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Cultural Anthropology In Marketing

by Ted Mininni  |  
December 14, 2006

Cultural Anthropology as a marketing tool is an idea whose time has come. In the past, only a few major consumer product companies (read: Procter & Gamble, Whirlpool, Volvo, among others) tinkered with anthropological research into consumer behavior. Now, more and more companies are adopting this to drive the design and development of new consumer products....

Why? Because in an era of acute competition, new product proliferation and savvy, educated consumers, the old model of bringing consumer products to market simply isn't working anymore. The huge capital investment in R&D, engineering and marketing of new products falls flat when those products are not what the consumer really needs or wants.
So, how do companies get it right?
BusinessWeek illustrates cultural anthropology in action in a recent article titled: Electrolux Redesigns Itself.
As is the case with so many product companies, the Swedish appliance giant was confronted by slumping sales, due to increased competition from Asia.
McKinsey & Company
's consultants were hired to unearth the problems at Electrolux. Four problems were cited as a result of extensive surveys and interviews.
Management was not in touch with the customer, thus new products were being developed without meaningful consumer insights.
New products featured the quality and engineering Electrolux is famous for, but consumer needs were not being met.
Research and development personnel were not on board during commercial product debuts.
Company executives were risk averse.
Sound familiar?
In order to fix these problems, Electrolux former marketing manager (now current Consumer Innovation manager)Johan Hjertonsson chose to take drastic measures. He completely reoriented his business unit from "an engineer-driven" one to an integrated team, design-driven model that puts its emphasis on designing new products gleaned directly from consumer experiences. Product innovations teams are comprised of designers, engineers, marketing personnel and salespeople.
And this is the important part: Electrolux is not using marketing surveys to ask customers about the products and features they want; they are actually observing them using appliances in their homes. In the BW article, Hjertonsson states: "We never ask the consumer what they want. We do anthropology. We study the consumer." Marketing surveys are just not yielding the kind of information companies need when developing new products.
Studying the consumer in action pays huge dividends. By observing consumers within their own homes, and listening to their comments and getting their "wish lists" of features that would make their lives easier, products can be designed and adapted to fit current lifestyles and needs in a way that surveys alone cannot accomplish.
While it takes huge commitment, from the CEO down the ranks, and a long time to change the culture of a large company like Electrolux, a blueprint has been set up to ensure long-term survival and success. In fact, this new business model integrates right brain and left brain capabilities, as well. That is, creativity, design and engineering are given as much weight (read: are as valued) as sales and marketing management in this endeavor.
In this new business model, the consumer is the ultimate winner, and so are the companies who design, develop and market the products they really want.
Shouldn't the marketing departments in consumer product companies get out of the survey business, and get into the anthropology business? What could be better than direct company-customer contact?

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Ted Mininni is president of Design Force, Inc. (, a leading brand-design consultancy to consumer product companies (phone: 856-810-2277). Ted is also a regular contributor to the MarketingProfs blog, the Daily Fix.

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  • by Cam Beck Thu Dec 14, 2006 via blog

    I seem to recall an IDEO book I read this year that advocates the same type of thing. But I wouldn't limit it to just consumer products. We can also observe how people interact with websites in general and how they interact with ours in particular. Institutionalizing the observance of the behavior of people using specific websites we're marketing is easy enough (and necessary), but doing the same to capture general web behaviors probably is a commitment of resources most people will agree people like Jakob Nielsen and Steve Krug have already mitigated.

  • by Lewis Green Thu Dec 14, 2006 via blog

    Ted, Brilliant! as the Guinness boys say. Some retailers have been doing cultural anthropology for quite a long time from within their stores by observing customer behavior and then adjusting their services and products to meet customer behaviors. I think any business that undertakes this task will be rewarded mightily. However, most businesses may respond with the usual: 1. We don't have the time. 2. We don't have the money. 3. This is soft stuff and we only care about how our products perform in the marketplace.

