Talking Funny (Accents and Advertising)

As the world has changed, so has advertising. Promoting a product, service, idea, place-thing-to-be-sold-here isn’t just about promoting features and benefits, it is also about promoting a sense of meaning and identity. And much to my surprise, an aspect of this that too often overlooked is the importance of language.

In a country there are a host of regional dialects and accents. In the US there are dozens, though the sake of simplicity we can “group” them into broader families ranging from seven to twenty (it really depends on which linguistic model you choose to apply).  What this means is that various forms of the English language coexist and help define us in the context of where we are in relation to others. Marketers need to take into account that language is not just a way for us to speak (as in the transfer of information), it is also a revealing element of who we are.

Based on accent, word choice, etc. it is possible to determine our background and social status. Granted, depending on the context we may shift from one speech pattern to another, but the point is that language carries identifiers of class, region, gender identity, etc. (a dear friend originally from Alabama becomes decidedly more Southern after a drink or when in the company of other Southerners).  The dialect used in an advertisement therefore has an influence on the brand and the way it is perceived. Some dialects are seen as friendly and down to earth, some sound erudite, while others are viewed as authoritative. Because of these various attitudes towards the dialects of the English language, choosing the right one for a campaign is relevant to the way consumers perceive the message put forth..

Some years ago, a US-based survey found (we’ve all heard about it at some time or another) that brands using standard British English were viewed more favorably and rated higher in quality and sophistication. That could of course be disputed since context and history play a role in the interpretation, but the underlying point holds true; because the variety of English used in marketing has a powerful influence on how the audience judges the spokesperson, who also functions as a voice for the brand, the attitudes consumer forms are transferred to the overall brand. The important point being that language identity not only enhances the message put forth, but also validates it.

Ultimately, as the cultural characteristics, including speech, of the spokesperson influence the persuasive process, the ability to identify with the spokesperson based on the dialect has an influence on the purchase intention. The more connected in terms of dialect the speaker and listener are, the more favorable the evaluation of speaker, and the associated brand, will be. Language creates a deeper sense of cultural belonging. By underlining and verifying a company brand, as well as enhancing the possibility of identification, the presence of dialect has a great impact on overall perception when promoting a product or brand through television adverts – simply because of the social constructions and strong attitudes towards our speech.

What that means is that when crafting a brand platform, a campaign, or even a simple one-off piece of collateral, the importance of language goes beyond word choice. If the goal is to connect, then how we sound is as important as what we say.



Storytelling, Presenting and Getting Past the Stick in Your Bum

The other day I was thinking about how to present findings to a client about what was, frankly, a seemingly dry subject. Numerous stakeholders would be involved and would range from the CMO down to brand managers, product engineers, etc. So, knowing I had a dry subject and a conservative audience, I decided to rethink the question a bit.  Was the goal to present findings or was it something more? The goal is ultimately to shake the client’s foundations of belief, to rattle his or her assumptions, to create a new state a awareness.  Any good  presentation serves to evoke a participatory feeling in the viewers and bring them into the moment of experience, compelling them to consider new ways of classifying and thinking about their world, as well as their processes. The report will come later, but the presentation is about changing minds.

That brings us back to storytelling. When we bring our research and strategic thinking to life, the story we weave is less a list of data points than an interpretation and distillation of a series of experiences, Details are selectively recounted including all the “odds and ends that are associated with remembered events”  (see VanMaanen  1988).  The audience is drawn into the story created both by the author/editor and participant(s) – in other words, a good story, and a good presentation, is a shared experience, co-created in the moment. Bore the audience and there is almost no chance of affecting change. Selective packaging to exemplify generalized constructs is a standard practice. What we present needs to illustrate, provocate and elucidate. This is doubly so when addressing the needs of business and design teams with distinct, targeted problems and limited time.  Our editorial choices make points clear in what might otherwise be murky waters – we make learning sexy.  And that means becoming marvelous storytellers.

