Context Isn’t Easy or: if you wouldn’t complain to your surgeon about taking her time, don’t complain to your design team

Products are more than they seem. This is true for both marketing and design. Many of us have largely been taught to focus on functional goals and actions, and to be fair there are many good reasons to understand functional needs. Unfortunately, the approach, which is rekindled every few years under a different guise (e.g. “Jobs To Be Done”) is limiting. And in an increasingly connected world, potentially dangerous. Yes, I am again talking about context. Context is a slippery topic that evades attempts to define it too narrowly. Some definitions cover just the immediate surroundings of an interaction. Others try to limit to specific types of interactions. But in the interwoven space-time of the web, context is no longer just about the here and now. Instead, context refers to the physical, digital, symbolic, and social structures that surround the point of use. Reducing usability, design, innovation to a series of functional components spells disaster.

Let’s talk about chainsaws. If I’m a maker of chainsaws, loggers, home users, and chainsaw artists all have very different needs. They all need to be safe and all need to quickly cut wood. They must be durable, easy to sharpen, easy to maintain, easy to carry and store them, etc. All these considerations have functional implications for design. But at a symbolic leave, seeing the logo may matter. Having a loud motor may establish a sense of seriousness and masculinity. Having a scarred, beaten up tool may show your job is a family affair over generations, thus creating a sense of credibility and self-worth. The point is that the functions and features are not the only things to consider from a design perspective.

Similarly, if you think about medicine, things aren’t as simple as they seem. Rural doctors and nurses face different issues than someone working at a hospital in an affluent suburb or an inner-city psychiatric center with in-patient and out-patient facilities. They all have some fundamental things that need to be done, but the contexts in which they operate influence what parts of a complex solution they use, how they use them, and who has responsibility for their use. But unlike chainsaws (MAYBE), the ramifications for missing these data points (and I am using “data” in its original sense of information rather than simply numbers) can be devastating, even deadly. The point is, we can’t ignore complexity and while it’s infinitely simpler to take a functional, reductionist approach, the risks are also much higher. That means being able to argue for a more experiential research approach with the people who hold the purse strings.

Research trades assumptions for knowledge, boosting confidence in your decisions. Done right, it can encourages empathy within a team and leads down routes that may not otherwise considered. There are, of course, many research methods to draw upon, but no prescription for choosing the right approach. First, understand the battle. It’s always tempting to start with numerical tools like analytics and surveys. Both offer the comfort of volume, but context is a largely qualitative art. Contextual details are ambiguous and lead to more questions. Making sense of them is hard and so they often fall through the gaps between numbers. While quantitative methods are a decent starting point, they almost never yield the depth that qualitative work yields.

Interviews will help in understanding motivations, priorities, and mental models, but the nature of narrative is a rooted in memory and perception, limiting how much you can actually uncover. Writing a script to cover your main context questions helps tremendously, as does being comfortable deviating from it as interesting points arise, but it’s still a matter of a person telling you something with the benefit of seeing the surroundings. Ultimately, the limitation of interviews – their self-reporting nature – is exacerbated when researching context. Participants may not accurately depict their contexts, or may omit relevant points.

Contextual enquiries and full-blown ethnographic methods allow a much closer, much richer look. Here, a researcher shadows and/or participates with the participant, asking questions to clarify understanding and prompt elaboration. Information is gathered in the moment, allowing questions to emerge in response to observations. 

There’s nothing new in this, we’re all familiar with an ethnographic approach at this point. What we’re often less skilled at is articulating why it matters to design, innovation, and, when all is said and done, to the bottom line. Companies want things done cheaply, quickly, and with minimal effort or expense. It would be lovely if we could limit the world to practical, functional terms alone when designing or marketing products, but the reality is that those days are long gone. Missing context means missing information, and getting at context takes time and effort.

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Hunting and Design

I have hunted, but I am, truth be told, not a hunter. I am one of the millions of people who consumes meat without as much thought as it probably deserves and certainly less effort than it should entail. But I am also a former chef and having learned that trade well before I went to graduate school, I acquired a deep appreciation for where my food comes from and what it takes to get it, including the process of slaughter and butchery. Hunting is an inseparable part of life and has been since the dawn of humankind. And so, while I have never been an avid hunter, the art and craft of it has always fascinated me.

The average hunter is white, rural and male. His father hunted, and he likely either hunts close to home or makes an annual pilgrimage back to his home to hunt once or twice a year. This description describes several friends of mine – one an artist originally from rural Kansas, one an industrial designer from upstate New York, and one a bartender in Albuquerque. All of them had abandoned hunting at one point in their lives but returned to it. There are more who fit the description, no doubt. They are part of a slowly growing segment of the local food movement which has begun to explore hunting as a way of feeding themselves.  As of yet however, this movement has been reticent to embrace hunting as an integral part of sustainable eating.  Authors such as Michael Pollan have ventured into hunting to provide anecdotal examples in popular media, but the concept has been largely ignored elsewhere. And that, surprisingly, includes anthropologists. 

