Anthropology: Its Usefulness in the Business World

How Useful is Anthropology in the Business World

The field of anthropology has long been associated with the study of primitive tribes and exotic cultures. Margaret Mead set the tone seventy-five years ago with her study published in the book “Coming of Age in Samoa.” However, today the practice of “urban anthropology” has developed a subset of anthropologists who are very much in contact with Western civilization, not so much to study their unique social characteristics but rather to gather valuable information for companies based on observations of behavior. Here are some illustrations from anthropologists working in settings common to all of us.

Marketing consultants . A marketing agency in Minneapolis that has 150 well-known employees and clients like General Mills and Lee Jeans has a team of anthropologists on board to provide information on consumer behavior that will help the company’s clients. The firm works from a brand perspective, assuming that its clients want a brand identity that adapts to the values ​​and lives of the clients. The notion of a “branding community” has emerged and the data collected by the firm’s cultural anthropologists has been an integral part of the recent successes of marketing campaigns.

Product strategy . A March 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review has an article written by an Intel executive on how ethnographic studies by anthropologists helped Intel enter the consumer market. Ethnography is described as developing an understanding of “how people live their lives.” Intel’s study saw enough opportunities in the consumer market that they began developing a line of products for home rather than commercial use. The theme of “Intel Inside” certainly arose during the consequent marketing effort.

Merchandising . For at least ten years, a company called Envirosell, founded by an urban anthropologist, has consulted with retailers such as Macy’s Disney, Walgreen & Gap to try to help identify the social characteristics that will drive buying patterns. Envirosell anthropologists can tell you that American shoppers walk down the right side of the aisle, the same way they drive. They tend to veer to the right in the store, so merchandising should be facing the right view. The opposite trend is true for the British, who drive on the left side of the road. Envirosell’s close remarks on buying behavior continue to benefit major retailers.

Exceeding the limit of a competitor . In 2006 Business Week published an article on the increasing importance of ethnographic studies in business strategy. Sirius satellite radio based on the successful introduction of a digital music device based on an ethnographic study. Marriott redesigned the lobbies at some of its hotels after a study by an architect, designer, and anthropologist. As of 2006, IBM had a dozen ethnographic specialists on staff.

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