Cultural Symbols: 121 Years After Wounded Knee

121 years ago yesterday the massacre at Wounded Knee took place.  December 29, 1890.  By the time it was over, at least 150 men, women, and children of the Lakota Sioux had been killed and 51 wounded, though some estimates placed the number of dead at 300. And this anniversary got me thinking, for a number of reasons that go well beyond the lack of recognitions at the national level of one of the greatest atrocities in American History. It made me recall the comment someone I knew made many years ago after watching Dances With Wolves – the person in question, understandably moved by the realization of what had happened to native populations in the US, decided that she was metaphorically Sioux.  “I’ve decided I’m Indian. Maybe not by blood, but I am by how I feel.” This blond-haired, blue-eyed person began buying dream catchers, adorning herself with an array of turquoise and listening on occasion to Gabriel Ayala – consumption was the expression of her new-found respect and she saw the repurposing of another population’s material culture as an expression of solidarity. However, her first visit to the Kickapoo reservation was, shall we say, a bit of a shock and led quickly to disillusionment. The realities of the “Noble Savage” in the modern world were a shock, as was the fact that her announcement of Indian-hood wasn’t met with the enthusiasm she expected. Understand, I don’t write this as a condemnation of her or her motives. I mention it because it reminded me that representations of culture are more than objects to be consumed by the dominant population, they have meaning, particularly if the population having its culture appropriated has been beaten, exploited and mythologized. I got to thinking about the nature of cultural appropriation, globalization and how we make money.

Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It often denotes acculturation and assimilation, but it often connotes a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture as well. It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and art, religion, language, or social behavior. Once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, they take on meanings that are significantly divergent from those they originally held. More often, they are simply stripped of any real meaning.

George Lipsitz developed the notion of strategic anti-essentialism to address the phenomenon. It is defined as the calculated use of a cultural form, outside of your own, to define yourself or your group. Increasingly, in a hyper-branded, postmodern world where people are in a near-perpetual state of self-reinvention, adopting material and symbolic elements of another culture is the norm. Their symbolism and significance is retooled and they become something new. Granted, this is a normal aspect of cross-cultural interaction, but there are issues of power at play here that can’t be overlooked.

I remember a colleague getting terribly upset of the number of people in Hong Kong wearing crosses back in 2005 – the use of the cross as a fashion statement had become common, even amongst non-Christians. When I pointed out that he had a yin/yang tattoo but wasn’t a Taoist, he had no difficulty justifying the appropriation of that symbol. While he continued to struggle with the idea of his religious symbol being used in a largely non-Christian context as a fashion piece, he did recognize that it was bound to happen in a changing global milieu. But the difference between the context of Western/Eastern cultural appropriation is shaped by scale and wealth. Unlike China, native populations in the US (or the world over, for that matter) aren’t seeing the equality gap change. There is no semblance of equal power. “When the majority culture [or elements of it] attempts to strategically anti-essentialize themselves by appropriating a minority culture, they must take great care to recognize the specific socio-historical circumstances and significance of these cultural forms so as not the perpetuate the already existing, majority vs. minority, unequal power relations.” So what does nay of this have to do with businesses and brands? Quite a bit, actually.

Depending on the brand and the product, it is often difficult to puzzle out whether a company is attempting to make a comment about the oppression and condescending observation of the “other” by the dominant culture, or simply reflecting a stereotyped feeling of the exotic in a way that was insensitive and ultimately diminishing to the people from whom they have taken cultural expression. And that’s a problem. Not only is it morally suspect, it can lead to a backlash against the brand. What this means is that companies need to do more than have a superficial understanding of the symbols they use and the products they sell. They need to understand the people behind them, what is off limits and how the use of those symbols and objects will be interpreted both by the minority culture and the population as a whole.


Client Buy-In: Selling Results Before Methods

As I’ve written about before, “ethnography” is a loaded word for many people, including clients. It is presented as everything from in-home interviews to mall intercepts to participant observation.  And while I am an unquestionable advocate for defining in terms of participant observation and the kind of deep-dive research that involves far more than just talking to people, I also think that we get bogged down in clarify methodology rather than results. Methodology means little to nothing if the reasons for doing ethnography right aren’t expressed from the outset. Before worrying about the details of the craft, we need to explain why good, deep ethnography yields better results than the fly-by-night version so often sold. “We uncover insights that result in breakthrough ideas and product. That makes you money and elevates your brand. Fundamentally, that is the key selling point behind doing real ethnography over ethnography-lite.