A quick search of recent anthropological articles related to hunting supplies a multitude of articles related to the world at large. However, anthropologists have provided virtually nothing related to the 13+ million people who currently hunt in the United States. In one of the few ethnographies of American hunting culture, Marc Boglioli highlights the traditional anthropological division between the “noble savage” and the “ignoble Westerner”.  Researchers and the public-at-large celebrate animist spirituality of indigenous hunting and traditional subsistence patterns in the ethnographic other, but run from the modern American hunting industry and “you might be a redneck if…..” jokes. 

Sustainable Food: Despite the lack of anthropological interest in modern American hunting, it has the potential to be an important and powerful part of the local food movement and sustainable food systems. As an example, the white-tailed deer population in the United States was decimated by the beginning of the 20th century. In the intervening 110 years, this population has grown exponentially. Left unchecked, which it largely would be without hunters, deer populations can double about every three years. Human management of deer is essential to modern herds. The vast food resources and essential ecological management provide important opportunities to address the pillars of the local food movement.

Sustainable Environments: Today, therefore, the sustainable management of hunting is increasingly important, and the respect for hunting traditions provides a bond between hunters and the landscape. This bond is preserved through the rituals and traditions associated with hunting. The preservation of old hunting traditions starts with what is known as the “communion.” This communion is the first of all hunters’ moral and ethical promises to behave, with utmost respect, towards wildlife and nature. The basis of hunting traditions and rituals is the respect towards wildlife and to the game that is caught, manifesting as an important part of the hunter’s life throughout the year, not just during the hunting season. Hunters demonstrate this respect in many places and manners: in nature, in the forest, through hunting, on social occasions, and also in their personal life. Yes, the argument can be made that hunting has become commoditized. And there is the obvious negative example of trophy hunting. But increasingly, hunters are returning to or newly embracing the ideas that 1) procuring your own meat is important to understanding what you eat, 2) hunting requires a deeper connection with nature, and 3) hunting reflects of a broader philosophy about how the planet works.

Hunting and Design: So what does any of this have to do with design or marketing? Hunting is an example of a complex system that we have simplified to the point of caricature. As fewer people engaged in it over time, we have allowed our positivist sensibilities to get in the way of critical thinking. Now, as people return to it, we’re forced to recognize that hunting is a complex system. As much as we like to simplify things in business, it doesn’t mean we can afford to do so before we fully understand the complexities of a problem. We can’t move fro A to Z without thinking through the other letters of the alphabet, what letters even represent, what needs are satisfied through the written word, etc. In other words, hunting reminds us that things aren’t always as simple as they seem.

Unlike simple problems, like figuring out how to debug and optimize a piece of code or designing an aesthetically pleasing product, wicked and complex problems (like rising inner city crime, rural to urban flight, or sharing of medical information) require developing a different kind of mindset and expertise that can deal with the scale, intricacy, and interconnectedness of these problems. As the distinctions between the natural world, built environment, and culture and society become increasingly blurry, and as the role of designers expands from dealing with straightforward, simple problems to tackling larger systemic issues, we can also no longer talk about design outside of its role in determining the shape and form of these systems, models of aspects of the world that can articulate and guide intentional, planned change.

Ethnography vs. Contextual Interviews: Methods Matter

Methods matter. It’s often assumed that an open-ended interview is ethnography and the reasons for the confusion are understandable, but an ethnographically-informed approach, which a contextual interview can certainly be, is not the same thing as a true ethnographic project.  Contextual interviews, which rely on self-report data, and ethnography, which focuses on observed data through time, are sometimes confused as being the same, but they actually provide different types of data and have different strengths. It’s important to make a distinction between these two different research methodologies and the kind of data you get from each. Both involve visiting a participant in their homes, office, or other environments, depending on the nature of the project, but they are distinctly different.

Contextual interviews are interviews that are conducted in the context in which the behavior of interest occurs. For example, if someone were trying to understand the needs of doctors, they would interview a doctor in his office, operating room, or other relevant location. A typical contextual interview consists of open-ended but targeted interviews that usually last an hour or two. The participant demonstrates certain processes of interest for the researcher, such as posting shopping for something online or going through specific work-related tasks. The researcher asks questions about the process to get a clear understanding of it and identify pain points for the participant. In this way, the researcher can get an inventory of activities in which the participant engages when going through a process. This is referred to typically as task analysis.