So what do we need to do to make a good story? First, start thinking in terms of symbols and metaphor. Stories are conveyed through language, which is by definition a symbolic system. The key to successful engagement is to move from structural aspects of a story to the symbolic, uncovering systems of meaning that resonate with clients and compel them to action. These symbolic dimensions that emerge in the narrative add value to brands by fulfilling culturally constructed concepts (quality, status, age, belonging, etc.). A brand is a signal that triggers a field of meanings in the consumer’s mind. These meanings are conveyed directly and inferentially through stories. By harnessing the symbolic power behind these meanings, strong brands move beyond the codes governing a product category and enter the personal space of the consumer.  The same holds true for the client.  Through storytelling and presentation of symbolic codes, clients move from fixating on the product line and can rethink what the brand means in a wider context.

Second, strip the presentation of text. You’re hear to talk and the image on the wall behind you is there to produce a response. Text, then, becomes a distraction unless you intend to use it as a visual manifestation of an idea (imagine a giant “NO” in lieu of something like a stop sign). The media tool we use, be it PowerPoint or something similar, is the comforting factor for audience and presenter alike, not the content. That means we can use the program for displaying images, visual cues and video, but we cannot let it become the focal point – it is like a set on which an actor performs. Don’t let it overshadow the actor.

Third, just because you’re using PowerPoint, it doesn’t mean that you can’t alter the stage. A presentation is like a play – so why not do it “in the round”? Promote physicality, discussion and direct interaction between you and the audience members. Give people small tasks throughout the presentation so that they are not passive recipients of information but co-creators. The more interaction, the more likely they will be to internalize the story you present.

Finally, have fun. It seems self evident, but it is perhaps the hardest thing most people find to do – they may talk about it, but they can’t actually do it. Remember, your role is to produce change, not recite facts.

Doing Microethnography

Microethnography is a powerful method of research for studying practices in dynamic social systems where interactions reproduce unexplored or poorly understood conditions. It is a powerful intervention for discovering, making visible, or getting at what is happening as it happens in the interactions. Analyzing moment-to-moment interactions enables a better understanding of practices and expectations in order to create spaces to transform meaning and activities that maintain the status quo. But what is it and how does it differ from traditional ethnography?

First, microethnography is NOT simply a small group of in-depth interviews. While the sample is generally small and the timelines compressed, there are process behind doing it well and producing something useful for the client,. Microethnography is the study of a smaller experience or a slice of everyday reality. Microethnography is the process of data collection, content analysis, and comparative analysis of everyday situations for the purpose of formulating insights. It is tight, focused and targeted.

Like traditional ethnography, microethnographic research that attends to big social issues through careful examination of “small” communicative behaviors, tying them back to specific business and design needs. The research and/or research teams study the audible and visible details of human interaction and activity, as these occur naturally within specific contexts or institutions. Microanalysis may be coupled with statistical data to form a more complete understanding of the question at hand, but microethnography always employs ethnographic methods such as informant interviews and participant observations, all in an effort to better understand practices and problems.

Microethnographic methods provide qualitative, observational, cross-cultural, and ethnographic data, giving researchers the potential to 1) examine consumers, users, etc. across their community contexts, explicitly addressing class, power, and cultural structures of that community and 2) explain disproportional uses and buying patterns among subgroups.

While it also takes observation and environment in to account, microethnography focuses largely on how people use language and other forms of communication to negotiate consent with attention given to social, cultural, and political processes. Informed by critical discourse analysis, it emphasizes how the uses of language simultaneously shape local social interactions and reproduce patterns of social relations in society. The central difference between microethnography and in-depth interviewing ultimately is the analytical process and the phases that make up the research itself.