I am not advocating a wholesale shift away from the word ethnography, but I am advocating discussing why it’s relevant before we talk about what “it” is. Think of it as if you were building a house. You may want to know about the tools your builder is using, but your first concerns are about the quality of work and the results of his prior building engagements. Your builder may be the best builder in the world, but if his focus is on discussing his hammers rather than your building, then you probably won’t bother hiring him. Similarly, ethnographers tend to spend too much time at the outset talking about ethnography and not enough time talking about problem solving.

Second, when the tool kit comes up, we need to be clear about what exactly is in it. We owe it to ourselves and to our clients to define exactly what we mean by ethnography each time we talk about it. We can start by outlining and classifying the different elements of or types of ethnography we are practicing:

  • Drive-by Observation – rapid observation and intercept interviewing with people on the street.
  • Silent Observation – pure observation with little or no interaction with participants. People may not know they are being observed/studied.
  • Questioning Observation – accompanied activities where the researcher observes and interviews the participant(s).
  • Semiotic Interviews – interviewing based on how people construct symbolic relationships. This can involve story telling, tasks and conversations around defined cultural patterns.
  • Participant-Driven Observation – participants become observers of their own behavior and the behavior of others. They develop insights which are then communicated to the research team.
  • Participant Observation – a pure anthropological approach when the researcher lives with people and learns about them through extended experience. This requires the most training and time, but yields the greatest insights.

While my personal inclination as an anthropologist is to hang on to “ethnography” people are moving away from it and focusing on what we produce, not how we produce it. Those clients who are already on board don’t need explanations. The organizations to whom we’re selling our ideas need to know what we deliver, not just how we deliver it. And they need to know why depth and quality matter.

Krampus is Coming!

KRAMPUS IS COMING!  Well, Krampus came and went, thankfully overlooking my home this year and saving my children for another Christmas in 364 days. When I told a friend and colleague about Krampus not long ago, I received an earful about the damaging, scaring nature of such a legend. I learned that Krampus was, so it turned out, was as bad as violent video games, eating too much salt or drowning kittens. Ethnocentrism and the need to pass judgment on anything outside our particular cultural milieu seems to be as strong a drive as it has always been.


Krampus, for those unfamiliar with the tradition, is a demonic creature recognized in many of the Alpine countries. According to legend, Krampus accompanies St. Nick during the Christmas season, punishing bad children – but lumps of coal are not part of his repertoire. When the Krampus finds a particularly naughty child, he stuffs the child into his sack and carries the frightened child away to his lair, where he presumably makes the child the centerpiece of his Christmas dinner.

Krampus is represented as a beast like creature, generally demonic in appearance, with sharp horns and a great lolling tongue. The creature has roots in Germanic folklore. During the first week of December, particularly on the evening of 5 December, young men dress in costumes in parts of Austria, Bavaria and Hungary, roaming the streets and frightening children with rusty chains and bells.

But is Krampus really such an appalling figure? Will Krampus really lead our children to lives of murder or blind fear of the dark? I hardly think so. Yes, Krampus is frightening, but regardless of what we want to believe, children are remarkably adept at distinguishing transitory, entertaining fear from the real thing. There is increasing data, for example, to support the idea that children are decidedly capable of distinguishing cartoonish violence from the real thing. Those violent video games are simply not turning kids into sociopaths. Are they reprehensible? Perhaps, but there is no proof correlating video games with increased violence or people becoming desensitized to the suffering of others. So too with traditions like Krampus.

Krampus is a representation of the fear of winter.  He is a harsh counterpoint to the perfect kindness of Santa. He is binary response to the unattainable notion of goodness and love. He is, in a sense, an answer to the questions children have about the inexplicable selflessness of a bearded gift-giver they have never met. Krampus is indeed frightening, but he is also cartoonish and meant to convey something symbolic rather than literal, and children are far more adept and teasing this out than we would like to believe.

So what does this have to do with businesses? Perhaps very little.  On the other hand, it might mean that there are opportunities to embrace strategies that speak to the darker side of winter and the Christmas celebration. Simply assuming that one cultural norm fits all is a lost opportunity.