Contextual interviewing allows the researcher to understand the person’s environment and get actual demonstrations of behaviors of interest. It helps the interviewee remember specific details about performing actions and articulate problems they encounter or processes that might normally be overlooked using traditional methods of research (e.g. surveys). But a contextual interview is not perfect. It is a type of self-reporting research and is subject to the same weaknesses as all other forms self reporting. People can and do distort, misremember, or overlook important facts when providing information. Because these inaccuracies are often unconscious, they are extremely difficult to eliminate or control. In addition, people get accustomed to their pain points, adapting to them and working around them to such a point that they become practically unaware of them. The result is they simply don’t come up during research or analysis.

The result is that while contextual interviews are useful for identifying obvious needs, they don’t always provide an objective, in-depth understanding of consumer or user needs.

Ethnography is a different monster.Design ethnography was adapted from the anthropology and focuses on the study different cultures by immersing the researcher in the culture for months or years at a time. It is in-depth and meant to uncover connections between phenomena that often emerge only with sufficient time in the field. Design research often cannot accommodate the same kind of budgets and schedules as traditional ethnography, however, the principle of in-person observation of behavior remains at the core of ethnography as a research method. In true ethnography, a researcher will spend one or more entire days with a research participant, profiling the person’s life from morning to going to night. And that includes a significantly wider range of activities than one observes in contextual interviews.

An ethnographer might travel with the participant to work, riding together on the subway and noting behavior in transit and how ties into things like resource management, habits (e.g. stopping for coffee), and work habits as they prepare for the day. The ethnographer will sit with him or her in the office, eat with him or her during lunch, or hang out with him or her after work – the goal is to understand how various aspects of the day shape other behaviors. Rather than relying purely on self-report data, the goal of ethnography is to directly observe and document the actual behavior of the participant and search for patterns and the needs underlying those patterns.

Like contextual interviews, ethnography has its strengths and weaknesses. Not the least among these weaknesses is the cost, resource, and schedule requirements. Ethnography is definitely one of the more time consuming forms of research. However, the results of this method tend to yield longer-term data for innovation. Ethnography allows the researcher and design team to have a thorough understanding of the consumer or user, and identify needs that the they might not be aware of. It is best used when making a major investment into a product, service, or message that is positioned to revolutionize the market.

When determining the right methodology to use the key is to understand where they can be most effectively used. Contextual interviews are a helpful way of understanding identifying needs and ethnography is an excellent way to dig deep to identify needs that are more difficult to find. Using ethnography when iterating a current product or technology may not result in much added value beyond performing a contextual interview, but it is absolutely essential when creating something entirely new and different.

The Importance of Learning Participant Observation

Teaching and learning is interactive. Despite the fact that learning is all-pervasive in our life, there is no single, universal theory of how people learn. There are two major schools of thought concerning the learning process: one consists of behavior theories, the other of cognitive theories. Cognitive theorists view learning as a function of purely mental process, whereas behavioral theorists focus almost exclusively on observable behaviors (responses) that occur as the result of exposure to stimuli. 

It is suggested that good marketing strategy often be based upon a defined set of consumer behaviors. Yet, we can forget this truism when they discuss sometimes esoteric and often complex findings of consumer research studies and their corresponding models. The truths and power of ethnography and the subsequent analysis become real when people directly observed a variety of consumers in different shopping situations. Observation is the principal method in anthropological marketing research. However, most first-time researchers, meaning anyone in the organization not trained in anthropology, often won’t automatically make the connections between the study of consumer behavior and the practice of anthropological marketing research. They are more easily drawn to the statistical or psychological approaches to the study of consumer behavior given the fact that most people learned that approach in college, it requires less time in planning, and requires minimal effort in execution. In other words, it’s easy.

As an example, let’s look at how one professor structured an assignment for his undergraduates. To help the students understand the principles of consumer behavior, the instructor designed two assignments that strengthened the linkages between anthropology and marketing: a mini-report and a comprehensive research project. For the mini-report assignment, students were required to write up an analysis of consumer behaviors based on their own observations/experiences at any food service site. They were encouraged to use one or two concepts and methods that they had learned from the course to record and analyze consumer behaviors in a real business situation. Each student was also directed to discuss with the instructor individually the progress and problems pertaining to the fieldwork and observations at least once during the period when the research was conducted. By doing so the instructor would have the opportunity to make some comments and suggestions on their individual fieldwork and observations. 

The instructor read and graded the students’ mini-report with the individual student present. The instructor would praise the individual students for what they had done correctly and made comments on what they did not do properly. Then he would let the individual students tell him how they could improve their work if they were asked to re-do the assignment. Through the mini-report practice and the interaction with the instructor, the students learned more about how to observe and how to record the data. Moreover, the students were trained how to analyze the rural data and how to write the research report based on primary data they collected. The mini-report training helped build a solid foundation for the students to conduct their final comprehensive research project. 