Data collection and analysis for microethnography typically takes place in six stages:

  • Stage One: Data Collection for the Primary Record – This consists largely of passive observation in the settings/contexts in which an activity occurs. It is meant to give a grounding in the activities occurring with objects, people and brands to create not only data points, but the right questions.
  • Stage Two: Reconstructive Data Analysis of the Primary Record – This consists of rough, unstructured, brief interviews and information gleaned for intercepted conversation. Initial meaning reconstruction, horizon analysis, and validity reconstruction take place at this stage through the review of transcripts and videotape.
  • Stage Three: Dialogical Data Generation – During this phase the research relies on a mix of in-depth interviews and feedback interviews with participants. A series of hypotheses are in place and pinpointed concepts are addressed with the participants.
  • Stage Four: Reconstructive Data Analysis of the Interviews – Once interviews are conducted, a second phase of meaning reconstruction and stage horizon analysis are conducted to uncover contradictions and pattern of practice and meaning. Out of this process, specific design and business needs are aligned.
  • Stage Five: High-level Coding – At this stage linguistic and behavioral matches are made. Out of this analysis, the multidisciplinary team begins to create new product or branding concepts and build out how they would actually function and gain traction with customers or users.
  • Stage Six: Final Reconstructive Analysis – This is the stage when we put new concepts and old to use. During this phase, new design or branding ideas are presented to participants, who work directly with the research and design team to generate co-created ideas and concepts.

St. Patrick’s Day Approaches, es hora de divertirse

Soon, another year will have passed away and the first unofficial rite of spring will be upon us.  I speak of St. Patrick’s Day. The St. Patrick’s Day Parade has a pull as strong as gravity for the residents and spectators in any city.  Kansas City.  It has the usual high school marching bands and Knights of Columbus elders with swords and plumed hats (chapeaux might express the headgear better). Folks with green hair toss beads from decorated golf carts. Green coffee leads to green beer which eventually leads to Technicolor vomit and acts of less than dignified passions.

In the U.S., St. Patrick’s Day has become a symbol of many things; the joy of excess being a primary one. But what does St. Patrick’s Day mean in in different places? In Boston it harkens back to an idealized sense of Irish identity, but what does it mean in Dublin?  Or Boise? Or Kinshasa?  In LA or Omaha, it’s easy to find proof that everybody’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. More than any other ethnic holiday in the United States, St. Patrick’s Day has crossover appeal, at least for now. It’s so mainstream, in fact, that its original meaning (as a rite of Roman Catholic, Irish-American solidarity) has been eclipsed by a broader message. St. Patrick’s Day is reinvented with every generation, being adapted to meet the needs of a wide range of populations.

In the US, St. Patrick’s Day has become a sort of all-purpose celebration of American diversity. Irish-Americans are a success story, and St. Patrick’s Day is a story of American possibility and upward social mobility. When you have Mexican kids in Brooklyn celebrating it, they are celebrating the possibilities of America and ethnic advancement. When you have Spanish-language advertising incorporating the shamrock, it is a form of bricolage that has little to do with the Saints. When you have kids of Spanish, Cuban, Greek, German, Scottish, French and Irish ancestry, as with my own, dawning the green and announcing their Irish affiliation, it is not a matter of ethnic identity so much as it is a wonderfully boisterous day to let down their hair after a bleak and dreary winter. What’s really being celebrated in the US is America, not Ireland. It took generations for the Irish to really become assimilated, and it will take generations for other groups.

Outside the US, similar thoughts no doubt apply. Even in the land of the holiday’s origin, where the demographic structure and national identity are in rapid transition, the holiday has taken on a new meaning. It is a celebration of overcoming adversity and the beauty of life.

St. Patrick’s Day is known as a “thick” holiday, meaning it is rich with cultural meaning and symbolism. An ethnic festival can easily change into something that’s not quite so easily identified with an ethnic group. Understanding the fluid nature of culture and the ability people have to adapt symbols to meet their changing needs is key to understanding the motivations behind behavior.

