Tag Archives: anthropology

Culture Trumps Strategy


I was recently interviewed by a gentleman named Francois Gossieaux, co-author of The Hyper-Social Organization and co-founder of C Suite 2.0 

The topic was the role the study of culture plays (or should play) in the business of brand strategy.

Here is a “taste” of the article, but for more, including full text and a link to the full podcast interview, click HERE

My first episode of the Culture Trumps Strategy show with Jamie Gordon, the VP of Anthropology at Northstar, was a great one. Jamie always thought of herself as a participant observer in her own life, which led her to become an anthropologist. She learned the ropes as a consumer anthropologist by working for market research and brand strategy firms.

Jamie uses a framework called the study of context to understand and predict consumer behavior in the marketplace. The study of context consists of understanding what she calls the three C’s, which are the three layers of context that are relevant:

  • Client/Category Context – Understanding what happens to them as an organization and within the product category.
  • Cultural Context – The large macro cultural trends that are going on in the world and that might affect the space being researched. This is also where they also look deep cultural aspects vs. trendy things that might affect the buying behavior.
  • Consumer Context – What influences them in their world, and how do they interact with others in their inner circle.The idea is to find the sweet spot of where those three C’s overlap. This method also dispels the more traditional, but increasingly unrealistic, model where you have companies on the one side that create things and put them out in the marketplace with a target consumer in mind, and the consumer on the other side waiting for the company to produce something. While this model may have existed at some point, it does not lend itself to innovation and evolution.

Companies now need to understand that their customers are human first before they are people who buy and consume things. And as humans we are influenced and constrained by what is going on around us – our cultures. It is that culture which will determine what we buy and how we consume things. And the producers are humans first as well, and while they are in the business of creating trends, they are also consumers. So these days products are the result of a cyclical dialog among humans – both from the consumer side and from the producer side. It is this rich dialog that allows for innovation to happen.

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How Millennials’ American Dream Has Become An American Reality and What It Means For Brands


hire me1

Back in 2000 when I began my professional consumer anthropology career, I was working in brand strategy and my focus was “youth” – in particular, helping my clients understand how to connect with Millennials. At that time, they were in a generational age range that comprised everyone from pre-tweens to recent college grads.

To say they are a generation that has gone through a lot of change is an understatement. Pre 2001, Millennials were the new frontier for marketers: having come of age in a time of prosperity and respective peace. They were characterized based on their over-scheduled lifestyles, purchase power (both with regard to their own spending as well as their influence over parent’s purchases), optimism and high expectations for their future and general savvy and awareness of their importance as consumers / desire to be catered to with regard to customized products and experiential marketing.

Then, in 2001, 9-11 irreversibly rocked their thus far un-cracked foundation. They realized very quickly that they were indeed not the center of the universe and that their world was not the invincible bubble they thought it was. While still optimistic about their futures, they began re-evaluating their priorities – in particular the importance of family and community and having a support system. They became more invested in close ties to their parents, tradition and religion as a source of guidance in a now very uncertain social reality. Their parents became even more involved in their lives and developed increasingly peer-like relationships whereby open dialogues about anything from social coming-of-age issues to personal family financial issues became fair game.

Then as an even larger group of Millennials were graduating college and entering / rounding out their first several years in the work force, America’s previously untouchable economy took a nose dive. The “dot bomb” crash that happened during the span of time between 2000 and 2012 didn’t have nearly the impact that the economic crisis of 2007 and 2008 where they witnessed the collapse of everything from the housing markets to financial institutions and automotive companies.
They watched their parents, who had in many cases sacrificed many of the fundamentals of family life and quality time in favour of two-income households and financial security, lose their jobs, investments and homes and consequently became sucked up by a wave of distrust in corporations and institutions. Not to mention they were entering a less than optimal work force, if they could get a job at all.

Many Millennials ended up back at home with their parents after college and / or back in school trying to give themselves a leg up. But net / net they ended up a generation caught in limbo as they tried to bust out of their socially-induced extended adolescence into adulthood.

Now, looking at America’s new generation of young adults and young families, the American Dream has morphed into a new American Reality. How has this impacted their outlook? There are positives and negatives to the realities they have experienced:

Technological Innovation: Lets not forget the power that evolution in communication technology has had toward creating a profoundly connected and savvy generation. Despite the many challenges faced from a socio-political and economic standpoint, this generation is the most empowered by access to information and one another. They have embraced virtual platforms in knowledge sharing and networking to connect to one another and activate not just an American culture but also participate in a global culture entrepreneurship and change. They are spearheading the conceptual economy empowered by technology and as a result are creating a new type of workforce and making headway on securing a brighter future for their generation and those to come.

Social networking platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn provide unparalleled connection resources. Online media platforms like YouTube, WordPress and Reddit also allow unparalelled access to getting your message out there and sharing those that are most worthy. Millennials have the power to create their own media influences rather than being subject to them and that makes all the difference in empowering a generational culture.

Raising their Voice: Having born witness to the onset of financial, social and political instability both on their own turf and around the world, American youth have taken activism and addressing social issues to a new level. Social responsibility has become a part of the fabric of their being and they use all the resources at their disposal to make it part of their day to day: using technology platforms as well as their spending power to support good causes and raise up new ones every day.

