Making Anthropology Work

In general, companies hire ethnographers (anthropologist, sociologists, etc.) for a simple reason: to uncover new ways to achieve competitive advantage and make more money. This translates, most often, into research to understanding new product opportunities, brand positioning, or salient marketing messages. Unfortunately, our clients often have no idea what to do with the research. The fault lies with ethnographers, not the client, and can be overcome if we apply ourselves just a bit. And to be fair, the shortcomings in communication are not limited to ethnographers, a lot of academic disciplines that cross over into business have the same issues.

When clients complain about the research experiences they typically fall into two broad camps. When you hear the phrases “It’s too academic” or “I don’t know what to do with it”, the right thing to do is tell the client you will revisit the research and translate it into something they can use.  Better still, make sure they never feel that way.  Not only does it safe the researcher countless hours of added work, it helps ensure a returning client who sees the value of well-done ethnography and advocates for its use.

The researcher, research team, creative team, client, and everyone invested in the project need to work toward turning information into something they can act upon. When the time comes to sit down with the client and explain what you learned, the ethnographer must be prepared to also explain what to do with it next.

The Professor

So what does it mean when a client says, “It’s too academic.”?
 It means that they didn’t hire you to teach a class about anthropological theory and method.  It means that they need more than interesting bits of human behavior.  It means they don’t want to sit through a 100 page Power Point presentation before getting to the heart of the matter.  They are in business and have neither the time nor the interest of a scholar or student.  Of course, this doesn’t mean you don’t do the work or fail to set up the points you are trying to make, but it does mean that you be cognizant of the  fact that the audience hired you to improve their business and products, not teach a course on anthropological methods.

And to be fair, meetings are a constant (often annoying) reality for executives and people charged with deciding where a company is going and how it will get there.  They have little or no time to waste.  The people with the luxury of sitting through a lengthy presentation rarely have a significant amount of authority in the decision-making process, and they rarely hold the purse strings.  This isn’t to say that those two hours of research findings we present aren’t meaningful, but rather that presentations need to be tailored to the needs of the people buying your service (research) and product (recommendations). For the business community, the product is not knowledge, but intelligence.  In other words, the product is knowledge that is actionable and useful.

The solution is simple and deceptively obvious: Tell them what you plan to tell them, tell it to them, then tell them what to do with it.  This final point can’t be stressed enough.  A corporate presentation or report is neither a textbook nor a well-crafted movie (though well-crafted film can be used to illustrate key points in a very powerful way) and the people buying your services aren’t generally interested in a stunning climax at the end.  You can and should still tell a story, but the story needs to be simple and direct – an abridged version, so to speak.  Start by quickly and succinctly telling them why they are at the presentation, why what they are about to see and hear matters, and what the main points they need to pay attention to are.  The people you need to influence will stick around and pay attention to what you tell them if your presentation begins, for example, by telling the client “You have thought people liked your taste of your beer. But the truth is they drink it because it tastes funky and that gives them street credibility.”  Spending fifteen minutes explaining the concepts of social theory will simply put them to sleep.

OK, But What Do We Do With This Now?

The other frequently heard phrase after presenting research findings is “So, what am I supposed to do with it.”
 It isn’t enough to sum up your work into a form that can be quickly grasped, it needs to be something they can act upon, with clear direction and recommendations.  Video footage of a woman demonstrating how to play a drinking game may be interesting and entertaining, but that doesn’t mean the client knows why it is significant or how to use it. People need very concrete bridges between findings, insights and application.  The information you put out there is of little strategic or tactical value if a client can’t apply it. The value for clients in hiring anthropologists and ethnographers goes beyond the cultural lens we use to look at the world.  The value lies also in the holistic view of the world we are trained to take in and the way we connect seemingly unrelated (or seemingly unimportant) information into innovative approaches to a business problem. Businesses employ anthropologists in an attempt to understand the ways in which culture both shapes and reflects how people interact with, use, and conceptualize products, services, and brands.  Our seemingly-skewed way of looking at the world is unique and results in unique solutions that we must articulate.  If we don’t articulate these unique solutions, they will be lost and the client will be, understandably, less than pleased with the final results of the research.

The job doesn’t end when you’re finished collecting data.  Nor does it end with analyzing and interpreting that data.  It ends when the information you have collected can be turned into something actionable by the client, be it a new ad campaign, a new brand platform, or a new type of hammer.  It ends when the information goes from being knowledge to intelligence.


By Gavin

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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