The New Language of Business Strategy? HTML, CSS, SaaS, PHP, SQL…

I am not a programmer, at least not yet! You might ask: why does a business consultant, consumer researcher, and cultural anthropologist want to embark on becoming a programmer? Easy, these computers are really something! Ok, that is what I tell my teenagers and they laugh at me! But there’s more to “software” right now in business than just “making software.” Every major company is letting “software” define their strategy. Old school financial institutions are hiring software engineers to execute their strategy for example. The C-level might not see it this way, but you just have to look at what they are hiring to realize it is true. Every job description, even non-software engineer jobs, want people to walk through the door with “tech experience,” and some level of programming knowledge. So I am learning to program because I need to learn the new language that guides strategy in business these days.  

Watching a Grown Man Cry in a Grocery Store and Other Ways Your Business Could Use a Chief Anthropologist.

Watching a Grown Man Cry in a Grocery Store and Other Ways Your Business Could Use a Chief Anthropologist.

I’m Chief Anthropologist at idfive. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best and worst job title in marketing today.

When a potential client sees a job title like that in a proposal, I’m sure a white-hot light begins to flash in the part of their brain that processes budgets.

“How do I tell my boss that we’re considering working with a Chief Anthropologist?” they ask themselves while squeezing the life out of a stress ball and shoveling handfuls of antacids into their mouths.

At least, that’s how I imagine it goes.

Chief Anthropologist? More like “Chief of Waste of Time,” am I right?

It probably doesn’t help matters that I lead with stories of my time in Papua New Guinea studying cannibals.


“What does anthropology have to do with my business?”

I understand where clients are coming from. In business, we’re overrun with actionability metrics and whipped into a frenzy seeking more productive uses of our time. The notion of cultural anthropology in business reeks of intangibility — and money.

But when businesses open up to the idea of using anthropology to better understand how their consumers, their employees and their markets behave — they’re blown away by the possibilities.

Imagine a world where consumer feelings, motivations, obstacles, and preferences are measured by something other than a sterile metric on a spreadsheet.

Imagine a world where people’s behaviors are governed by their hearts and the cultural contexts they exist in — not rationality and analysis.

Anthropology offers us a chance to see the problems you are trying to solve unfold in real life and real time, not a table or index. Suddenly you find yourself face to face with the opportunity to create real change through a real understanding of why humans do what humans do.


Clean Up in Aisle 9

Consider the following from a recent project of mine.

I remember standing in a grocery store in Florida with clients and a participant in an ethnographic study. We were over by the cold cuts. We’d just had some everyday banter about bread, and milk and what not.

The participant stared blankly at the shelf then, suddenly, started crying . Something had shifted. Insight happened.  Apparently, he hadn’t always been able to just buy whatever he wanted without looking at prices. His tears reflected how happy he was with his family, himself and his life. 

In anthropological terms, the way his family now snacked was a symbolic representation and celebration of how far they had come. A seemingly mundane moment turned into a deep insight.

You can’t unsee moments like this. You can’t take that type of insight for granted. And you can’t not thread that meaning into your strategy or approach.  For example, what if this company had previously positioned their products solely on their health benefits? Now we are looking at potentially a whole new way that consumers see their products — a celebration of life and not just something that is “a good snacking option.” A moment like that could put us on a path to re-think brand, positioning, product attributes and more.

That’s where cultural anthropology can transform our thinning, and through that our businesses.


Cultural Anthropology, Action Hero

To me and to people who do this work, this is what we call “instant actionability.” After these anthropological studies, I’m confident our clients are able to make better products, provide better service, deliver more resonant advertising, create more relevant websites, and more.


Because they become the people they serve. Whether vicariously or literally, they’re transformed. They understand the true wants and needs of consumers and the limbic-driven thinking that often defies logic.

Anthro is instantly actionable. I’ve seen CEOs tell stories from our trips and motivate room after room full of employees.

And as a cultural anthropologist who has lived with both semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer-gardeners in the rainforest and bacon-eaters in the heartland of the USA, I know that ethnographic insights distilled from an anthropologist’s observations  transcend what we currently get from surveys and big data alone. People are blood and brains and hearts. Not demographic templates.

Right now, I may be one of a handful of Chief Anthropologists beating the drum to bring a more human approach to understanding humans and their relationship with businesses.   

But who knows: Years from now, the CA (Chief Anthropologist) may have a regular seat in the C-suite. Between you and me, I prefer the cannibals.



The Link Between Anthropology and Innovation

It’s hard to believe how many business leaders seeking innovation still don’t turn to their customers for insight.

Without first observing and studying the customer experience, it’s impossible to know what new product, system or tool they’re going to need. By skipping this critical step, innovators end up simply creating something that they think the user wants, which too often serves the brand’s wishes over the customers. Spend five minutes on your smartphone or laptop and you’re bound to come across one of these “innovations” that feel more like a gimmick than a goal-oriented tool.

Ethnography, the study of human behavior, is a method that we use to break into the customer’s mindset. It is an anthropological technique in which researchers spend several hours with the customer, experiencing their daily routines and observing life through their eyes. The idea is to get as close as possible to the actual “lived experience” of the customer, because only once you’re able to think like the customer (and less like yourself) can you truly begin to innovate.

Take for example the ethnographic work we once did within households dealing with HIV/AIDs. After hours of observing the families, the real breakthrough came soon after we entered one of the audience’s homes. A young grandmother came out of a backroom with her grand-daughter in her arms, and without a thought, handed her granddaughter off to the client. The client took the baby in his arms and sat down in a nearby rocking chair. According to our client, “the room seemed to change in almost an instant.” He began to see the entire house – objects, pictures, everyday items, furniture, and more — in a completely different perspective.

The client’s identity as a “client” melted away and he was able to develop a strong level of empathy for the customer. Afterward, he made it clear that his work on the project forever changed, and that he now saw everything from a “customer perspective,” or at minimum he worked to keep his “client” blinders down so he wouldn’t miss any critical insights.

We believe our potential for success on projects increases proportionately to the amount of time we spend in direct contact with our customers. For certain, the probability for success immediately went up on HIV/AIDs project. Why? Because when we truly know our customers’ lived experience, we begin to design and innovate based on feelings we fully understand and goals we share. Not a bias we can’t let go of.

We leave you with a few quick steps to jumpstart your inner anthropologist. Follow these five steps to get critical insight into your customers and their lived experience:

  • Get your group together and zero in on a few key open-ended questions you “need to answer.”  Write those questions on the first page of a small notebook.

  • Grab your notebook, leave your office and go hang-out with your customers. Choose a variety of situations to experience and types of customers to observe.

  • Observe and take copious notes but do not think too much. Document as much as possible of what you see, hear, and experience. Don’t judge the data coming in, just get it down.

  • Go ahead and talk with your customers but treat them like you would good acquaintances. Keep it real with your customers and don’t try to “analyze” them on the spot; you will have time to dig deep back at the office.

  • Ideate, cluster, refine, create new questions, and go back out. Repeat the process until you are slightly past where you believe you should have stopped, or stop when the project demands it.

If you follow steps 1-5 your probability of finding actionable insights that can drive true innovation go up exponentially. At the bare minimum, you will know more about your customers than you did before you started the process. And that’s never a bad thing for marketers.

Read the article on the idfive site here