How authentic is it all?  Is there any authenticity in “authenticity”?  And does it even matter? From an anthropological perspective, authenticity once was tied to a cultural construct and typically represented an idealized version of the past. Even if that past was relatively brief in the grand scheme of history, even if it was tied to a single individual around with an idealized perception had been built, it was still part of a symbolic system that pointed to key elements of character and meaning. Authenticity placed the contemporary group, in this case the parade goer, into a symbolic lineage with the past, giving it legitimacy and defining a structure for what is and is not “real.”  In other words, “authenticity” is a kind of invented tradition and a series of symbolic markers that people believe represent how things should be.  But this doesn’t mean St. Patrick’s Day is somehow false.  It is simply transformed to take on new meaning and new relevance.

While there are those that will dismiss St. Patrick’s Day with a cynical comment about the lack of Irishness or the excess of consumption, there is something beautiful about it.  Going beyond Irish heritage, it welcomes into the spectacle a host of inner-city students, immigrants, etc.  It becomes less a symbol about nationality/ethnicity and more a symbol of community engagement and a precursor to that other expression of the awakening of spring, Easter.  There is a great deal of beauty in the shared experience of the immigrant nation and the celebration of emergence from poverty.

St. Patrick’s has lost much of its religious flavor (as has Easter), but it has gained a unifying quality. As Nietzsche said, “God is dead.”  God isn’t really dead, but his traditional form is being secularized and is evolving with cultural/civilizational forms out there. Sure the forms exist, but with a few exceptions these forms have as much relevancy to the spirit that once animated them as the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade has to the spirit St. Patrick. They may be, as Jack Whelan said, “dead forms animated by the undead energies of nostalgia, jingoism, and other passions.”



Speaking to Business, Not Academics

Why do ethnographers find their work dismissed in many business settings?  Because we don’t always practice what we preach.  Once we land projects, we often fail to do an assessment of the most crucial cultural sample of all – the client. Vast numbers of pages, complex discussions of theoretical frameworks, and jargon-laden language are understood as hallmarks of academic writing.  Whether this actually improves our performance is contestable, but as we progress from undergraduate through graduate programs, through our careers, the length of our texts and the intellectual mass of specialized terminology as a rule grow in what seem to be exponential degrees.  The most avid consumers of ethnographies have traditionally been people engaged in fieldwork (or who aspire to it), people who hold deep interests in the discipline and who are willing to read what we create.  We learn to write and present for people that have the patience and frequently the need for lengthy, specialized, in-depth text, not for the fast-paced corporate world, where quick and to-the-point presentations are the expected norm.

Assessing the audiences can be thought of as an extended, ongoing mini-ethnography. Thinking in terms of an ongoing ethnography gives the researcher important insights into what it means to be a participant within a given context and allows him or her to begin formulating ideas about communicative tenets, power, and perceived sub-groups within the organization.  The processes we would employ if doing fieldwork in a more “traditional” setting must be employed, particularly during the earlier phases of a project.

Of course, the criteria we construct for identifying a community can be extremely varied and range from power relationships, racial distinction, job type, or any number of other theoretical stances.  The point being that the criteria we would employ for any field study must be used within not only the largest manifestation of the organization of which we are part, but also the multitude of other community divisions that occur throughout the organization in its totality.  We assume that the people we find ourselves among constitute a “community” (with varying degrees and levels of situated identity and subgroup allegiances) and that community must be sustained by systematic observations. We look for and expect to find commonalities in behavior, mutually intelligible habits, social activities, and modes of communication, etc.

In terms of presentation styles in the corporate world, sociolinguistic models of adaptation and understanding apply themselves well to understanding what and what not to do.  Learning the “local” meanings and methods of communication to the speech community is essential. This applies to the interdisciplinary team as well as the various client audiences. “The greatest value of learning the language of another people does not come from being able to interview informants without interpreters or from providing native terms in ethnographic writings; it comes from being able to understand what natives say and how they say it when they are conversing with each other.” (Witherspoon 1977, pp. 7)  In short, learning the communicative norms and processes of the individual groups allows us to better grasp and define our audiences, adapting our methods of presentation to be understandable and, and perhaps more importantly, acceptable according to their world views.

