Tag Archives: consumer anthropology

Brands Taking Responsibilty For Inspiring Social Change: Dove’s “Real Beauty” Sketches as a Dialogue-Starter


In today’s consumer culture driven world – especially here in the United States, brands are starting to become a required participant, if not leader, of conversations about social change.   It’ s part of a macro trend related to empowered consumerism and the shifting balance of power between civil society, government and corporations.  Specifically, government is becoming less and less the dominant force behind social change as civil society begins using their economic influence to encourage corporations (who rely on them to sustain their business) to use the power of their global marketing reach to make a difference.

The challenge for corporations (and brands in particular) is finding that social issue or cause that is relevant and credible and participating in a meaningful way.  This has actually become its own industry – but that’s a conversation for another day.

I have observed, in my study of consumer culture, the burden of the backlash for many of these corporations and brands.  On the one hand, you see a lot of big players  who try to do the right thing but then get dinged for “creating the problem” in the first place. It’s a “between a rock and a hard place” situation for many of these brands.  Coca- Cola is one example of a company / brand in the hot seat, which I  blogged about when they launched their campaign to help combat the growing obesity problem.

Today’s example, however, comes from some work I am dong with a global panel of Cultural Creatives.  When asked about brands they have affinity for, one participant in the dialogue talked about her “love / hate” relationship with the Dove Real Beauty campaign, and their latest Real Beauty Sketches (see below)

The issue is that, while many people find fault with the fact that none of the women are “traditionally” unattractive and they are mostly Caucasian, the work still sparks a conversation – and it’s the social conversation that is most important.  In this case, the dialogue is about how our perceptions of our own physical beauty are often a reflection of unnecessary insecurities put upon us by “others” as a result of media or other “smoke and mirrors” influences – and that these detrimental self perceptions can have a negative impact on how we interact with the world.

So, kudos to Dove and any other brand that takes a risk by starting a controversial conversation, because culture only changes when we test our boundaries encourage people to react.   A little bit of context shift goes a long way.

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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

Rebranding Financial Services: A Human Insight Based Business Model


Today I decided that rather than working from home I would check out “that new coffee shop” a few miles down the road in the newly gentrified downtown area of this small-ish southern town I live in.

I had noticed several times that the Copper Coin coffee shop shared signage with something called Acru: Money + Life.  The first is indeed a coffee shop and the second a financial advisor firm.  But they are not two separate businesses.  They occupy the same space – by design.

Acru is the financial services partner to a community bank, founded by the son of a bank president who saw the need for a different approach to providing financial and life planning services.  He felt that having an aesthetic and productive  space where community members could gather over pleasantries like a cup of coffee provides a more empathetic environment for what can be a fairly intimidating topic.
But the space isn’t just office on one side and coffee shop on the other.  It has a community conference room that can be rented (for free) for entrepreneurs and folks like me who work from home a lot to have a meeting space.  There is bleacher seating in one of the center spaces opposite a wall that has a retractable screen where people can come to free seminars on topics like resume building.  There is even a cozy and quiet-ish living room space in the back where you can settle in with a good book or have a more private conversation.  But as i look around while writing this blog, there are at least three iPad assisted conversations happening with financial advisors and clients at coffee shop tables and in restaurant style seating booths.

In a conversation with one of the advisors she was able to tell me all about the founders vision.  When I mentioned I worked in brand strategy she was pleased to show me the book on brand identity that her coffee was sitting on, in which the Acru brand is featured.  She also handed me some readily available marketing materials that shared a bit more about the unique and forward thinking holistic approach of their business.

The focus is very human insight  oriented (which parallels with a macroforce currently driving the evolution of consumer culture).  Their tagline “Money + Life” sums it up quite well.  And you won’t find dollar signs anywhere in their brand packets or materials.  Rather, you will see images of flower fields and family snapshots.  You will see words like : clarity, wisdom, community, stories and well-being.  Lines like “your well-being extends beyond finances. It’s about family, business, education and the future” and “we believe wealth is defined by how you live your life, net your net worth”.

This kind of approach is a strong departure from bigger firms who focus exclusively on financial accrual and base levels of service tiers on net worth.
It stands to reason that referrals come a lot easier in a space where you can walk in to a coffee shop setting and have a conversation rather than walking into a corporate high rise to meet with guys in suits and have your parking validated.  As a matter of fact, there is a financial advisor standing at a welcome desk in the middle of the space at all times with a chalk-written welcome message to answer questions from anyone who walks in and offer to buy you a cup of coffee if you want to sit down and have a chat.

