Category Archives: marketing strategy

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.


Context In Professional Sports is Everything: Especially for Marketers!

In a recent post I gave a preview of some perspective I had gotten from some fieldwork we were doing at Northstar on the cultural context of Hockey for Canadians:

The purpose of this work was to prove that, when it comes to reaching sports fans, understanding the context of spectatorship and “fandom” is critical to truly effective media messaging and reach.

You can learn so much by taking the time to incorporate the study of context into any strategic research initiative.  In this case, we were able to use our contextual exploration to not only create a remarkably robust quantitative assessment tool, but to inform the hypotheses that would bring to light some truly new insights.

I am proud of our team and we are proud of this work.  Here are some of the headlines, courtesy of Yahoo Finance:


The Macrocultural Trends Driving Increased Human Interest In Wellbeing

I was recently asked to contribute some perspective for an article on wellbeing trends that was written by a friend of a friend, which i think is an interesting read in and of itself:

Renee asked a few questions:

  • What do you believe are the 2-3 most important emerging trends driving a greater human inquiry toward wellbeing? (For instance, in one of your emails you mentioned “dematerialization” as a trend which may inadvertently creating more question and possibilities to explore wellbeing.)
  •  Why are these trends emerging now? And why do they matter to global companies?
  •  In your highest vision, where could these trends lead us (us as people, us as companies, us as whole societies)?

In returning to the original verbatim brain-dump response I sent, I thought it was interesting to see the context from whence she was able to find a couple of much more concise points.

So, here is my stream of consciousness on where we got to the interest in all this “well being” business.  😉

Sit down with a long-drinkin’ beverage and enjoy:

First: Surface culture versus deep culture balance seeking

One trend that has been emerging on a global scale…especially in places like the emerging third world / BRIC countries is a palpable cultural tension driving consumers to find a balance between the new drivers of economic gain/status/consumption and connection/homage to what is in many cases hundreds or thousands of years of cultural and spiritual tradition.

Economic globalization (more access to “stuff” due to economic prosperity) combined with the proliferation of communication technology (our ability to facilitate dialogues and have access to information) has allowed humans to see and discuss the impact of economic prosperity for better or for worse and to really examine the values that are truly important….rather than relying on propoganda or invented popular culture as our soul source of stimulus and input on what’s right or wrong.

To give you an idea of how why that is significant…in America, when we were an up-and-coming middle class nation starting in the mid century, the only exposure we had to shape our norms / values / priorities / ideals was the content that was choicefully curated and broadcast on our limited communications mediums…TV, Radio, periodicals, etc. Therefore, we (for better or worse, come ambition or depression) believed that the path to happiness and prosperity was through working hard and accumulating “stuff”. That lead to a generation of Baby boomers who sacrificed time with their family and having balance for the promise of pensions and economic stability. Then Gen Y came of age watching their boomer parents lose their jobs, pensions and stability after having sacrificed their passions, and oftentimes relationships with their children. NOW, gen Y in America is re-examining their priorities toward a more realistic balance. BUT what we don’t talk about is that their parent’s generaiton didn’t have any access to what was going on in the rest of the world, an understanding of diverse spiritual and cultural traditions, etc….because they were living in a bubble.

There is no more bubble. The emerging middle class nations now are coming up in a time when they do have all kinds of access that allows them to objectively see how other humans prioritize and also the failures of priorities gone wrong on other nations who have “been there and done that”.

This is important to companies on many levels: because they will have to develop business practices (from employment policies to brand strategies) that are human-centric and prioritize the importance of honoring cultural and spiritual traditions as well as economic ambition and managing the “triple bottom line” of People, Planet, Profit.

I think this trend will continue to shape how humans view their place in the world as consumers and their responsibility to other humans and to maintaining a connection to our humanity. It will mean that we will be increasingly more desirous of higher order benefits from our work as well as our consumption practices.

I suppose it goes without saying (but I should say it anyway) that many cultural traditions are rooted in maintaining a connection between our minds and our bodies and other humans and the planet. Spirituality in many eastern senses is about harnessing positive energy to sustain your existence and contribute to a harmonious society. That is well-being at its core and is, in actuality, old news we are reminding ourselves of as we get pulled in by the “shiny things” that come with economic prosperity. In many ways, the emerging third world is lightyears ahead of the developed world in that respect, but we are catching up with the “wellness’ trends (in the developed world) BECAUSE we are seeing the value it brings to other cultures…by virtue of the fact that we no longer live in that “bubble”….

