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How anthropology can help you unlock dazzling marketing ideas

Technology & Data

How anthropology can help you unlock dazzling marketing ideas


Michael Henderson introduces us to corporate anthropology, and explains how it can help us better understand our consumers and our workplace culture.

This article originally appeared in The Culture Issue, our August/September issue of Marketing magazine.

Michael HendersonIt’s not often you see the words ‘anthropology’ and ‘marketing’ in the same sentence. Why would you? They’re two vastly different disciplines, right?

One belongs to the social sciences and the other to business. Anthropology is that slightly dated method of studying and understanding human culture, whereas marketing is the ever advancing, constantly adapting business discipline that ensures organisations are constantly revisiting and repackaging their offers and positioning them in new, unique and exciting ways.

Yet, how often is the audience truly blown away by an innovative, timely and resonant marketing message? Far too often, marking messages are merely copied versions of a previous incarnation. When was the last time you saw a new and intriguing advert for a car, cosmetic, washing detergent, insurance policy or travel destination?

Despite marketing constantly branding itself as a creative process, it often delivers the business equivalent of déjà vu – that visceral sense that you have seen and heard this before.

What would it take for marketing to shake things up and communicate with new messages?

If marketers truly wish to capture their audience’s attention then they’d be better focusing on vu jàdé, rather than delivering déjà vu.

So, what is vu jàdé?

MK0817 culture coverTom Kelley, CEO of the innovation and design pioneering organisation IDEO, coined the phrase ‘vu jàdé’ as a memorable flip on déjà vu, suggesting that rather than feeling as though we have seen this all before, we should approach marketing with a beginner’s mind, with a willingness to set aside what is already known and concentrate on allowing fresh insight and understanding to emerge.

Which brings us to anthropology. In his book The 10 Faces of Innovation, Strategies for Heightening Creativity, Kelley identifies 10 archetypes that IDEO embraces to enhance its creative ability. ‘Anthropologist’ sits as his lead choice.

He says the anthropologist’s role is the single biggest source of innovation at IDEO because, like most innovators, IDEO has employed great problem solvers. What’s most important, however, is to understand what problems the customer needs solving.

To identify these customer wants and needs, IDEO employees practise what anthropologists call ‘participant observation’, which is a data gathering process that does exactly as the name suggests: observe what customers are doing.

Famous vu jàdé moments where anthropologists have contributed to the reposition or redesign of products include:

  • The green circular button being introduced to office equipment to initiate a process, such as on a copy machine,
  • the introduction of the compass app on smartphones as a means of selling more phones in Muslim countries where consumers need to be able to locate Mecca,
  • the naming of Toyota car brand ‘LEXUS’ to compete with prestigious brands in the US (LEXUS being an abbreviation for Luxury EXport to the US), and
  • the prototyping of phone capable water bottles, given the frequency people were observed wth each of these items in their hands at the same time.


How do anthropologists see what marketers are missing?

In truth, anthropologists are not likely to see anything too differently from marketers. What differentiates the anthropologist’s contribution is not so much what they see, but what they think about what they see.

This is not an easy skill to acquire.

Harvard Business School Professor Dorothy Leonard refers to it as “deep smarts”. Anthropologists understand that the human brain views brands in a similar manner to how it views people. Brands are attributed with anthropomorphic qualities and, in particular, are evaluated through the two key filters of capability and approachability.

Our primitive ancestors, who were reliant on the limbic brain for most of their moment-to-moment decisions, were – as a matter of survival – focused on determining the approachability and capability of their greatest threat: their fellow humans. This survival instinct still runs deep in modern human culture and the same process plays out immediately when a new marketing offer is made.

The questions ‘is this a friendly offering?’ and ‘is this useful and safe?’ are the go-to subconscious ones on which the limbic system bases its evaluation of your brand and marketing message.

As a corporate anthropologist I spend thousands of hours each year educating my clients in the three motivating forces at work within human culture that drives all behaviours. This ‘deeper’ appreciation of human decision- making and motivation enables organisations to begin to understand where the day-to-day performance of their organisation is coming from.

Any and all human activity is driven by one or more of these three motivators:

  • Control: the primal need to be in charge of vital resources such as time, energy, money, health, information and destination,
  • relate: wanting to relate to and receive relating gestures from others to effectively and deeply connect and belong, and
  • develop: the need or desire to change, grow, adapt, innovate, ideate and invent.

Your own organisational culture is, at this very moment, delivering a level of performance that is emanating out of your employees’ collective moment-to-moment decisions to control something, related to others or improve on the status quo. Watch and listen closely – you will quickly realise there’s no activity occurring in your business that is not driven by one of these cultural drivers.

The same applies to your customers responding to or acting upon a marketing message. The degree to which a customer buys into the message will be determined by the degree to which that message clearly articulates or stimulates these three cultural drivers.

When a message or brand truly stimulates the customer’s interest, it will have signalled its approachability and capability to deliver one or more of the three cultural drivers.

It’s as if the message is speaking directly to the limbic brain saying: ‘I’m a user friendly item or service that will deliver results, that will enable you to control, relate or develop.’ When this message is received in the customer’s brain, a powerful and commercially significant moment occurs.

Trust is attributed to the brand.

By spending time with your customers and observing how they interact with your offering, you will be able to apply an anthropological lens to your offering and learn to identify what messages are really important to the customer.

Learning to view your customers’ preferences and interactions with your products and services, brands and messages can enable you to gain powerful new insights that may have been otherwise overlooked.

New opportunities, questions, perspectives and messages can and will emerge. Suddenly the tired repetitive world will come to life in a dazzling display of vu jàdé.


Michael Henderson is a corporate anthropologist and director at Cultures at Work.


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Image copyright: elvinphoto / 123RF Stock Photo


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