living in the developed world is likely very different from the reality of urbanization as it is evolving, especially in emerging markets.

America and the developed world’s concept of “urban” is rooted in an ethnocentric perspective based on a very specific sociocultural trajectory

From our western point of view, we see Urban life as having a very distinct cultural context:
  • Melting Pot Cities:  a multi-ethnic collection of citizens from diverse backgrounds and geographies who are all both challenged and enriched by one another’s presence
  • Distinct racial divides between the haves and have-nots (in America specifically): in particular, urban “ghetto” culture is characterized by African American and Hispanic minorities
  • A more class-warfare driven concept of street culture and youth culture in particular:  e.g., Rap / Hip-Hop music, street art and graffiti, and celebration of athletic prowess  like Basketball as a “golden ticket” to upward mobility

Bit if you look at the more likely cultural realities of  the mass-migrants to urban areas from a more rural and disconnected upbringing in emerging markets, there is a distinct difference.  In particular, you see a stronger cultural tension between that geography’s deep culture and the culture that is more timely, topical and surface level

New urbanites in emerging markets are likely:

  • Carrying with them internalized “deep culture” from an upbringing steeped in centuries old traditions:  such as deeply held spiritual traditions and family centric values in Eastern cultures
  • Following an accelerated learning curve (compared to the historical trajectory experienced in the developed world)and urban acculturation path: due to the rapid spread of globalization / capitalism and augmented by the proliferation and adoption of communication technology.  People can see both the pros and cons of how capitalism and rapid growth has affected human culture for better or worse…and they are adjusting their consumer behavior according to that information and their assessment of their personal priorities
  •   Experiencing a far more homogeneous ethnic context than in the developed world:  like in India or Asia where most people in urban centers “look alike”  and come from regions with similar socio-political realities and far  more similar (although diverse)  spiritual and cultural traditions

So, that’s a peek at what is “going on out there” from a mass urbanization perspective.  And every company that markets a global brand…especially those with a perceived urban target, should answer in the affirmative to “does it matter to us?”

That being said, there are more macroforces to consider.  Stay tuned.  But if you are a stakeholder on a global brand to consider what the other macroforces mean and what you’re going to do about it…

Defining The Focus and End Goal of Applying Consumer Anthropology: Companies, Brands and Products

As a part of training and development for Consumer Anthropology at Northstar, I have been putting together a “handbook” / training guide to help researchers (both green and seasoned) understand the role 0f this practice area and how it is applied.

In the spirit of beginning with the end in mind, It was important for me to make sure to include a foundation in philosophy and theory as well as in the definition of those social agents that impact and are impacted by consumers:  The company, the brand and products.

So, I started by taking to the academic publications and then turned loose on LinkedIn, posing the questions to practicing academic and private sector anthropologists.

Here is where I netted out, but of course welcome a continued conversation in the spirit of constant evolution:

A Company is a functional collection of humans within our culture

Company is what Malinowski calls “an institution” in the broader anthropological and sociological sense. It is the basic unit in a socio/cultural system. Its product(s) is its function(s) in and contribution to in a larger system. Since a company is a human institution it could be sole proprietor of an ice cream stand with  three ice cream flavors as the, or Goldman-Sachs, with the financial system of United States of America as its product.

Products are the outputs of human ingenuity and are definitive part of human culture

“As for the term “product,” it is the output of a company. It requires the transformation of raw materials (physical, human, or intellectual) into something that has value in the marketplace”.  – Barry Bainton

“A third part of our definition of culture is “products.” Human thought and behavior often lead to the production of material artifacts or tools. In this people are not alone; other forms of life also make and use simple tools. Birds make nests; some ants use sticks as prods; caged monkeys use sticks to get bananas. But in transmitting knowledge to successive generations so that it becomes cumulative, humans are distinctive. And as human knowledge and technology grow, human tools become increasingly complex, and growing bodies of information stimulate an even more rapid rate of expansion”.   –