In the business environment short, direct modes of communication with little or no embellishment are standard practice.  This is not to say that a lengthy, detailed report is unnecessary.  It frequently is an expected part of the package.  However, the lengthy piece is often little more than window dressing for most of the people we address.  It is meant to back up higher-level statements.  This undoubtedly sounds cynical but it is not meant to diminish the detailed report or argue that analytical rigor and detailed information has no purpose.  Indeed, analytical rigor and depth of information are precisely what separate us from simple interviewers.  It is simply meant to point out that levels of detail serve different functions depending on who sees them.  A “Just the facts ma’am” process of communication is most frequently the best way to get your foot in the door – hit them with the big points and get them to interact and ask questions.

Inevitably, understanding and navigating this change of audience from disciplinarily and/or the academically bound almost always means abbreviating the content or restructuring it so, for better or worse, the fine points and ambiguities of the information are lost or downplayed for the immediate consumers of the research findings.  In most cases, the readers (or viewers of a presentation) are unfamiliar with our jargon, largely disinterested in the finer points of the theories involved in the data acquisition and the subtleties of human interaction that we often find so engrossing. This does not imply that the conclusions we draw be “dumbed down,” but rather that we must synthesize and distill the information so it can be readily applied to the needs of the consumers of that data.

In the end, we are writers and interpreters of the complexities of behavior and culture, romantic as that may sound.  The principal tools in our “tool kit” are theory, pen, and paper (or camcorder and PC).  Culture is created by the construction of text, the video, etc.; it is not a distinct object of scientific inquiry though we often assume that this is the case.

Several points should also be made very clear. First, each business community (and each company as well) will have their own specific patterns of communication.  However, as a whole businesses generally expect presentations that are succinct and short.

Second, communication styles, communities of practice, and expectations will differ from place to place.  The presentation expectations in Paris are significantly different from those in the Omaha.  While it is possible to think of Business as a distinct cultural process, it is important that this is a construct we impose to make our lives simpler, but business culture, such as it is, is subject to the historical, economic, and sociolinguistic realities of the larger culture in which it is couched. Ultimately, this means doing yet another internal ethnography even if it only touches on surface-level communication practices.

Finally, while we do explore it in great depth here, external perceptions of a researcher’s professional experience, expectations about how a scientist “should” sound, and division of power all work to influence how we present our findings and how readily they will be received. Suffice it to say, when determining audience needs and accepted norms of communication, it is important to reflect on the nature of power and expectation based in the local folk taxonomy, e.g. what is a “scientist” or an “anthropologist” and how does that impact expectations of what we present.           

The fact that anthropologists are increasingly in demand leaves us holding at least some of the cards.  The fact that business people are coming to understand that disciplinary training is in fact necessary to effectively perform and interpret data (in the sense of all acquired knowledge), that expertise is in fact more than a catch phrase, gives us some degree of clout and places anthropologists in a better position to redefine the emerging lexicon of business, of which words like “ethnography”, “culture”, and “anthropology” are an undeniable component. But it means learning to communicate these ideas in a language that fits their context, not ours.


Politics and Culture: Growing Your Brand in India

Companies are scrambling to decode Indian consumers.  Granted, the same could be said for al the BRIC nations, but India in particular seems poised for transformational expansion over the coming decade. There is a young and energetic population, an abundance of resources and a growing population of highly-educated entrepreneurs with personal and professional experience abroad.  In 10 to 15 years, India’s economy could be as big as China’s is today. And while there are certainly infrastructure hurdles to overcome, India’s political and social system appears to be addressing them, painful as it seem at times.