For the comprehensive research project, the students were directed to study the consumers at any food service business through participant observation and other methods, such as interviews and questionnaire survey. The students were requested to properly record and keep their original fieldwork notes, which would be graded together with their final reports. By the time the comprehensive research project was started, the great majority of the students had already mastered the basic skills in doing fieldwork, conducting observations, taking notes, which they had learned and practiced from their previous mini report projects. However, to help the students and to provide advice on site, the instructor also accompanied individual students to lunches or dinners in their selected food service sites from time to time during the period when they were doing the fieldwork. Students were encouraged to do some interviews while the instructor was present, so that they could get the advice immediately if they needed. They were also encouraged to exchange information as much as they could but they had to give each other credit if they did such an exchange in their final reports.

This project had a number of benefits for students. For instance, it acquainted them with observational research techniques and the subjectivity inherent in pure observation. Moreover, it made them realize that trends or patterns are revealed by consumer analysis while reinforcing many of the age, gender, ethnic-based or other consumer findings presented in textbooks. Next, it was a real-life illustration of the differences between non-probability and probability sampling. Finally, it invariably caused the students to become more aware of their own consumer behavior. The results of their comprehensive projects turned out to be significantly richer and the quality of the research reports was much improved from their mini reports. 

The students learned concrete skills and knowledge through their hands-on experiences, certainly more than they did through the textbook and in-class lectures because the anthropological approach directly involved them with the consumer and gave them a better understanding about consumer behavior. By using participant observation, the students realized that they themselves could be used as research instruments, which helped them understand all other types of research instruments, such as interviews and questionnaire surveys. More importantly, the students learned how to collect first-hand research data in their everyday life. These skills and course concepts would be abstract to them if the students had not been guided in their hands-on work.

Whether you’re a designer, a strategist, or anything else, learning how to conduct systematic participant observation is central getting to those breakthrough insights. As an observer you need to look at the body language of the customer, facial expressions, and listen to what they are saying. You need to examine why these thing occur. It takes a while to get used to doing this, but after you get the hang of it you pick up on many things that you normally would miss. Your eyes and ears are the best tools that I used when conducting this research.

The food service sector is perhaps one of the best places to study consumer behavior. In these settings consumers are not only consuming tangible goods (food and drink), but also intangible service. It is in restaurants that consumers will interact with the waiters/waitresses and with other consumers. Additionally, many consumer behavior related concepts and theories can be tested in the food service sector, such as consumption motivation, family/friends influences on consumer behavior, cultural influences on consumer behavior. In other words, food service sites provide a wide range of cultural behaviors in a fixed space, making the process of learning more efficient. In food service sites, people training in the basics of participant observation learn that culture as a concept is can be used to describe and analyze both the varieties and generalities of human behavior, values, choices, preferences, practices, beliefs, attitudes, and so forth throughout the world.

These sites also help people to learn firsthand the complexities and interconnectedness of food and culture. There are numerous factors that influence food choices, including but not limited to: environment, tradition, familiarity, social status, and perceived properties. Environmental factors influence the choices consumers make by the process of availability within a market. The ability to produce the products necessary for specific foods is the key to assimilating them into a society’s culture. Without the required ingredients, the foods of different cultures cannot be experienced or accepted. Tradition within specific regions dictates the level and type of consumption. What identifies familiarity is that which has become long accustomed and is considered the norm for the specific region. All of these points emerge when conducting fieldwork.

And ultimately, this is the crux of it all – being in the moment allows the researcher to identify which levers will have the most resonance. We become more creative, we become more aware, and we can design strategies that can break through the noise of traditional marketing.

Concepts of “Home”

I grew up on the edge of the Great Plains. To this day, there is a smell that comes with the arrival of summer that is unique, I’m in awe of a thunderstorm as it rolls in, and I am a bit uncomfortable when there are too many trees around. The plains are home. So, when did “home” become embedded in human consciousness? Is our sense of home instinctive, or is it learned? Are we as a species nest builders, or are we fundamentally nomadic? For most of the human experience, home may have been nothing more than a fire and the light it cast on the familiar faces of our family, band, or clan. Home was defined by things other than structures. For all people, home is the center of the world and a place of order that contrasts with the chaos elsewhere. When asked to draw a picture of “where you live,” children and adolescents worldwide invariably center their drawings around the home, making it the anchor for everything else. However it entered our consciousness, it’s a way of organizing space in our minds and finding meaning. Home is home, and everything else is not.

Not that you can’t feel “at home” in other places. But there’s a big psychological difference between feeling at home and being home. Feeling “at home” on the Sahara or in Seattle or in Paris is simply a way of saying that the not-home-ness of those places has diminished since you first arrived. Some people, as they move through their lives, rediscover home again and again. Some people never find another after once leaving home. And, of course, some people never leave the one home they’ve always known.

