Defining cultural anthropology isn’t easy. Its definition has many layers, but it’s an essential component of successful marketing.
Here’s the simplest description of cultural anthropology: the study of people in a defined space with a defined set of symbols, beliefs and values in common. For marketing purposes, cultural anthropology might be applied to studying teenaged consumers, soccer moms or corporate executives.
Crack the code
A big part of cultural anthropology involves identifying the codes and symbols people use to communicate value and meaning. Crack the code and find the right symbol, and you’re halfway to reaching the target audience in a meaningful, attention-grabbing way. Miss the symbols or interpret them wrongly and your message falls on deaf ears. After all, more than 80% of communication between humans is nonverbal.
If one of the definitions of design is to invent, then cultural anthropology helps ensure that what is invented will resonate with the core audience. Cultural anthropology helps marketers create designs -– or inventions -- that communicate the brand to every core audience at every touch point or interaction they have with that brand, and makes sure those “interactions” are meaningful experiences that add value to the brand.
In other words, if you get the design wrong, you get the message wrong as well. The design is the message. And no amount of clever words in an ad will override a bad design that communicates an irrelevant symbol.
Dyson vacuum cleaner
For an example of how good design can communicate the meaning of a brand, look no further than the Dyson vacuum cleaner. Commercials for the product got noticed for many reasons, but the design of the vacuum itself became a symbol of its promise to powerfully suction up dirt. For decades, vacuum cleaners were advertised with the promise to clean. But Dyson presented an innovative product, which didn’t look like any other cleaner sold before, that would actually vacuum -- and not merely clean.
The symbol (a bright yellow “dirt suctioning” machine), belief (that a house wasn’t properly cleaned until it was powerfully suctioned) and values (we want to get cleaning done quickly and efficiently) resonated with an audience that was just waiting for such an invention.
To put it another way, the Dyson design concentrated on a human “workaround” -- the idea that we are forced to create exceptions and excuses for designs that don’t actually do the job we want them to. Dyson’s invention was empathic in its very nature because it understood that people were vacuuming over the same spot again and again to get dirt up but still believed their vacuum cleaners were working properly. As the ads told us, ordinary vacuums weren’t fulfilling their promises.
Dyson point of difference
The Dyson point of difference was the empathic understanding of usage and the limited expectations of the human on the object itself. Before Dyson, if you had asked people what they wanted in a new vacuum cleaner, they would have requested a lighter version or a cheaper version but not a more powerful vacuum.
As Dorothy Leonard, Ph.D., Harvard Business School, and the creator of empathic research (the stable methodology of much business anthropology today) put it: “Habit tends to inure us to inconvenience; as consumers we create ‘workarounds’ that become so familiar we may forget that we are being forced to behave in a less-than-optimal fashion -- and thus we may be incapable of telling market researchers what we really want.”
If the Dyson design came anywhere close to Bissell’s or Hoover’s or Eureka’s, do you think its message would have translated so effectively? I don’t. Just as anthropologists have used recognition of designs to navigate unknown cultures for centuries, cultural anthropologists have used the context or layers of meaning within design to bring order to an imbedded culture.
And perhaps intuitively, smart marketers have already been using the cultural anthropology approach to create smart, effective designs to define the target audience and to powerfully express the meaning of their brands.