Shopping the Day After Christmas: Doing More Than Deals

It is the day after Christmas and my initial plans involved spending the day in beat up pants and slippers, indulging in a cigar and diving into my new Steven Pinker book.  Not a bad day.  But the operative word in all of this is “involved” – the past tense.  It turns out that while I will be able to do a bit of this, shopping is also on the agenda.  And I am far from alone. Between gift exchanges, product returns and shoppers (members of my immediate family included) eager to redeem gift cards, the day after Christmas has become a very busy day for retailers.

Last year, the day after Christmas obviously fell on a Sunday.  While blue laws are largely a thing of the past, there are still parts of the country where stores don’t open or have limited hours on Sunday.  Add to that the fact that Sunday is traditionally a day for family time for a large portion of the population, and the limitations to draw people into a store become clear. But retailers are under no such constraints this year. At the same time, many people still have the day after Christmas off from work. This adds up to making a prime shopping day.

In a survey released recently by American Express, 57% of Americans said they planned on shopping on December 26. That’s a 14% jump over last year.  Of those surveyed, more than 1 in 5 said  they’ll be cashing in gift cards, while 36% will be buying gifts for themselves. This is hardly surprising when you consider that the gift card has become a pivotal element in most of our last-minute shopping agendas (I myself picked up several when I ran into the wall of shopping fatigue).  And while I am predisposed to think of gift cards as a clear indication of a lack of imagination, this is my own bias and one that hardly applies to the rest of the world.  So, armed with cards, people are ready to break free from the confines of their homes and buy those things they really want in lieu of that reindeer sweater they received.

Granted, part of the post-Christmas shopping is a byproduct of the economy. Millions of Americans decided to delay some of their Christmas spending this year because of a lack of money or uncertainty about the economy in the new year. Some have postponed gift exchanges while others just wanted to wait to take advantage of the huge discounts widely available in the days and weeks after Christmas. Everyone, after all, loves a good deal.  But the deal is only part the attraction.

The day after Christmas has become a day for many people to break out of the confines of a house swimming in scattered toys, torn wrapping paper and a seemingly endless river of leftover ham. For example, it is a major day for theaters, as people swarm the local Cineplex. There is a significant spike in restaurant sales as people look for a healthier alternative to mashed potatoes and less dehydrating experience than the afore mentioned ham. So, yes, people are looking for those things they didn’t find under the tree, but they are also looking for entertainment, release from normative family obligations and a bit of indulgence.

And this is where the brick and mortar shopping experience becomes just that, an experience. No doubt, big box stores will see a spike in sales as people look for those deals, but the same will hold true for retailers that offer a bit more. Locations with a café or shopping-focused entertainment (e.g. personalized augmented reality applications for that new Christmas iPad) will keep people in the store longer and sell more products. Manufacturers that partner with retailers to place merchandise in areas of the store where they will be “found” by people looking to outdo the rest of the mobs with their shopping prowess will sell more of their goods – shoppers see themselves as skilled hunters and foragers, so to speak, improving their moods by making them feel superior. Retailers that make people feel good about the shopping experience help combat the fears people have about the economy after such an extended period of uncertainty.

The point is simple.  We know shopping will be big today. As such, it makes sense to think about how best to capitalize on that behavior.  Sales are a driver, perhaps THE driver, but the fiscal benefits are not enough.  There is more to shopping than getting your stuff. If you have a strategy that speaks to the deeper cultural patterns and psychological need as of shoppers, the better you’ll do and the more you’ll make.


4 Noble Truths of Research

With the overwhelming number of methodological devices used to uncover insights, it’s easy to become lost in thinking about how and when to use them.  Not to mention why. This is even more true for our clients, who have neither the time nor the inclination to dig into the subtleties of how we do what we do.  What this means to practitioners of design or market research is breaking out the vast number of options into 4 simple themes.

Study and Learn

This is due diligence work.  It can be used to prep before doing more involved, primary research or once a campaign, product, etc. has been launched.  Any number of these processes can be used, depending on the scope of work, but they generally lack direct interaction with customers.  That being said, they are very helpful in understanding what you see when doing primary research.