  • by Ted Mininni Thu Dec 14, 2006 via blog

    Hi Cam, Thanks for your keen observation. Yes, I do think that many companies, whether they sell products or services alike, would benefit from cultivating stronger customer relationships. Can't think of a better way to do that than to witness user interaction with any product or service. Thanks, Lewis, for your great input as always. Best of luck to you today; you're in all of our thoughts.

  • by Claire Ratushny Thu Dec 14, 2006 via blog

    In the marketing business, we always emphasize the need to make customer experiences strong and positive with our brands. So why not let the customer show us by their interactions, rather than telling us in endless surveys, how they would like to have their experiences shaped? I read some time ago that the CEO of Procter & Gamble reoriented the direction of all of his business units by telling the marketers to get into customers' homes and to observe how they actually use their products. Worldwide, due to cultural differences and perceptions. I call that brilliant!

  • by gianandrea facchini Thu Dec 14, 2006 via blog

    i just finish to read steve krug's "don't make me think" who, as pointed by cam, a supporter of this way of testing website. again i notice how the human touch is the best way, and should be the common way to collect information. and again i notice how on the contrary many marketers believe in a top down process.

  • by Claire Ratushny Thu Dec 14, 2006 via blog

    Hi Gianandrea, I like this topic, too, and I find the point you made has great validity. Speaking of the bottom up vs the top down theory reminds me of Calvin Klein. He was one of the first fashion designers to get his inspiration from the way edgy urban people were wearing their clothes, eschewing the concept of haute couture thinking completely. Calvin always maintained that fashion originates on the streets. And he's been phenomenally successful, hasn't he?

  • by Tim Grace Thu Dec 14, 2006 via blog

    Cultural anthropology/ethnography is certainly nothing new, as Lewis points out, and many organizations across categories have been using this observational technique to inform consumer positioning and messaging decisions, segmentation and a variety of other applications beyond product development. It is certainly a valuable tool in the marketers/researchers toolkit and I've found that this is the type of research salespeople and product designers really fall in love with. It's hard not to be energized in seeing actual consumers interact with your products in their natural environment, even if this ends up revealing major issues with the product functionality/design. That said, let's be very careful in making statements like "Shouldn't the marketing departments in consumer product companies get out of the survey business." As valuable as ethnography/cultural anthroplogy can be, it is still most often done with a fairly small number of consumers (less than 30) and like any other qualitative method, findings may not be representative of many, if not most, consumer experiences in general. The best organizations, like P&G for example, will test the insights gleaned from ethnography against a statiscally valid sample (through surveys, most commonly) to ensure they are consistent with other consumers' experiences. Just want to make that clear before we all to get frothy over the death of the survey and rise of observational research techniques such as anthroplogy/ethnography.

  • by Cam Beck Thu Dec 14, 2006 via blog

    I'm interested in seeing how they actually got into somebody's home and observed them without influencing the behavior they intended to measure. That's partially why I wouldn't throw aggregate data (including surveys) out the window entirely. Firsthand observations with the subject's knowledge are limited by the lab rat syndrome, and those performed without the subject's knowledge (especially in one's natural environment-like described here) is an invasion of privacy. I recently read of a university study that showed ad awareness and retention were generally considered low for online ads, but contextual ads were nearly 250% more effective when the users were first exposed to a banner ad. That's just one example of how aggregate data and laboratory observations of consumer behavior together can inform the judgments of designers better than each of them could have done individually.

  • by Ted Mininni Thu Dec 14, 2006 via blog

    Thanks to everyone for a lively discussion and interesting points of view on this subject. And Tim, thanks for bringing this in sharper focus. When I stated:"Shouldn't the marketing departments in consumer product companies get out of the survey business", I probably should have said . . ."get out of solely using surveys to test their product ideas. . ." Having said that, there really can be no substitute for the hands-on customer approach. This kind of feedback is instantaneous, uncontrived and insightful.

  • by gianandrea facchini Thu Dec 14, 2006 via blog

    tim, i agree with you that surveys are not dead and there is no bandwagon to jump on. but i believe that ethnography can be applied to wider group of consumers and that the insights are not to be tested against survey but could make you go through survey in a smarter way. eventually it may help in detecting grey area between what people say and what they do in the everyday life.