It’s a kinder, gentler, balance-oriented approach to helping a new generation  and / or new mindset of  investors get control over their finances while putting that topic in balanced perspective with their life priorities and happiness.
It speaks strongly to the trends of consumer empowerment, holistic health and the new conceptual economy we are entering in to.

It’s an infusion of fresh air into an industry that has been characteristically viewed as stuffy and riddled with a hint of distrust and anxiety.  But at Acru, they sprinkle a little cream and sugar in to help the conversation go down a little easier.  I will be eager to see how well this trend catches on.

Here are some images of the space for a little context:

Macroforces and Changing Consumer Culture: Advancing Human Insights


At Northstar, we continue to keep an eye on macroforces that are driving change in global culture and consequently consumer culture.   A recent post discussed Mass Urbanization and its implications for consumer culture :https://thebrandsherpa.wordpress.com/2012/08/15/macroforces-and-changes-in-global-consumer-culture-part-1-mass-urbanization/

In the spirit of helping our clients and peers continue to answer the questions of “What’s going on out there, does it matter to us and if so what are we going to do about it” I would like to elaborate on another  of the several macroforces we are keeping an eye on and what it means for the future of consumer culture.

It is important to note here that the macroforces impacting our lives do not all necessarily exist in a vacuum.  Rather, they can indeed influence and be influenced by one another.  The macoroforce of Advancing Human Insights is one such phenomenon that is remarkably influenced and formed by advances in communication technology as well as globalization.  It also, as force that is gaining momentum, is perhaps the most strongly human-culture driven force out there.  We designate it as a macoforce because it is a phenomenon that has gained very strong momentum in a short period of time and is having a significant impact on life as we know it.

We see this macroforce present in trends such as

  • Ongoing advances in food and nutrition
  • Increasing focus on fitness and healthy lifestyles
  • Monitoring of global happiness as a measure of success, e.g.: Gross National Happiness, The Happy Planet Index, The Relative Happiness Index

Following in the footsteps of Nicolas Sarkozy, UK Prime Minister David Cameron has directed the Office of National Statistics to develop metrics to measure the UK’s “general well-being.” Happiness indices have received a fair amount of press in recent years since Nobel Laureate economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen began advocating a move away from a exclusively economic view of gross domestic product towards a model that takes into account less concrete measures, such as sustainability and, yes, well-being.

So how does this evolution impact consumer culture?

For starters, it will have an impact on our global workforce.  Especially in more developed economies, we will see fewer workers willing to sacrifice lifestyle balance for the sake of a big paycheck.  Definitions of success will becoming increasingly rooted in ability to be happy, healthy, socially and financially successful.  This is in opposition, of course, to the relentless pursuit of financial success.   That means values will become more important than status and thus consumers will increasingly scrutinize their spending priorities based on the value products and brands bring to their life and the lives of others.

Consumers will also continue to be more mindful of health and wellness and how their consumption contributes or detracts from that pursuit.

They will begin to increasingly embrace the power they have to both pursue their own happiness and personal fulfillment as well as impact that of others: locally and globally.

Consumers in the developed world will start seeking more wisdom from “old world” cultural roots on how to live a fulfilling life.  There will be a strong spiritual influence here as well as the influence of longstanding cultural traditions.  We will seek our roots to seek meaning and ultimately rediscover our “humanity”.

Consumers will begin to require more substance than style and more art than efficiency.  They will seek ways to use their consumption to forward the pursuit of happiness of others close to them and those they connect to around the world.

What does it mean for brands?
Brands and companies will increasingly be judged not just by their products and marketing but also by their corporate culture:  Is it a place people like to work? Do they treat their employees well?  What are their sustainability policies?  Transparency is a new reality and consumers are increasingly looking to discover the human side of business.

Companies and services that help consumers find and manage balance in their lives by facilitating health and wellness, fitness, self reflection, personal time and even the simplicity of “fun” will grow and thrive in this changing consumer landscape.

Brands with an authentic voice that help to make the world a constructively happy place will also thrive.  Marketing messaging is powerful and global brands that can help humans find  common ground rooted in a more balanced and positive way of life will win a good amount of loyalty, with the side effect of helping to make the world a better in the process.

When all is said and done, the companies and brands that will survive will be those who, from the inside out, do as much as they can to serve their consumers by anticipating and delivering against their increasingly human needs to be better.  This is not an idealist philosophy. It is foresight based on a preponderance of  empirical evidence leading to sociological and anthropological fact.  This global advancement of human insights is directing change in consumer culture at a rapid pace and those brands and companies that can embrace that reality in their heads as well as their hearts and activate against it in business strategies  will no doubt see sustainable ROI as they help consumers lead the way toward a more “human” future.

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…

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