Secondary Research

  • What it is: Review of published articles, papers, websites, books and any other documents to develop an informed view of a topic before digging in first-hand
  • Why we do it: This grounds first-hand research and provides background to stakeholders


  • What it is: Develop fictional, archetypal character profiles based on the behavior, life-styles, and cultural norms of real people
  • Why we do it: This brings the customers to life and fleshes out segments in a way that communicates the values, needs, and behavior of various target groups


  • What it is: Written scenarios describing the ways social and cultural norms and trends may shape customer behavior and reactions to a concept, company, or message
  • Why we do it: Predicting reactions to a concept and changes that might result from it helps the client understand possible outcomes and develop a long-term approach to their brand message

Historical Analysis

  • What it is: Developing a rich understanding of how an industry, market, segment, population, or practice have changed through time
  • Why we do it: This helps identify messaging cycles and consumer trends over time – emerging patterns can be used to uncover symbolic norms and project patterns of future behavior

Message Failure Cataloging

  • What it is: Brainstorm and list all the things that might go wrong in a branding effort, from messaging to strategy
  • Why we do it: This helps establish what components of a branding effort will contribute to successfully messaging to customers

Task (Cognitive) Analysis

  • What it is: Catalog all the touch points a brand has with a customer, leading from sensory input and reactions, to decisions and impressions, to the point of taking action
  • Why we do it: This helps determine what “sticks” with regard to informational and emotional needs, preventing a breakdown in the messaging cycle

Affinity Diagramming

  • What it is: Developing a map or design and messaging elements according to their various relationships (e.g. similarity, function, language, etc.)
  • Why we do it: This shows the connections between concepts, issues, and perceptual categories

Cross-Cultural Analysis

  • What it is: Use of published material and first-hand information to determine similarities and differences of meaning between cultural, sub-cultural, and community groups
  • Why we do it: This helps a team develop a complete understanding of the different cultural factors that will need to be addressed in various parts of the world, or even the community

Visual Archaeology

  • What it is: Using artifacts to document patterns of meaning as it is demonstrated in music, photographs, buildings, magazines, etc.
  • Why we do it: This gives a rich sensory explanation or societal and cultural norms that can be incorporated into a branding effort


This is where you find unmet needs, subtleties of behavior, patterns of consumption and all of that information that leads to breakthrough innovation and insights.  These are the most time intensive processes, but are the most powerful for understanding the right questions to ask and the right solutions to provide.

Proxemics (spatial analysis)

  • What it is:  Documenting how space and environments are used and understood in the cultural and psychological contexts
  • Why we do it: This technique is good for getting at what different groups associate with places – what does a dark room signify, what does the card section in a drugstore mean, what does the arrangement of furniture in a home signify?

Cultural Mapping

  • What it is: This is the tracking of how people and objects move through space over time
  • Why we do it: This process helps define high traffic areas and the impact images, obstacles, etc. shape spatial behavior

Material Culture Analysis

  • What it is: Look for and documents things in people’s lives, how those things derive meaning, and how they reflect the culture to which the owner belongs
  • Why we do it: It provides information about iconic imagery for a group, establishes what things are most important to them, and how they reflect meaning in daily life

Contemporary Archaeology

  • What it is: Examining evidence of use patters, wear patterns, placement, fabrications, and the organization of things
  • Why we do it: Like material culture analysis, this uncovers how artifacts and the environment fit into the lives of the customer, demonstrating values, beliefs, life-ways, habits, and the propensity for creativity

Social Network Mapping

  • What it is: Categorize the various relationships and communities of interaction within a segment and map their interactions
  • Why we do it: This is a excellent way to understand the different roles people take on at different times and the various relationship types with a group


  • What it is: Spend time with people (sometimes days or weeks), using participant observation to better understand the interactions, routines, cultural beliefs, and contexts of their daily lives
  • Why we do it: This is an extremely powerful tool for getting at the complexities of beliefs and worldview, finding connections and shared meaning so as to tailor subtle but extremely powerful brand messages

Rapid Ethnography

  • What it is: Spend as much time as possible engaged in participant observation related to a particular topic or group – a more streamlined version of full-blown ethnography
  • Why we do it: This is a great way to get a first-hand understanding of the habits, beliefs, rituals, and meanings people assign to a topic.  It is a good way to find associated patterns of shared meaning

Lexical Analysis

  • What it is: Cataloging and categorizing the specific words used in a conversation
  • Why we do it: This method documents the subtle differences people assign to different words, providing a more engaging, effective brand message

Observational Analysis

  • What it is: Similar to ethnography, but interaction between the researcher and the participants is removed – pure observation
  • Why we do it: This helps provide an understanding of what people actually do in context rather than them telling you.  This process may find it’s way into other methodologies

Guided Tours

  • What it is: Have participants provide a guided tour, showing the researcher what is happening, what it means, and how it impacts their lives
  • Why we do it: This helps people recall important information they may not normally be aware of and establishes a process of individual recall

Personal Inventory

  • What it is: Document those thing people say are important to them, having them explain what those things mean – this can be anything from an old picture to a favorite pair of socks
  • Why we do it: This helps uncover perceptions, emotional ties, values, and shared meaning, as well as activities and processes of use.