So with stagnant markets in Europe and North America, and India’s rapidly growing middle class, it has become a target for expansion by retail brands in particular.  Plenty of companies are betting on India’s growth – Nestle has been in India for nearly a century and YUM! Brands have begun opening stores on the subcontinent. But it isn’t as easy as stocking the shelves with products familiar to Indian tastes.  So what are some of the principle issues to consider when preparing to expand in India?

Brand Preference, Price and Identity

Many companies look to their successes in China as a model of brand introductions, but what applies to China doesn’t necessarily apply to India. One major difference is that Indians have not had the same preference for foreign brands.  That may well change as Indians living abroad return home in search of more opportunities, but there is hardly a guarantee. As an example, when Coke bought up leading Indian cola brand, Thums Up, they intended to kill the brand off.  But local managers quickly pointed out, rightfully, that Indians preferred the Thums Up brand. Despite Coca-Cola’s desire for consistency everywhere, the company decided to keep the brand alive, giving ample shelf space to both products.

Was it a flavor issue?  In part, yes.  But it is also representative of the fact that Indian brands often continue to have greater brand share once foreign products are introduced because they are associated with identity, price and nationhood.  Foreign status brands exist (just as they do for every market), but local brands are often closely associated with notions of cultural-worth, growth and progress. The cultural clout of a foreign brand doesn’t necessarily translate in India. Indian brands mean Indian jobs and growing international status.


With over 1,500 dialects spoken in India, language can’t be overlooked, both in terms of product design and messaging.  Trying to find products or produce advertising and marketing collateral that appeal to everyone can be difficult at best.  Division over ethnicity, issues over perceived social and political power, and access (perceived and real) to the goods sold by foreign firms can be decidedly pronounced. Understanding the complexities of power and how language may factor into the discussion can be a deciding factor in how a brand is received.

Political Structure

There is nearly as much diversity in the political structures of individual states within India as there is language and ethnic diversity. Navigating specific regional laws and regulations is frequently something companies overlook – not so much from the logistics and procurement standpoints, but from the deeper socio-political position. Politics reflect worldview in a democracy as large as India and it is important to understand to motivations behind how individual states interact with multinationals. Add to that the fact that corruption has become largely endemic and you have a significant problem.

The point is simple. If you don’t understand cultural patterns at a more than superficial level you are doomed to failure.  If you learn to look for deep, meaningful patterns and cultural processes you will succeed.


Learning the Language of Business

For an anthropologist interested in practicing in the business world, it is as important that he or she learn the language, so to speak, of that culture as it is for an anthropologist entering the a small, tribal society.  It would be tempting to initially argue that the university settings in which we first learn the basics of our discipline are remiss in preparing students for the corporate life, but this would be shortsighted, inaccurate, and unfair.  Preparation ultimately rests on the practitioner’s shoulders – we receive the fruits of experience of our teachers, but ultimately we must learn the basics of the languages and customs of the people with whom we will live and work on our own.  Unfortunately, learning the communication styles and language of the business world must be done rapidly – the “natives” are largely unforgiving and impatient, casting the “academic” anthropologist out on the street if they do not perform within the approved social and linguistic norms quickly.  And so I have learned, or so I like to believe.

Today, my anthropological training is applied to attempting to understand the ways in which culture influences and reflects how people, middle-class Americans in particular, interact with, use, and conceptualize the internet, electronic media, and consumer electronics.  The nature of the work is such that research time is often dreadfully limited and the results of fieldwork are frequently ambiguous.  Communicating this to groups that expect simple, concrete answers and recommendations is at times a seemingly insurmountable task.  But it needn’t be so.  Rather, it is a matter of learning how our audiences make sense of their worlds and crafting language that meets their needs in a range of contexts.

To my mind, the most significant change comes in the way we present our findings.  My limited experience has indicted that we are a new voice to business and though respected, we are expected to adapt to the social and linguistic rules of this unforgiving lot. So, as we talk to the issues that will develop into holistic synergies, we continue to harvest constructive relationships and build a new paradigm – or something along those lines.