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.