  • by Ann Handley Thu Dec 14, 2006 via blog

    Cam Beck wrote: "I'm interested in seeing how they actually got into somebody's home and observed them without influencing the behavior they intended to measure." ....I'm picturing Swedes in Electrolux shirts sneaking around houses and peaking into windows....

  • by David Lemley Thu Dec 14, 2006 via blog

    Great post,Ted. You nailed it. I also understand what Lewis is saying about companies thinking this is 'soft stuff.' However, I'm finding that more and more companies are starting to grasp the value of this type of research in The Experience Economy. Cultural anthropology and ethnography hold the key to unlocking the unique positioning of the brand and making that essential emotional connection that will yield brand loyalty. All the data in the world can't give you that uniquely human information gained through observing real customers in real buying situations. Of course, you can also take demographic data and apply it into a cultural anthropology model. The key is to understand the core human reaction. In the long run, the more C-types who make the connection between brand equity, brand loyalty and the bottom line, the more they will see cultural anthropology as an essential part of their business strategy. David Lemley

  • by Ted Mininni Thu Dec 14, 2006 via blog

    Loved the comment about the Swedes, Ann. Paints an interesting picture! Thanks, David, Cam and Gianandrea for your insights. A number of companies have either been observing consumers in their own environments or in laboratory settings for some time. Observations including how they use products and their comments about what they like, don't like and wish they could have in the way of features, is information that is worth its weight in gold. David is so right: this Experience Economy is all about making emotional, rather than merely rational connections with the customer.

  • by Paul Barsch Thu Dec 14, 2006 via blog

    For an alternate view, I suggest reading this month's Harvard Bus Review article titled, "Innovating Through Design" by Roberto Verganti. Instead of outsourcing R&D to a design shop, or in-sourcing to your very own R&D department, a few companies have taken to tapping into a free floating community of architects, photographers, artists, designers, curators etc to create differentation in their offerings. It's fascinating stuff!

  • by Claire Ratushny Thu Dec 14, 2006 via blog

    You've raised an interesting point also, Paul. Roy Young's recent MP Daily Fix post on M Planet touched on that. P&G's Larry Huston was discussing his outsourcing for innovative ideas to a large global community of the very people you've brought up, during his M Planet presentation. Might be worth looking up the post conference notes to glean additional details on this methodology.

  • by Roy Young Thu Dec 14, 2006 via blog

    For all those interested, an in-depth report of Larry Huston's innnovation model at P&G can be found in the March 2006 issue of HBR. The abstract is here:

  • by Russell Ackner Thu Dec 14, 2006 via blog

    Just a point for discussion, I think the Web supports this concept entirely. Isn't this the way "best practices" are defined? Listening to the end-user who benefits greatly and the company who listens to its users/customers profits as a result.

  • by Stephen Denny Thu Dec 14, 2006 via blog

    Anthropological marketing is the best possible way of letting customers "show" us what they want. I am a huge believer and fan of this suite of techniques. What works? I've done in-home diaries, which puts the responsibility on the user -- this works well, within limits. In depth one-on-ones in the user's home is also very helpful and comes closest to the "Swedes in Sneakers" comment above. I've also done in-store monitoring of interactions with products/displays on site. Also hugely helpful. All these techniques can be measured, quantified, and further refined into hard research. Sure, surveys are great. Focus groups (regardless of what I've said before) are great, too. Research -- whether traditional or anthropoligical -- is fraught with the risk of baked-in bias. The vast majority of all research done today by (mostly) well-intentioned brand managers does little more than validate preconceptions. Outliers are edited or overlooked. Glad you posted on a favorite subject!

  • by Mark V Thu Dec 14, 2006 via blog

    I wish to see how this can be applied for small businesses, especially in professional services area. I am internet marketer. How would I go about something similar, like figuring out how marketers buy search engine optimization services? Great post!

  • by Cam Beck Fri Dec 15, 2006 via blog

    Mark, For small businesses, I think the principle of "Genchi Genbutsu" is sorely overlooked. I recommend the excellent book "The Toyota Way" by Jeffry Liker to read more about it. Although it deals mostly with manufacturing, I think you'll find some ideas you can apply to your business.

