Corporate anthropology: a balance of conducting scholarship and understanding consumer needs


In the corporate world, understanding consumers is a main concern for executives and related stakeholders. This is something I learned to be true in my most recent internship at a mid-size advertising agency. However, when a corporation fails to understand consumer spending habits, desires, thoughts and considerations, the corporation could see its sales tank. This is why the importance of ethnography and anthropological work is more important than ever with B2C and B2B companies.

In a research sense, ethnography can help a business understand what its current and prospective consumers are looking for in a product category. For example, Drake Baer tells a story in Business Insider how Adidas VP James Carnes sought seasoned anthropologists to investigate if the global population considered yoga as a sport. Using an outsourced research group, Adidas spent 24 hours with its customers to answer this question, and to uncover general motivations for why people exercise in the first place.

Baer notes that Adidas always saw itself as an outfitter for athletes looking to do the best in competitions. However, Carnes’ team of ethnographers revealed that everyday customers want to live the healthiest lifestyle their schedules can manage rather than coming in first place in a competition. The result of this study was astounding. Adidas changed its marketing strategy to appeal to the everyday customer, and it moved away from portraying an Olympian-like persona in advertising campaigns.

jamescarnesadidas-qa-1
Adidas VP James Carnes discusses problem-solving with an eye for style (Core77, 2014).

Additionally, anthropological research has proven successful in a variety of environments not typical to the academic setting. As Tony Salvador states in a Fast Company article, corporate anthropology helps unveil what it’s like to be someone else using a variety of lenses.

The corporate world should value anthropology for its in-depth research which allows corporations to see more than what is face value or data that is hard to collect. Cathleen Crain, a member of LTG Associates in Washington, D.C., mentions “adding an anthropologist to a research team is like moving from black-and-white TV to color. We’re able to observe shades of color that others can’t see.”

Thomas Davenport mentions in the Harvard Business Review that many universities tend to look down upon corporate anthropology, possibly because of corporate intent being attributed to money-hungry goals. However, with careful consideration of ethical practices for research into the lives of consumers, anthropology can aid the corporate world to address basic challenges that humans face. Certainly, anthropology has encountered some troublesome times when it was used by European colonists to understand (and control) North America’s indigenous tribes, however it has has evolved over centuries of academic and ethical developments to serve a better purpose.

In short, anthropology has evolved to help corporations identify solutions for its consumers’ everyday problems, and it can yield mutually beneficial relationships between scholarship and the corporate village.

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