In a study by Pew a few years back, they asked participants to identify “the place in your heart you consider to be home.”  38% of the respondents did not identify the place that they were currently living to be “home.”  26% reported that “home” was where they were raised. Only 22% said that it was where they lived now. 18% identified home as the place that they had lived the longest and 15% felt that it was where their family had come from.


The idea of home almost completely displaces the idea of habitat. It’s easy to grasp the fact that a vireo’s nest is not the same as her habitat and that her habitat is her true home. The nest is a temporary annual site for breeding, useful only as long as there are young to raise. But we are such generalists that “habitat,” when applied to humans, is nearly always a metaphor. To say, “My home is my habitat” is true and untrue at the same time.

Yet our psychological habitat is shaped by what you might call the magnetic property of home, the way it aligns everything around us. Perhaps you remember a moment, coming home from a trip, when the house you call home looked, for a moment, like just another house on a street full of houses. For a fraction of a second, you could see your home as a stranger might see it. But then the illusion faded and your house became home again. That, I think, is one of the most basic meanings of home—a place we can never see with a stranger’s eyes for more than a moment. And yet, there is something compelling about the geographies we hold in our memories. The central point being that while habitat isn’t the defining aspect of the concept of home, it still evokes an emotional, primal response. We curate those memories and react when their triggers are put before us.

Ultimately, “home” is the place where you feel in control and properly oriented in space and time; it is a predictable and secure place. In the words of Robert Frost, “Home is the place that, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”  “Home” is both the defining point of differentiation and the primary connection between a person and the rest of the world.

Gen X and Travel Marketing

There’s a fixation with youth. There’s also a fixation with Boomers. But do a little math and it becomes abundantly clear that Gen-Xers, who are currently age 40-54, are naturally the up-and-coming (or recently-there) empty nesters as of 2019. And that spells opportunity.

Gen Xers won’t be seniors for another 10 to 15 years. They’re technology savvy. They’re in their peak earning years. Increasingly, they have more time to themselves. And travel brands should be all over them. And yet, travel brands are still caught up in marketing to Boomers and Millennials with little but a vague, dated “family-oriented” nod to members of Gen X. Just as brands tend to have a dated vision of Millennials as aimless, untethered youth, something that simply isn’t true, travel blogs and influencers are using the terms “seniors,” “empty nesters” and “Boomers” interchangeably. Baby Boomers are still empty nesters, they are still traveling, they are still big money for travel brands. They just aren’t the only empty nesters anymore.

As members of Gen X move into top management positions, they are making substantially more money. The youngest Gen-Xers may still have kids in school or college, but older Gen-Xers are becoming empty nesters – they are focused on living well and still have time to build up retirement savings. According to a Met Life study, 82% of Gen-Xers own homes now, and many are trading up to better homes. They are moving into a chapter of their lives where they have more discretionary dollars to spend on housing, consumables, travel and entertainment. Additionally, Millennials and Gen-Xers are more likely to travel both domestically and internationally (64% and 59%) than Boomers (47%).

As travel brands devise how to speak to this overlooked generation, more research should be done about what they like to do, see, and engage with. What entices them, what excites them, what drives their decisions regarding travel now that they have the time and resources? And as a starting point, they should consider what we already know sets them apart from the Millennials and Boomers:

  1. They are more likely to stay connected to work when they travel. While many Baby Boomers are already at retirement age and many Millennials are not yet saddled with heavy responsibility, Gen-Xers are work-obsessed and are also in high-earning, management years. Do we foster that obsession or help them break free of it?
  2. They will be inclined to do shorter vacations or turn work trips into vacation moments. They will be looking for quick getaways that will not compromise their careers.
  3. They get their inspiration from Facebook and Pinterest (yes Pinterest) more than Instagram. Millennials are more into Snapchat and Instagram, Boomers are more into travel blogs, but Gen X is a Facebook and Pinterest generation through and through.
  4. They place customer service as a higher priority than bonding with a brand. They want loyalty programs. They want perks, They want the hotel that goes the extra mile to make them happy. They want to keep it amicable but professional.
  5. They are most accessible between 8:00 pm and midnight. They consume personal content after the professional day has closed. Brands have a better chance of reaching them during the “night owl” habits they formed “after the kids’ bedtime” or “before the kids’ curfew.”

We need to learn a lot more about Gen X as they are now, not as they were ten years ago. We need to know where they are going. They are an audience ready and willing to invest their time and money on travel. Their needs and interests should be met by influencers and industries that speak to them personally. And they should be met sooner rather than later.

Why REAL Ethnography Still Matters

Fieldwork takes us to strange places. It allows us to come face to face with unexpected moments of both clarity and confusion, which can, in fact, spark innovation. I once spent a day with a 29 year old man who made about $600K a year running all things web-related for a major clothing designer. He lived on the Upper West Side and ate out nearly every night. He kept a 20 year old bottle of Oban on the bar for his end-of-day cocktail. But on the weekends, he headed to Brooklyn to drink the cheapest malt liquor he could find and build mutant bikes with his friends.  Turns out he did it to keep “true to his punk-rock roots.”