  • by Ted Mininni Fri Dec 15, 2006 via blog

    Thanks, everyone, for a lively exchange of information and ideas. And a special thanks, Roy, for the link to the report on P&G's Larry Huston's innovation ideas. Should make for some interesting reading for MP bloggers.

  • by Stephen Denny Sat Dec 16, 2006 via blog

    If you're looking for "anthropological marketing" for websites, touch base with Vividence -- I used them several times and found them to be very good.

  • by Ted Mininni Mon Dec 18, 2006 via blog

    Great information for web site marketing, Stephen. Thanks for sharing it with us. And Cam, thanks for recommending this excellent book which can be applied to a host of different businesses. All of this will be very helpful to marketers everywhere.

  • by Rob Fields Thu Dec 21, 2006 via blog

    At the end of the day, culture matters. It's through culture that we can better understand how people live and how they use brands to create meaning in their lives. Like Stephen, this is one the things I'm passionate about. In fact, I've been suggesting that it might be useful to think of culture as a medium unto itself. Thanks, Ted!

  • by Demetrius Pakrer Sun Jul 27, 2008 via blog

    I am launching a cultural communication-centric health marketing and communication function at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in support of our public health communication intervention and outreach campaigns, strategies and activities. What advice and resources can you suggest for me in building this effort? I am also seeking presenters...subject-matter experts with research who could work with me to introduce the science of this approach to our senior officials. Suggestions...? Thank you. Demetrius

  • by Ted Mininni Mon Jul 28, 2008 via blog

    Demetrius, Wow! This is an awesome project you're working on and full of potential. If I were you, I'd check in with the AMA and find out whether they have any informational resources and speakers available to assist you in your work. I think it would be a win-win if both organizations could help each other in this regard. You might also contact the U.S. Preventive Medicine organization at www. and the editors at Prevention Magazine (Rodale's) to put you in touch with researchers they know. All of these resources would be excellent and might be able to give you the ammunition you need to sell your ideas to senior management. Best of luck in your endeavors, Demetrius.

  • by Katharina Mon Aug 11, 2008 via blog

    I read this blog with great interest cause I am actually working on my diploma thesis concerning consumer insight. I also do have an oral exam and preparing for such a practical topic is pretty hard. Can you name some successful examples of FMCG Companies where insights were made actionable? My Professors are all male and the best example I found is from the brand always by Johnson&Johnson. I'm afraid such an intim, female topic does not fit to my theoretic profs. Thanks in Advance for any good ideas to make my presentation for the oral exam more lifely. Katharina from Germany

  • by Andrea Simon Thu Feb 12, 2009 via blog

    I am an anthropologist and work with companies that need to change. Change is literally pain. The application of ethnographic research is terrifying. My clients span from medical centers and healthcare to customer care companies, OEM manufacturers and B2Bs. I often try to get clients out of their offices to see, feel and think about customers and non customers in new ways. Just imagine what it is like for a medical center's administrators to spend a day in the life of their patients--rather scary. Thanks for the posts and comments. Found you by chance. Would love to hear more. Andi

  • by Ted Mininni Thu Feb 12, 2009 via blog

    Hi Andi, Thanks very much for weighing in on this. It's really nice to get the input of an anthropologist who's working in the trenches with companies to apply ethnographic research. Companies should be open-minded to the data this research yields, regardless of industry, since it allows them to better understand their customers' needs and desires. The companies who have taken this tack, needless to say, have benefited by really strengthening their market positions. You may want to check out Whirlpool case studies, for example. I think you'll see that while change is tough to push in any company, the rewards are well worth it when the results are positive. Thanks again, Andi.

  • by Jae Sun Nov 13, 2011 via blog

    As Andrea pointed out, ethnography is also widely known as "participant-observation" - the "observer" is an "equal" participant in that he/she, say. receives medical treatment. Ethnography is not merely "watching" someone do something - anyone can do that. The first step is developing empathy, and positioning yourself as an "equal". Let's see how many hard egos can do that. Then it's not wonder why anthropology is often reluctant about the business world.

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