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.

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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.

Marketing Is Poetry

 ‘TWAS a death-bed summons, and forth I went

By the way of the Western Wall, so drear

On that winter night, and sought a gate–

The home, by Fate,

Of one I had long held dear.

I can still recite that bit of poetry without much effort. The custom of memorizing poetry in public school is largely long gone, but there is merit to it. As a kid, I failed to realize the significance of poetry, but with age comes some degree of wisdom (or so I would like to hope) and I have come to the conclusion that what we do today, be it as a researcher, a strategist or a designer, can benefit from reading and reciting poetry. A poem does not convey a message is the same way as prose, it does not signify in the same manner. When poetry is consumed, words are judged in relation to things, and the text is judged in comparison to reality. A poem establishes a system of significance, generated by processes such as accumulation and the use of descriptive systems. It evokes responses, demands a reaction. And that is precisely what makes it relevant for marketers.

Prose is generally interpreted along a vertical axis, known as the paradigmatic axis or the axis of selection. On this axis, we look for the meaning of the text based on selected referents and terms, following the metaphors and metonymies, or by trying to attribute a coherent meaning to the passages. The message is typically fairly straight forward and the associations with other words clear. But unlike prose, in the semantics of the poem the axis of significations is horizontal. The poem doesn’t attempt to refer to reality, but to establish a coherent system of significance. As such, a poetic text must be interpreted in terms of the relationships that develop amongst the words.

A descriptive system that emerges in poetry is a group of words, expressions and ideas that are used in the text to designate the parts of the whole that the author wants to represent. Its structure  involves similarities in form and position among certain words in the text, similarities that are rationalized and interpreted in terms of meaning. Each word is made up of one or more semantic features. For example, the word “monster” contains the semantic features: living being, big, ugly, frightening, inhuman, etc. These elements paint a picture. They force us to imagine and think. As the reader progresses, accumulation filters through the semantic features of its words, thereby overdetermining the occurrence of the most widely represented feature and cancelling out the featurtes that appear less frequently.  For example, if we encounter the words “rose”, “tulip” and “sunflower”, then we might think that the shared feautyre is /flower/; if to this list we add the words “grandiose”, “woman” and “art”, then the overdetermined feature will be /beauty/. In this way, the features take the place of the words, and by substituting in this manner, the reader will come within reach of the poem’s significance.

It matters because at the heart of any brand or design lies the poetic expression of what we want the brand to mean. The poetic system is usually a set of stereotypes and conventional ideas about the word with which it is associated; this is how the reader realizes, when we make mention of nothing more than dancing, for example, that we are talking about an youth. So to is it for marketing and advertising done well.

Whether we are crafting a series of words in a campaign or developing a stylistic “language” for a group of objects to be associated with the brand, we are attempting to develop a system of meaning that overdetermines and allows the customer to interpret a range of finite meanings at a glance. The Nike swoosh, the phrase “Ram Tough”, the “story” conveyed in a billboard for Schlitz, they are all extensions of poetic discourse. And like the poem from Thomas Hardy that I learned so long ago, a poem lasts, tying meaning to the things the things we value in our lives, including brands.

The “Authenticity” of Culinary Tourism

When walking around in highly frequented areas of France, Italy, or San Francisco there are no shortage of restaurants boasting assurances of authenticity and regional cuisine, but how many of the claims provide diners with accurate representations of the regions culinary history and traditions? Does the same hold true in New York? Or Alabama? I believe it does. While walking around Birmingham a couple of years ago with my daughters we found ourselves wandering in search of a meal that could provide us with an accurate representation of the South’s unique culinary history. Walking from one blistering hot street to another we set our sights on a restaurant with an inviting exterior and a menu listing iconic local dishes like ribs, collard greens, fried oysters, etc. Feeling hungry and hopeful but somewhat suspicious of the lack of local clientele we found a place, took our seats, and explored the menu. After digging into our bland, greasy chicken it became clear to us all that the restaurant’s goal was not to celebrate the rich culinary history of the region but to fulfill the necessary task of quickly feeding tourists and other visitors with barely recognizable renditions of the traditionally rich and saturated flavors of the South.

With the growing influx of visitors cities and countries host yearly comes an industry that operates on tourist spending and the fact that these visitors must eat. The rapid acceleration of globalization in recent years by means of transport, communication, and technology have brought about extreme changes in food production and consumption. Though questions of authenticity in food are highly contested examining the impacts of globalization on regional culinary tradition is important. There is a concern that cultural imperialism and Mcdonalidisation may lead to homogenization that can result in a “global palate” as well as a “global cuisine”. The homogenizing force of globalization  is thus commonly seen as a threat to the close connection between food and place, the taste of place or ‘terroir’. Is it possible for terroir to exist in dishes that are altered to become more suitable and accessible to the palettes of non-natives? Is there an emergence of a new terroir muddled and impacted by globalization or is it producing culinary experiences devoid of any real sense of place?

When traveling, tourists often search for senses of novelty while at the same time scouting the security that comes with familiarity. In recent years questions of authenticity and tradition have been at the forefront of conversations regarding food. Is cuisine that exists to serve tourists palettes a threat to regional gastronomical traditions or an entity that can exist within itself without tainting traditional and historical meal preparations? This isn’t easily answerable being that the notion of “authentic” food is so highly contested – many argue that the nature of food and culinary traditions are never static due to constant shifts in population, technology, and tradition. In other words, “authenticity” may be a sham. Can a place’s tourist food industry remain solely a tourist industry or will the “globalization of taste” have impacts on the palette of the local and shift the their tastes and practices?

I believe there is hope. We have become a nation of foodies. The same can be said of most countries. Culinary tourism has been a growing trend for the past few years, with gourmands travelling halfway round the world to eat at celebrated restaurants. But now the trend is shifting away from expensive, “star-chef” dining towards more authentic, grass-roots culinary experiences. Travelers want to travel to the food, not the other way around. We want to taste top-quality, hyper-local produce at its source, in the very spot it is grown or made by small, artisan producers. We are looking to eat simple home cooking, where the flavors are sensational.

The end result seems to be that while there will always be a place for restaurants catering to culinary blandness, the increased desire for something that fits into the total travel experience, rather than being a sideshow element of it, will help preserve cultural traditions. Or rekindle them. Locals are savvy. They’ll capitalize on this cultural shift and in doing so take control over their culinary traditions, opening up opportunities for themselves, culinary tourists, and the travel industry as a whole.