Second: Consumers taking responsibility for facilitating human equality

Again, caused by the proliferation of communication technology and our ability to see the consequences of globalization and the reality of human inequality, humans are becoming more cognizant of the realities that affect other humans…and are able to see pictures painted of other humans around the world, realizing that regardless of our differences we share mostly the same basic ideals and needs.

We are also, because of the emergence of more middle class individuals with more spending power due to globalization, feeling more empowered by our economic access: we see how much influence we have with our purchase power. This is true mostly of developed cultures who have had capitalism hanging around for a while. We are used to being marketed to and having lots of choices and are seeing that how we spend affects what companies do. And we are starting to see that our dollars, in no matter how small an amount on an individual level, have an impact when we act as a collective toward a common goal.

We are therefore not only starting to demand that the companies we buy from do more to benefit society, but demand more from ourselves. We are starting to find more impactful ways to make our money count. This is evident in the rapid growth of microfinance, for example….and on a more conceptual level with crowd-sourced venture capital concepts like Kickstarter ( which empower creativity and entrepreneuriship.

This is important for companies because they need to understand that the impact they have on the world is significant and being watched….placing a responsibility on those companies to behave in ways that further the cause of equality and don’t polarize the “haves” and “have nots”. It also means that they are no longer just competing against other big, well funded companies, but against individuals who are being activated and empowered by masses of other individuals.

I believe this trend will continue and we will see a more level playing-field emerge in both the third world as well as developed nations. We will see more entrepreneurship and creativity and people carving out their own destiny / path that is driven by passion and funded by…literally…human-centric ideals. It will also lend to a continuation of the first trend I mentioned regarding seeking basic balance between our ambition and our traditions…but also an overall mind-body-soul balance because we will be empowered to achieve on our own terms and create new concepts / ways of doing business centered around those ideals.

At the end of the day, empowering others makes us feel good. It enhances our sense of well-being and encourages us to examine our own personal priorities regarding happiness and health and the importance of each relative to our other more pragmatic financial or ego-driven priorities.

A Brand Sherpa In The Midst of Hockey Fans in Canada

I have never been a hockey fan.

At least I never made a point to be. But I think that will change for me when it comes to next year’s Stanley Cup.

I have been directing a “lets do something interesting” project at Northstar over the past few weeks centered around the idea that professional sports properties and the brands / marketers that support them can build deeper and stronger brand connections by understanding the psycho-social and cultural context of sports spectatorship.

We developed a strategic research model designed to explore that context with qualitative and ethnographic work that would inform a quantitative tool for modeling the “meaning”. 🙂 In choosing where to start, from our office in Toronto, the “no-brainer” came to us….Lets study the context of NHL Hockey in Canada!

Without giving away all the Jewels that the PR people are responsible for, I felt compelled to share some of my nerdy anthropological “Ah- Has”.

For example: There are no Canadian teams left to vie for t the Stanley Cup(arguably the most iconic trophy in professional sports), but do you think that has deterred Canadians from their commitment to loyal viewership? Or a decline in social media chatter among Canadians. No way, Eh! Social media chatter about the NHL during the playoffs was still up by 3-fold compared to regular season.

Why?  this game is no mere recreational activity or time-filling side item for the Canadian populace.  It’s a part of their lifestyle and life blood…a Zietgiest, even.

From the time they are old enough to walk, most Canadians have at least played if not spent countless hours watching brothers, friends or other relatives play.  And this is a sport that represents their adaptation to what can be a pretty cold climate for a good portion of the year.  What do you do when the pond freezes over?  Strap some blades or your feet and show your agility, coordination and team spirit!

And lets also talk about how Canadians perceive the way they are seen as a people by the rest of the world.  It’s no coincidence that American backpacking youth strap Canadian flags on their backs when traveling outside the U.S.  Canada is seen as a fairly neutral, docile, harmless country and culture.  They have a reputation for civility and a mild-mannered disposition.  But lest the world think Canadians can’t be warriors if called to the challenge, take a look at the National Sport of Hockey:  arguably one of the more bloody, full body contact sports that involves both a sharp mind and intensely physical skill set.  It’s almost as though Hockey is Canada’s cultural foil and it provides a sense of unity to a nation that really doesn’t have a common enemy to speak of.

