The reason I love anthropology is because it teaches you to see, feel and think in new ways. These days, it’s no longer the strongest and smartest who will survive — it’s the ones who are the most adaptive. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the business world.
Corporate anthropologists like myself see the things that are really happening out there in the ﬁeld, not what business leaders think is going on. We look for the deeper meaning in the interactions that make up people’s lives and the objects they surround themselves with.
How corporate anthropology can help companies be more competitive
The Absolut Vodka story is a good example of how corporate anthropology can help a brand distinguish itself in the marketplace. To discover how people drink vodka (and other spirits), Absolut hired a research team to observe people drinking. But the researchers didn’t simply poll people about their alcohol consumption. Instead, they focused on the emotional nuances of the social setting where people share alcoholic drinks. In other words, they went to a party.
What they discovered is that what matters most to the attendees and their hosts were the stories that went along with the drinks. They listened as people began sharing personal stories about certain brands of liquor playing a memorable role in their lives, such as during a vacation.
Based on the information gathered from those observations, the research team was able to suggest innovative ways that Absolut Vodka could become more memorable to consumers, and therefore become their preferred brand.
5 ways to put anthropological practices into action
Here are 5 suggestions for putting the tools and methods of anthropology into action in your organization:
1. Get out of the office. Forget what you think is going on with manufacturing processes or the customer experience. People, whether they are customers or employees, can’t express what they are doing, thinking or believing or how their culture, core values, beliefs or habits guide them in their daily lives. This is why it’s key that you watch and record what you see. This helps you discover a customer’s challenges, for example, or trends they’re unequipped to handle. You may also be able to spot where customer needs are not being met.
2. Feel your customers’ pain. If you’re observing customers, where are they running into frustrations? Are they unable to get answers with a phone call or email? What questions are they asking? Do they stay with your organization or leave? If you could observe them on video, what would you discover?
3. Walk the talk. If you really want to change your thinking, you’ve got to do something different. Try shadowing customers and watching them do their work and then doing those jobs yourself (think “Undercover Boss”). You may find that those whom you’re observing don’t really like the solutions they’ve come up with but they may not have any alternatives.
4. Learn from others. If your product isn’t selling, find the people who are buying your competitor's product and ask them why. How could you improve your solution so that it becomes a must-have?
5. Listen for the “what if.” A sales manager I know tagged along with a salesperson to listen how patented foam insulation was being sold. A customer told how he couldn’t get certain things to work and wanted help from the company. “What if…?” the customer continually asked. It became clear to the sales manager what really mattered to the customer, which allowed the company to address the key issues for the customer.
To survive in business, you have to think about things in a new way. If you don’t, you’re going to become an archaeological ruin.