A Brand is an IDEA, completely dependent on collective culture’s interaction with and perceptions of products and companies

“A brand is a process of attaching an idea to a product. Decades ago that idea might have been strictly utilitarian: trustworthy, effective, a bargain. Over time, the ideas attached to products have become more elaborate, ambitious and even emotional. This is why, for example, current branding campaigns for beer or fast food often seem to be making some sort of statement about the nature of contemporary manhood. If a product is successfully tied to an idea, branding persuades people — consciously or not — to consume the idea by consuming the product. Even companies like Apple and Nike, while celebrated for the tangible attributes of their products, work hard to associate themselves with abstract notions of nonconformity or achievement. A potent brand becomes a form of identity in shorthand.  – Walker, Rob.  2006.  The Brand Underground.  New York Times, July 30, 2006

A ‘brand’ is much like an ‘imagined community,’ a symbolic cluster that’s partially created by the company & its partners (advertisers, PR) and partially created by the consumer community (both those who invest in the brand and those who avoid it)”. –  Greg Downey, Macquarie University

At the end of our work day, the study of consumer culture involves the study of companies, brands and products alongside thw culture of consumption.  Ultimately, however, the benefactors of that work are also the same objects of study.   It is because all three of these are intensely human in nature and driven by culture.  We explore the context of that culture to bring meaning and meaningful change to the way we do business and the way we “consume” our world.

Is The Brand Sherpa a Culturematic?

When I started The Brand Sherpa, it was an experiment. I was a freelance consumer anthropologist and brand strategist who was seeking an outlet for my point of view. The exact outcome was uncertain: would I sustain a consulting business? Would I get have some interesting conversations and to hobnob with other practitioners in my field?  Would I “go global”? The results thus far have been both interesting and invigorating.

I got to spend about a year and a half working on projects for companies like Coca-Cola, Unilever, BeDo (Marc Matthieu’s former Sustainability-focused consulting business) and Toyota doing work that spanned product innovation, creative inspiration, NGO strategy, brand positioning and consumer Targeting Strategy.

I created an interactive digital wall of “Killer Facts” for inspiring brand innovation,, brought Tigers and Wonderland to the World of Coke (both live!), developed a (modest) blog following, got to contribute a chapter to a market research text book, learned how to crack an accounts-receivable whip, got myself a Trademark and fearlessly embraced my entrepreneurial spirit in the heart of a recession.

I had the opportunity to inspire and be inspired, and ultimately have extended my Brand Sherpa experiment to my current role as VP of Consumer Anthropology at Northstar Research Partners (which has so far proved a very satisfying challenge).  A number of unexpected results have come my way and I, as always, look forward to what tomorrow will bring.

This bout of self-indulgent blogging is not without egging-on….or a point….

I have been reading Culturematic, a new anthropological perspective on leveraging “randomness” in consumer culture by Consumer Anthropologist Grant McCracken. He elaborates on viral memes and social experiments, what makes them meaningful and why they are important to marketers. And the website / social network devoted to the book is in itself, an experiment in “what happens next” (
You can buy the book anywhere they sell books, I beleive. But here is a link via the Better World Books site:

I have also “lent out” a copy to a local Atlanta watering hole where the walls are lined with books. It’s hidden in the stacks and If you find it, it’s yours to read and pass on. 🙂

I look at my own Brand Sherpa experiment…which is still going strong. But if you read Grant’s book carefully, it is not necessarily a Culturematic. I do, however, live my  life as one big Culturematic.

From one day to the next i fearlessly start conversations, throw out ideas or perform acts of randomness designed to poke at the boundaries and see what happens. I have found it a personally satisfying way to be and wholeheartedly encourage the practice with friends, peers, colleagues and aspiring young “sherpas” who come to me for advice.