Narrative Analysis

  • What it is: Using story telling and narratives to uncover symbolic associations and “shared” memories people have about events, places, things, etc.
  • Why we do it: This is a good tool for determining how people construct memories and assign importance to events, people, and things

Photo Analysis

  • What it is: This is a process using a planned shooting exercise where photos are taken of specific activities, groups, things, etc.
  • Why we do it: This documents what meanings people assign to the subjects they are shooting, uncovering patterns of behavior, perceptions, worldview, subconscious beliefs, and inspirations


Once Exploration is done, this is the phase that should follow – it is the creative stage, where you have assumptions and hypotheses to work from.  These methods push to understand individual motivations and perceptions (not necessarily reality, but what people believe).  These are also good tools to use when you already have something tangible to work with, like product concepts or messaging campaigns.

Collage Building

  • What it is: Participants build a collage from images they provide or the researcher provides and arranges them to represent something meaningful and significant to a question
  • Why we do it: This provides visual association with abstract or complex issues, demonstrating perceptions, worldview, and  symbolic and iconic messages

Draw It

  • What it is: Participants express a belief, experience, or concept by drawing or painting it
  • Why we do it: This provides a highly expressive and emotionally strong process for getting at people’s thought, beliefs, and subconscious associations

Act It

  • What it is: Participant role-play in a scripted or adlib scenario, acting out what they believe about an issue or how they believe the world works
  • Why we do it: Like drawing, this provides a highly expressive and emotionally strong process for getting people to express their thought, beliefs, and actions

Outlier Interviews

  • What it is: Identify and interview people who represent the far ends of the spectrum of knowledge or interest in the
  • Why we do it: Talking with “outliers” highlights key issues that typical participants may overlook – they are often the most ardent critics and cheerleaders

Conceptual Landscaping

  • What it is: Map or diagram complex, abstract social and cultural concepts, constructs, or activities
  • Why we do it: This is helpful in understanding how people conceptualize ideas in relation to each other

Card Sort

  • What it is: List images or words on separate cards and have people organize them in a way that holds meaning for them, constructing visual grouping of associated meaning
  • Why we do it: This helps expose the mental models, hierarchies, priorities and connections participants have as they relate to a topic

Semiotic Analysis

  • What it is: Examine how signs and symbols are used to construct meaning and how they are shared – it can be done using word/concept association, image associations, or color associations
  • Why we do it: This uncovers the perceptions customers have of their world and what messages have the most profound impact on them

Focus Groups

  • What it is: A gathering of individuals from a target area in a controlled group setting to ask a series of targeted questions
  • Why we do it: It can be used to get at a rich amount of shared beliefs, perceptions, actions

Unfocused Groups

  • What it is: A gathering of individuals in a workshop or open discussion forum where they have access to a wide range of creative things to stimulate interaction and creation
  • Why we do it: This encourages a dynamic, creative space where ideas can be shared freely as inhibitions are lowered


  • What it is: Develop and ask a series of targeted questions, generally in a macro-sampling
  • Why we do it: This process is a quick, efficient way to get at large samples of people when understanding context and subtle variation in meaning are not a driving factor

Photographic and Video Journals

  • What it is: Participants keep a written journal along with either a photographic or video diary of their beliefs, reactions, impressions, etc. as they relate to a specific issue, thing, topic
  • Why we do it: This is a content-rich, highly creative method that can be used over a wide range time to uncover emotionally charged areas of interest


This is the nuts and bolts phase, when the creation phase has effectively come to a close and it’s time to make sure all the details are in place. This stage is crucial to a solid execution.  It also identifies any pieces of the puzzle that may have been overlooked.  It is important to note that some of these methods (e.g. empathy testing) can also be done at the outset of a project, before the Explore phase.