Many independent truckers buy hard candy to bump up their metabolisms when the nights get too cold in the cab because it helps save on the costs for heating the cab. Fishermen love Pringles and because the packaging can be easily converted to a mini-trash can when on the water. Parents of young children choose McDonald’s fries because they dry out quickly, making them easy to pick up when they clean out the car. On the surface these seem like silly insights. But these are the little gems that provoke thought and get us considering products, services, and brands in a new light. They provide both the hook for a campaign and the foundation for a long-term strategy. And they don’t typically come from traditional research methods, hence the power of an ethnographic process.

When was the last time most brand builders spent time in the homes of the people who buy your products? Real time, not watching a recorded one-hour interview, not via Skype, not just sitting at the kitchen table, but really digging in and having dinner, helping with the laundry, going to a movie, planning a vacation. Engaging in this way has two major implications (there are actually many implications, but these two a central to my mind). 

The first is that sampling includes contexts as well as people – the place, the time, etc. all have meaning. The amount of time spent with an individual or group is dependent on the nature of the problem. An ethnographic field session, for example, may only last a couple of hours, or it may span multiple days, weeks or months. The bottom line is that ethnographers try to plan their fieldwork to include observation of all relevant behaviors and events. Because of this, they get deeper, more meaningful results. You may hit on the “ah ha” moment in a thirty-minute interview, but it’s not likely. And typically, that moment you’re privy to in a short session isn’t sustainable – it lacks depth. So, it may feel like you’re saving money and getting meaningful insights from working rapidly, but it’s an illusion.

The second is internalization. When we participate, when we engage deeply, we more from being simple observers to actors in the event. We build deeper rapport with the subjects and find ourselves included in a wider range of significant actions because we build trust. We become, if only for a short time, part of a participant’s inner circle. That does more than expose us to a wider range of significant contexts. It imprints those contexts, actions, and beliefs on our minds, resulting in more creative thinking. We don’t just watching events unfold in a detached way, we start to empathize and develop questions that we might normally fail to ask. In other word, we change, we learn, and we become more creative.

Getting to this level of depth provides a real-world way of looking at a problem or opportunity, applying social and cultural understanding to the topic. What this means is that this kind of deep understanding leads to your audience more holistically and provides a wider range of answers that, if analyzed properly, go well beyond the tactical, the sensational, and the superficial.  This level of depth leads to redefine your business.

The Wonder of Fear

Fear may be as old as life on Earth. It is fundamental, a deeply wired reaction that evolved over the course of eons to protect organisms against threats, real and imagined. Fear may be as simple as a cringe of an antenna in a snail that is touched, or as complex as existential meltdowns in people. What strikes me as interesting is what we can learn about marketing from how we experience fear, whether we’re talking about booking hotels or making popcorn. So first, what about fear attracts us?

Some of the main chemicals that contribute to the “fight or flight” response are also involved in other positive emotional states, such as happiness and excitement. As such, it makes sense that the high arousal state we experience during a scare is also experienced in a more positive light – it, like sex or food, sparks the brain in a similar manner. But what makes the difference between getting a “rush” and feeling completely terrorized? Context vs. biology. When our evolved, rational brain gives feedback to our “emotional” brain and we perceive ourselves as being in a safe space, we can quickly shift the way we experience the arousal state, going from a state of fear to one of enjoyment. When you enter a haunted house, for example, you anticipate a ghoul jumping out at you, knowing all the while it isn’t really a threat. You quickly relabel the experience. In contrast, if you were walking in a dark alley at night and a stranger began chasing you, both your emotional and thinking areas of the brain would be in agreement that the situation is dangerous.

The fear reaction starts in an area of the brain called the amygdala, and spreads through the body to make adjustments for the best response. The amygdala is dedicated to detecting the emotional salience of the stimuli – how much something stands out to us. For example, a threat stimulus, such as the sight of a predator nearby, triggers a fear response in the amygdala, which activates areas involved in preparation for motor functions involved in fight or flight. It also triggers release of stress hormones and sympathetic nervous system. The brain becomes hyper-alert, pupils dilate, and breathing accelerates. Heart rate and blood pressure rise. Blood flow and stream of glucose to the skeletal muscles increase. Organs not vital in survival such as the gastrointestinal system slow down. And it all takes place without us thinking about it.

But the hippocampus is closely connected with the amygdala and allows us to contextualize fear, helping the brain interpret a perceived threat. They are involved in a higher-level processing of context, which helps a person know whether a perceived threat is real. For instance, seeing a lion in the wild can trigger a strong fear reaction, but the response to a view of the same lion at a zoo is more of curiosity. This is because the hippocampus and the frontal cortex process contextual information, and inhibitory pathways dampen the amygdala fear response.