I’m a “fan” of Grant McCracken and find this book to be particularly inspiring. Worth a read even if just to nudge you to make your life more Culturematic. 🙂 This is yet another in a line of publications from Grant that takes academic anthropological concepts to mainstream audiences and marketers in a way that makes inspiration both accessible and actionable.

Now go forth and do something random.


Empowerment is the New Influence: Seeding Brand Relevance By Facilitating Social Change

In the world of influencing consumers to try / buy / adopt / advocate for brands, the task in the earliest of days, when “traditional” media was king, was simply to find ways to engage the PASSIVE COLLECTIVE who had both new-found prosperity and idle time as the emerging American middle class.  Brands, in particular, were signifiers of trusted quality , and sheer breadth of reach was enough to influence the masses to consume more masses.  Brands invited consumers to PARTICIPATE in the upward mobility of the middle class by consumption of products.

Then, in the 70s and 80s and 90’s,  in a marketing strategy world most of today’s seasoned marketers grew up in, the epicenter of influence began to lie in celebrity: athletes, actors and public figures whose charisma, market appeal media reach afforded marketers and consumer product companies access to legions of adoring fans who would follow them into the brand-o-sphere.  It was a culture where INFLUENCE was the result of INDIVIDUALS inspiring a PASSIVE audience through media.  Consumers became SPECTATORS of aspirational lifestyles and looked to brands as status symbols in order to emulate the celebrity cultures they admired.

Then the nature of “influence” changed in the last decade or so as the world became increasingly wired and celebrity could be created with a left-click, a blog and a social network. These charismatic and connect individuals and consumers were/are creators of culture, trendsetters  and early-adopters; ahead-of-the-curve,  vociferous and able to wield the power of persuasion over their social networks.  INFLUENCE, therefore became about INDIVIDUALS  AGITATING the status quo, recruiting followers in a more PROACTIVE manner.

Brands became badges that helped consumers curate their own personal brand identities. In a sea of options Consumers had to actively wade through the water and find the hidden treasures that helped them connect to products and make personal choices.

And then something started happening.  Now, we find ourselves transitioning into a new era:  a renaissance where consumers have realized that they (we) have the power.  Networking and the power of the blog have not gone away, but Brand creation, adoption and innovation is no longer limited to a monologue to the masses or even a dialogue amongst a select few trend-transmitters.

Rather, there is an ongoing, cyclical conversation between those who create trends, products and brands and those who consume and them and ultimately contribute to new what’s next.

Put simply, we have evolved FROM A PARADIGM OF INFLUENCE TO AN ETHOS OF EMPOWERMENT.  Real influence comes from the ability to be PROACTIVE and ACTIVATE COLLECTIVE consumers.  Using technology, collaboration and co-creation to empower others to engage, create and innovate.

The implication for brands in this new era of Empowerment is incredibly profound.  Whilst being signifiers of quality and aspiration and personal branding are still foundations of  brand hierarchy of relevance, there is an added pivotal layer.  Brands must also take on the responsibility of empowering consumers:  activating social change by using the power of their collective consumer-bases.

This type of activity will be required for relevance as corporations and brands start to share responsibility with governments and civil society (a nod to my friend Tom LaForge, Global Director of Human and Cultural Insights at the Coca-Cola Company, who has been socializing this type of framework at their organization) for creating meaningful social change that will sustain our way of life (as human on the planet earth, that is).

This perspective on empowerment is central to the way we operate at Northstar Research Partners:  why we approach strategic research using the 3 C’s framework for examining context.  It’s also  why we have a Chief Culture Officer,(taking note from the book of the same title by Grant McCracken; another Consumer Anthropologist) whose job it is to make sure our global organization operates from a consistent examination of context and our clients understand the strategic value of that context.

Musings aside, there is a discipline to empowerment that is rooted first in a strategic  understanding of  your brand context, consumer and cultural context .  If you would like a copy of our white paper on the Empowerment Framework for Brand Strategy Innovation or just have more questions, feel free to reach out!