I also learned a good deal about the role of engagement with the NHL brand and the sport among varying life-stages of Canadian fans.  For the younger groups, as an example (and specifically younger males), engagement with the sport is incredibly social at its root:  always watched in small to large groups.  Most of the time out at a bar (maybe there will be girls there?).  Deep engagement in social media, following stats and fantasy sports.  Why?  Cultural currency?  Analytical peacocking to compliment the testosterone fuel.  From trash-texting to out-doing peers on hockey expertise, it’s an age old ritual of finding your place in the social group and positioning yourself for mating rights.  🙂

As mean get more settled into family life-stages they tend to have already narrowed down their social groups and watch most often in private or subdued-settings. They start creating traditions and memories with their kids.  They get more involved in the reality-TV side of non-game-watching engagement:  attempting to empathize with players and teams and find deeper, more meaningful emotional connections to the sport.

And then there are the women.  Sure, Canada over-indexes on hard-core female hockey fans when you compare to female engagement with other professional sports, but there is a distinct difference in the way women engage overall.  For example, if you look at Canadian Moms, the root of their interaction with  NHL hockey is as a social bonding facilitator:  with their families, husbands,, etc.  Having baseline surface knowledge about the sport is often enough to get by, but the engagement  is mostly about curating traditions and memory-making moments for their families…and about showing a commitment to relating to the family and friends that are important to them by actively engaging in their passions.

So what does all this mean for brands who are looking to the NHL as a marketing resource?

First:  if you are going to attempt to meaningfully reach Canadians during hockey season, make sure you have a legitimate right to a point of view on the sport, or the culture of the sport.  Showing a little empathy for the distinct context of Hockey in Canadian life will go a long way in driving respect for your brand

Second:  Dig into the engagement nuances by age and life stage.  There are many distinctions based on demographics and psychographics that, if considered in media planning, can dramatically increase efficiency of a brands marketing spend

Third:  don’t forget the WOMEN!  Even professional men’s hockey / The NHL isn’t just about testosterone and dudes drinking beer.  The Moms are shopping for the groceries and ordering the pizza that will feed their house guests at game time.  They are also the ones taking their kids to hockey practice and strapping on their skates.  There are lots of opportunities to reach women and moms on both a grassroots level and with traditional media.  Empowering Mom to be a her0 and find deeper connections with her families through hockey will potentially facilitate a deeper consumer connection to brands and even deeper fan engagement with the NHL.

In the coming week, we will be closing out the quantitative validation and measurement phase of this study focused on NHL hockey.  We will be preparing a full report that includes highly directive and actionable insights and implications for marketers and brands.

Anyone interested in purchasing this study can contact me directly:

Otherwise, I am eager to hear your reactions.  And eager to bulk up on my sports knowledge for our next study…NFL here I come?

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!

Better Businiess and a Better World Via Better Strategic Research

I am currently enjoying a refreshing perspective on restructuring capitalist ideals for modern life. It suggests and illustrates philosophies and practices that both adapt to and anticipate the needs and consequences of a modern globalized economy and consumer culture.

In The New Capitalist Manifesto, Umair Haque talks about Constructive Capitalism; a disruptive and productive way for business to create what he calls “thick” value that sustains.

He talks about “socio-productivity”, which means creating markets and industries for those whom orthodox capitalism is unable to serve…creating “impossible” new markets…essentially giving all of “us” humans the power to play the game and improve our collective experience. He uses the example of Tata motors and their creation of the Nano: a super-low cost car for the poor living in ultra-urbanized emerging markets.

What IF we could use the power of human understanding, empathy and consumer insight to help make life more fulfilling for everyone? I have a wide-eyed vision that through practices like Consumer Anthropology, we can do just that.

Consumer Anthropology asserts there are several contextual spheres of influence involved in the creation, dissemination and evolution of consumer culture. Among those, at a minimum, are 3 C’s: Clients (organizations seeking to sell a product or idea), macro Culture (macro forces and people trends) and Consumers (attitudes, values, behaviors, etc.). Breakthrough innovation happens when at least these three spheres find synergy.

Imagine if every brand actively practiced this kind of holistic simultaneous understanding: of themselves, the world they live in, and their consumer. They would consistently be able to deliver not only better products and marketing, but would likely be inspired to do so using increasingly sustainable business practices.

They would find ways to serve the underserved in unique ways that both satisfied unmet consumer needs and shareholder value requirements. And most likely, shareholders and employees (who, as it turns out, are also humans and consumers) will feel a higher sense of purpose, knowing that they have the power, privilege and obligation to address the bigger needs of the world we all live in. And there the “thick” value cycle starts and continues.

Oh, the vision of a Utopian marketplace powered by good intentions. And here’s a secret you may not be party to just yet: I’ve learned it from years of participant observation in this business: it’s totally possible. 😉

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!