From Kickstarter (an alternative funding platform for entrepreneurs) and Etsy (online shopping for hand crafted goods) to programs like the “It Gets Better” project (itgetsbetter.org) that combats the high suicide rate among gay and lesbian youth by showcasing inspiring video messages from celebrities and adult gays and lesbians who have been there and moved on. Not to mention movements like Occupy, the growing “green” consumption and local food trends that have had multi-generational influence by have been embraced and championed by younger consumers.

Financial pragmatism: With all of the financial instability this generation has experienced, budgeting, discounts and smart spending are a permanent part of their vernacular. Young people tend to be stereotyped with expectations of behaviour geared toward instant gratification and peacocking (in this day and age with brands, etc.). But Millennials are far from short-sighted and frivolous. They are entering the workforce carrying student loan debt, paying off credit cards and delaying expensive purchases.

There are apps galore (like Scout Mob and Foursquare) to help them save money . They seek advice from their parents on considered purchases like cars, opting for practicality versus flash and unlike any other previous generation are more inclined to give up four wheels all together for alternative transportation. In a recent study, nearly half of 18-24 year old drivers said that if forced to make the choice they would rather have access to the Internet over a car!

Holistic Balance-Seekers: Their financial pragmatism is only part of the bigger picture. Inspired by lessons-learned form watching parents pay the price for commitment to work and making money over following their passions and spending more time with family, Millennials have been forging a new path to fulfilment. Having watched the aforementioned financial collapse, they are realizing there is more to life than building net worth. This is a generation who would rather have a job with purpose or one that fuels their passions then make lots of money.

Many Millennials have, however, taken that traditional route only to have early-onset midlife crises. I can’t tell you how many conversations I have had with disillusioned late twenty-somethings who have already burned out on their high paying professional careers and decided to go back to school or start an entrepreneurial endeavour that makes them happy. One young lawyer told me “I’m 29 and already burned out. I’m sick of working 70-hour weeks for something I’m not passionate about. I’ve decided to quit and put together a business plan to open up a bakery.”

Entrepreneurial Motivation: Lest you think that this New American Reality has beaten Millennials down, be reassured that this generation is nothing if not resilient. They have all kinds of power in their hands and they know how to use it. On the brink of an emerging conceptual economy they are bursting with ideas, energy and entrepreneurial spirit. Millennials are empowered by technological, social and economic platforms of their own creation (per previously mentioned examples) to find their niche and succeed. They may try on several careers in their lifetimes, but they will definitely not stop until they have gotten it right, setting the stage for “Gen Z” and others to come by showing them that not only can you change the system from within the system, but you can create a whole new one…all you need is the will and you can find the way.

So how do you make sure your brand is relevant to today’s savvy and empowered Millennial customer?

Empower their ambition: be a source of support and inspiration and provide platforms that help forward their entrepreneurial spirit

Listen to them: Brand building and innovation should be a dialogue, not a monologue…and who better to help you evolve then a generation committed to new concepts and ideas!

Use technology to facilitate connections: Don’t be afraid to connect with your customers. Utilizing online and mobile platforms is a smart way to connect with Millennials in their context and shows your commitment to dialogue.

Be a source of stability: for brands who have sustained over time, longevity is an asset and can have strong emotional resonance with this generation who has seen a lot of turmoil in their young lives. Authenticity – a hallmark of brand value for Millennials, starts with having a heritage to call upon.

Be Optimistic: a positive attitude is contagious. Make your brand an easy choice by virtue of its good energy.

Have a point of view and walk the walk: Millennials seek to live lives of purpose and gravitate toward brands that can express a unique purpose of their own. Take ownership of your brand’s perspective and make a point to consistently communicate that voice in your marketing communications and activate that within your corporate culture. They will know and if they trust in your intention they will also follow.

Most importantly, take the time to understand their context and take the initiative to understand how and where your brand fits. A little insight goes a long way in making human connections that can seed la generation of loyal customers

A Peek Into Context: Millennials Blog About Their New American Reality


In my anthropological studies of American youth, I have unearthed a lot of insights about the emerging mindset and values shift towards a more balanced, holistic perspective.  I have even used a turn of phrase to describe how Millennials are no longer seeking the American Dream but living an “American Reality”.

I came across this young blogger (who actually came across another one of my blogs” and thought “here is a brilliant example”.  So, I thought I would share a peek into “James Room”:

Lies My Country Told Me: The Hollow American Dream.

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…

An Anthropologist In Context


I am an anthropologist.

I am a participant observer of this culture we call humankind.

I collect context and derive its meaning.

I attempt to communicate that meaning with empathy.

I do this to contribute to the advancement of human understanding.

I do this to earn a living.

I do this as a passion.

Doing this enhances and advances my other passions.

As with any human my context defines me.

I am an anthropologist.

Wellbeing Trends: The Values Bubble


Quality of Life

Quality of Life (Photo credit: angrywayne)

A couple of posts ago I had shared some of my “raw” thoughts on well being trends that I had given to a friend of a friend for a piece she was writing. It has turned out to be a series addressing a number of macro trends related to well-being, and she has done a good job of curating my “mess” of feedback along with some others.

The topic of her most recent piece is on how consumer values have shifted to increase our focus on well being. Namely, the monumental shift from mid century America to where we are now, driven by trends in communication technology that have allowed us to as a human populace to regularly interact wtih old and new points of veiw and see how the “other” lives in a way that is complimentary or detrimental to our own lifestyles…thus allowing us to practice more informed curation of values.

You can read Renee Morefield’s article in Marmapoints here:
http://marmapoints.org/features/317-good-health-is-trending

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”.   – http://home.snu.edu/~hculbert/points.htm

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.