Fear creates distraction, which can be a positive experience. When something scary happens, in that moment, we are on high alert and not preoccupied with other things that might be on our mind. So context, distraction, social learning  all have potential to influence the way we experience and internalize fear. When we are able to recognize what is and isn’t a real threat, relabel an experience and enjoy the thrill of that moment, we are ultimately at a place where we feel in control. That perception of control is vital to how we experience and respond to fear. And we can take something from that to apply more broadly to marketing and advertising as a whole.

Creating a visceral response, something that triggers the brain and forces it to weigh the primal against the rational causes us to pay attention. It also creates a memory. Whether fear of longing, the most startling truth about marketing is that we don’t think our way to logical solutions. We feel our way to reason. Emotions are the substrate, the base layer of neural circuitry underpinning even rational deliberation. Emotions don’t hinder decisions, they constitute the foundations on which they are made. Emotional response to an advertisement, rather than the ad’s actual content, produces great influence on the intent of a consumer to buy a product. Likeability is the most predictive measure that can help ascertain if an advertisement will increase the sales of a brand. But the goal should be do go beyond the sale and imprint a brand on a person’s mind. Things like fear, love, lust, they all produce reactions that are burned into the brain, resulting in long-term associations with the brand.

In the modern marketing and advertising ecosystem, the human brain has developed some complex recognition patterns that marketers must get past to influence their audience with a new experience and redirect their future decisions. Understanding neural and biometric responses to an campaign or strategy can paint a clear picture of the audience’s emotional state to drive brand recall and desirability, thus providing a roadmap to greater brand loyalty.

Challenges of Chinese Beer

The beer market is a fickle place. Tastes change with the season and fashion is as much a part of the selection process as flavor. But beer behavior is hooked intrinsically to tradition, culture, and myth. It likes its regular place at the bar and distrusts strangers. So even with the rise of craft brews and an increasing taste for experimentation, context and how we categorize the world shapes our behavior, beliefs, and choice of beer.

Regional brewers are connected to a sense of place and history. They’re an expression of the collective unconscious of a city, a state, and region. There is the mystique of exploring the coast of Maine through a regional ale and connecting with your home town through a microbrew IPA. But what about international brands? Can they evoke the same sense of drama? More accurately, can non-European beers make the leap? While there are a host of beers coming out of China, for example, they have had trouble gaining traction in the West.

When it comes to Chinese beer, the biggest hurdle by far is a cultural one. In the liquor store we may appear more clear headed and open minded, we may experiment a little, we may branch out from or patterns a bit. But even then, confronted with the array of brands before us we tend to balk at trying new beers. Get into a bar and the game changes further. Unless we are out of town and looking for a bit of local flavor, we fall back to the familiar. Walking up to the bar and spending five minutes deciding what to drink is as annoying as it is embarrassing. When you order a beer, it must be ordered with confidence. What the drinker doesn’t want  is to belly up to the bar and be confused by spelling they don’t understand and brands they find unfamiliar. To be sure there is a segment that loves to experiment, but most will not, at least not in this setting, unless the beer “fits” the context.

And that is sadly one reason why westerners still labor under the misconception that Chinese beers are only to be consumed with a Chinese meal (the same holds true for Indian and Thai beers). While Tsingtao is available around the world, it is rarely purchased anywhere but in Chinese restaurants – only a handful of people stock it in their refrigerators. Search the Web for mentions of Tsingtao and you’ll find thousands of pages describing how well it goes with kung pao chicken, dumplings or crab rangoon. Rarely do you find more.

If the statistics are anything to go by, foreign restaurants must account for a tiny share of the mainland’s beer sales. Chinese brewers produced over seven billion gallons of beer in 2018, making them the world’s biggest producer for the third year running. Snow is now the biggest selling brand in the world by consumption, but it is unknown outside China.  So what?  Here’s what.  That breaks down to 5.5 gallons a person for the entire country annually. That’s a lot of beer. And a lot of missed opportunity.

So why aren’t we drinking more of it?  Often, people talk about a rice flavor to Chinese beers, though they struggle to define what exactly that flavor is – rice, after all, is not the only grain used by Chinese brewers. And it’s used in the west as well. The truth is that the typical Chinese beer is mild-tasting, slightly hoppy, and light. These beers possess the same qualities as any lager or pilsner from any place on the planet. These brews have been brewed to ensure that even after several bottles and an eight course meal, you still have a bit of space left.