Experience Prototyping

  • What it is: Rapidly prototype a concept and elicit input from participants in the design process
  • Why we do it: This process is efficient and a good way of involving customers directly into the design process, providing ideas and values they consider important

Scenario Testing

  • What it is: Develop a series of possible future, long-term scenarios reflecting the client’s changing brand promise and get reactions from participants
  • Why we do it: This is good for gauging consumer tolerance for change and determining possible risks

On-site Usability

  • What it is: Testing the ability of a consumer to use an interface, be it package design or an online application
  • Why we do it: This identifies any system and design problems that may cause consumers discomfort

Modeling and Concept Testing

  • What it is: Using models and fully developed representations of branding materials and spaces where they will be used (e.g. mock retail spaces) with clients, customers and the internal team
  • Why we do it: This process allows the client to respond to any issues and unmet needs prior to a full-blown launch


  • What it is: Team members taking on the roles of customers, stakeholders, etc. and working through issues from their perspectives
  • Why we do it: It provides team members a way of experiencing a branding solution from a different point of view, helping them construct alternative solutions

Customer Reenactment

  • What it is: Having the client act out or describe what they believe to be the “typical” customer experience
  • Why we do it: This is a good way of uncovering the client’s beliefs about their customers and addressing areas of disconnect

Empathy Testing

  • What it is: Using tools (blindfolds, weights, etc.) to gain first-hand experience of what customers experience
  • Why we do it: This is a great method for understanding what physical limitations customers experience due to disabilities, environmental stresses, etc.

The Death of Innovation and the Renaissance Mind

There seems to be a degree of consensus that once a company hits a certain size, when it becomes a “big” business, it stops innovating or thinking in new ways.  Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, such as Apple or Patagonia, but they are just that, exceptions.  Assuming for a moment that there is some truth in the collective interpretation of how businesses change through time, we have to ask why it should be so.  I think it is simply that we forget what it is we actually do – “I make killer Product X” becomes “I do job X.”  Customers become data points and thinking is constrained.  Innovation becomes stale at best, dies outright at worst. There is a lack of empathy and gut-level understanding of  their customers and how their products fit into the big picture. Lacking a gut sense for what keeps ordinary people up at night, individuals within an organization begin to live in a bubble, unable to broaden their view and be genuinely creative. We’ve all heard this argument before and there is a great deal of truth in it, but that’s just part of the problem.

Our companies have spent ages trying to understand the customer, but it has been in the last 100 years that the process has become extremely complex.  Particularly since the introduction of the computer.  We have spent our time creating systems to handle incredibly complicated problems. Today, if you can ask a good question, our organizations have the power to provide you with a very detailed answer to what ails you. The problem is that don’t always ask good questions.  And when we do, the answers are not answers at all – they are the recitation of numbers that address anything but the question asked.

To my mind, “What is the question?” that seems to be the core of the problem. In an increasingly turbulent and interconnected world, the ambiguity that surrounds us is rising to unprecedented levels. And that’s a serious problem that our current statistical models and systems can’t handle. We can no longer assume we know what people are doing or why they are doing it based on the results of a survey, sales data, or traffic patterns, both online and off.  Far too often, we simply ask questions that aren’t relevant or lack practical validity.  Why should this be the case?

I think it lies in the ambiguity and contextuality I mentioned before.  Large companies are phenomenally good at managing complexity, but they’re quite bad at tackling ambiguity.  As long as the complexity is constrained by highly logical process, everything is fine, but human beings are far from logical.  Or, more accurately, they are logical according to their worldviews; worldviews that increasingly deviate from the uniformity that emerged during the modernist period of the last century.  A complicated problem is like playing a game of chess, an ambiguous problem is finding yourself in a new country, trying to find a restaurant and hoping it’s a place you will fall in love.  In this situation, the variables can’t be readily accounted for until you’ve done some legwork and learned a thing or two about the people, the place and yourself.  In more concrete terms, take something as seemingly simple as shopping for groceries. Are the decisions we make when filling the pantry transportation driven, health driven, calorie driven? Is grocery shopping a political statement, an expression of emotional bonds within a family, a way of coping with emotional stress? The answer is “yes” to all of the above.

That means that you aren’t guaranteed to increase sales just because you know people tend to turn right when you enter a store, that they are more inclined to explore an end cap when it incorporates the color red, or even that mom’s are increasing using smart phones while shopping.  All you’ve done in that situation is identify data points. It doesn’t mean you have identified why people do what they do.