So it is more likely that cultural biases are the deterrent rather than flavor. We still question the quality of Chinese brands (even though half of any consumer goods we purchase are made in China). There are cultural and racial biases we are loathe to discuss, though truth be told they influence our interpretations. Equally, we view Germany, Belgium and the UK as the true masters of the craft and have a hard time looking to China for new brews. It isn’t flavor so much as it is cultural barriers to brand and product interpretation. And then there are the unfamiliar names and spelling conventions. It all adds up to pose a serious challenge for Chinese brands.

Beyond beer, all of this matters because it helps illustrate the difficulty in global marketing. If you plan to launch a brand in China, it serves you well to think not only about the people over there, but also the people over here – it serves you well to think about how cultural bias and worldview can influence our use and interpretations of a brand. Products and brands have a wide range of meanings and uses.

Mythology, It’s What’s For Dinner

Mythology is perhaps the most archaic and profound record we have of our collective spirit. From the inception of cave art, and presumably long before that, we find myth and myth-making as a fundamental element in relating to the mysteries of life, the cosmos and the world around us. It goes beyond recounting the day’s events and the mundane, giving life to the essence of what it means to be human. Myth is the symbolic revelation of eternal “truths”, an expression of our collective psyche and our role in the unfolding of the universe. As it relates to brands and marketing, it reminds us, or should remind us, that while features are central to a product, they are only a portion of what drives us to select one thing over another. If we think about brands as myth, as stories conveying something grand and extraordinary, we generate more than a passing interest in the consumer, we establish a connection to something transcendent, something that speaks to the underlying need to find meaning in the world.

In this case, I return to the idea of the universal hero in myth. Why? Because beyond buying a product to fulfill a functional need, we frequently seek out products and brands that allow us to step into a role that is greater than ourselves.  There are certain patterns which recur across cultures regardless of time and distance. Jung called these patterns and Joseph Campbell immortalized them for the non-scholar. And while there undoubtedly flaws in the possibly essentializing nature of their analyses, the fact remains that the underlying currents of these archetypes hold true, regardless of the minutia.  Archetypal images embody the most essential elements of the human drama. The trickster, the hero, etc. manifest themselves across space and time. They are a repertoire of instinctive human functioning. As an example, consider the archetype of the universal hero.

As it relates to marketing and advertising, we pay attention to stories that have conflict, resolution and challenges that allow us to project ourselves into the role of the protagonist.  A problem (i.e. monsters/struggles) is overcome by brands (i.e. hero/ heroine) reestablishing order in the universe.  The hero myth tells us that the character’s courage to suffer the burdens of fear and the conflicts within his personality set him apart. In myth, the ego is banished to a world full of opposites which war with each other within the personality. Out of the conflict something new and marvelous emerges. The journey of the hero typically includes most of the following stages:

  • The Call: the character leaves his ordinary life to enter an unusual and often supernatural world.
  • The Trial: there she/he encounters one or a number of challenges.
  • The Reward: a boon the hero receives as a result of his trials, usually accompanied by a new knowledge of self and the cosmos.
  • The Return: the hero must consciously decide to return to his world, sharing the new-found knowledge. Here the hero applies her/his new skills, powers, and understandings to somehow make his world a better place.

The advertising for Dodge Ram trucks often follows this motif, tying the truck (and the driver) to overcoming a series of challenges that only this brand can cope with. The driver is able to step in where other brands fail and vanquish the problem. He emerges stronger, wiser and more powerful than his counterparts. Similarly, cleaning products frequently do this.  The would be heroine is confronted with an impossible task of cleaning a bathroom. Armed with a specific brand, she not only vanquishes the problem (the monster), but is able to demonstrate both her prowess and knowledge to other members of the family, sharing the product/hidden knowledge with other members of the group.

Another mythological archetype that appears frequently in advertising is the Trickster. The trickster is a figure who plays tricks or otherwise disobeys normal rules and conventional behavior.  The trickster figure, whether as a deity, folk hero or literary figure breaks the rules of the society, the gods or nature, usually, albeit unintentionally, with ultimately positive effects.  With the help of his wits and cleverness, he evades or fools monsters and dangers with unorthodox manners. Therefore the most unlikely candidate passes the trials and receives the reward. The character of Mayhem as a representation of the Allstate brand or the Trix Rabbit represent the archetypal motif of the trickster. And they work because, like the hero, they conform to an underlying, universal storyline that entertains, teaches, and makes sense of the world.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because advertising and marketing often engage at the superficial level of the mind. That’s fine for a one-off campaign – it’s clever, it’s catchy, it captures an audience but only for a moment. That kind of thinking captures features and, occasionally, benefits. And while that may be good for point of purchase or short-term gains, it doesn’t establish a brand as something enduring. If you think in terms of designing a message or a campaign from the standpoint of mythical archetypes, you create something powerful, moving and universal. You create something timeless. You create devotion. And without that, a brand isn’t a brand at all, it is a commodity.