How do you get at that sort of thing?  The simple answer is fieldwork, but that answer is too limited.  So is talking about multidisciplinary teams.  It is about having multidisciplinary thinking – the renaissance experience reborn. These are people who are part scientist, part humanist, part artist and part business person.  Simply having a range of talents and disciplines working together on a problem isn’t sufficient because it becomes a process of arguing points from a single trajectory or handing of elements a project from one person to another.  When multidisciplinary thinking comes together, by contrast, the disciplines themselves start to mutate, allowing for breakthrough thinking.  We start to see art and science blend into something unique. We start practicing business like a designer.  We shape technology the way we shape a painting, a myth or a story.  Rather than seeing data points, we see the linkages between them and start to produce solutions that address real problems.

From the standpoint of designing a research and/or strategy project, it means beginning by getting the client and the team comfortable with letting go of the need to focus on instant solutions. It also means having the client and the team, regardless of training, practice thinking differently.  Accountants and engineers need to enter the field and learn through practice to think in terms of complex adaptive systems, rather than complex systems (note the lack of the word “adaptive”).  It also means fieldwork researchers spending time think through every insight from the vantage point of “how do we make money on this.” The point is that as different types of thinkers learn to think in more expansive ways, the more likely they are to develop breakthrough ideas.

What’s the payoff?  The introduction of the personal computer.  The introduction of the automobile.  The introduction of inoculation to medicine. We need to think this way more than ever, particularly in an economy defined by prolonged ambiguity and a world where identity drives the purchase decisions as much as necessity.

Just Give Them the Facts and You Won’t Sell a Thing

Marketers and product developers spend a great deal of time talking about why the thing they’re selling matters, why it’s better than the next guy’s thing.  They quote facts and features and minutia to make their point because, as all good business people know, people respond to fact.  Here’s how things would work in a perfect world: You and your competitors are pushing soap, or tires, or TVs, or, well you get the idea.  To prove your superiority, you pull out a piece of information so precise, so compelling, so perfect, that the consumer is swayed and decides to buy your goods.  They become life-long devotees and advocates for you. You and your team make millions for your company and become the saviors of the day.

And this probably has happened in some cases, as long as it was a product  that neither consumer nor the person buying it cared that much about.  Think toilet bowl cleaners.  But if it is a product or service that has deeper, emotionally charged components, then it probably hasn’t.  We like to think that our facts are enough to sway people because if they’re shopping for, say, a television they are shopping for technology.  But the TV is much more complex than that – it is status symbol, it is entertainer, it is baby sitter, it is the digital hearth around which the family gathers much as it did around the campfire in the not so distant past.  Facts are a necessity, but they are not the most compelling element when trying to persuade someone to buy your things.  Regardless of our belief that we’re all wonderfully rational, the truth is we are not.

Why is this the case?  Well, according to one theory (and they are indeed competing theories about this), we didn’t evolve communication skills just to improve our skills at the hunt.  We evolved to build arguments as a form of verbal bullying rather than a method of spreading correct information.  And competing marketing messages are just that, a form of argumentation.  They are a means of bending others to your way of thinking.  In other words, there are two reasons for a company trying to persuade a consumer to pay attention to them, 1) because they actually want to get you to buy the right thing and 2) because they’re trying to establish dominance over you. Not surprisingly, we understand this at a gut level and interpret leading with a series of facts as a way of establishing control.  We don’t react negatively to it, but we tune it out.

Think about the way people treat the two sides of a political debate like teams.  People are aware that much of what they have to say and what they support is simply absurd dogma.  But they embrace otherwise extremist ideas with remarkable vigor.  Now, note how may of the positions debated involve people jumping into an issue in which they have nothing at stake.  They are tribalizing, joining a team. That is know as confirmation bias. We read a news article that supports what we believe, and we add it to the “I’m right about this” column. Frequently this same model applies to the products we buy and the brands we love.  For example, I once had a friend swear that he could hear tones with his Bose speakers he couldn’t hear with other brands.  The problem was that the tones to which he was referring were literally impossible for the human ear to detect.  It was no more possible than it would be for me to say I can details of the Crab Nebula through my binoculars.  But, rather than recognize this fact, he created ways for dismissing the science – the brand had a different appeal than just functions and features.

What this means for anyone tasked with developing a marketing campaign, it doesn’t matter how much you talk about the thing your selling in terms of facts and figures.  We are hard-wired to remain entrenched in the brands and products that speak to deeper emotion bonds, cultural norms and psychological triggers.  If you don’t understand the more visceral side of your consumer, then all the facts in the world won’t do a thing. In fact, they may come to resent you.