Anthropology: a different, overlooked approach to marketing success

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will this work

Kyle Boerner

Cofounder, Chief Creative Marketer and Strategist

keith kellersohn circle

Keith Kellersohn

Business & Organizational Anthropologist, MSSL, MAnth.

UPDATE:  A little over a year ago today, this blog post generated quite a bit of traction across social media. It started valuable conversations with clients and prospects, and it introduced White Buffalo Creative to an international thought leader in the anthropology space, Keith Kellersohn. His passion for anthropology is second to none, and if you thought this blog post was thought provoking, I invite you to read Keith’s inspiring and thorough commentary below our article.  Please connect with Keith via LinkedIn here.

I was a junior marketing major at Canisius College when I noticed an anomaly on my course curriculum. Sociocultural Anthropology taught by the great H. James Birx. On the first day of class, I overheard some of my classmates questioning the syllabus with comments like, “What does this have to do with marketing?” and the comical “I was unaware that Gorillas and Chimps have financial resources to buy product.” The comments may have been a bit justified after watching a video on the sexuality of Bonobos, but the whole class grew to understand and appreciate the necessary integration of Anthropology and Marketing.

In short, Anthropology is the study of what makes us human, the cultural constructs and sets of beliefs that drive us to behave in the manners we do. On the surface, especially in a socio-cultural light, many marketers may think that they are already integrating Anthropology with Marketing. But the deeper we look, the more we realize that marketing has been too often obsessed with discovering current customer needs, data and numbers, and responding with current marketing trends that supposedly initiate customer responses. Please excuse me as I beat the “customers-have-an-ever-growing-number-of-choices-and-marketing-communication-platforms-today reminder drum”—boom! boom! boom! boom! boom!


Anthropology and Marketing: Deep and simple, yet perceived as unattainable.

Anthropology is a great, sustainable discipline to boost your customer getting distinction in the era of too many choices, too much logical-first communication, and too much commoditization.  Just think of this… Did you know that companies such as eBay, Hewlett Packard and ADP have kickstarted the trend of hiring “In-House Anthropologists”.

Here are 3 ways you can apply Anthropology to your marketing strategy:

1. Focus on the Customers’ Subconscious, not Conscious.
It’s an all too common misconception to believe that buying decisions take place at the conscious level.  95% of human buying decisions are directed by subconscious mental activity—the activity that stores and retrieves data based on your programmed self-concepts.  This is where marketers stimulate a customer’s memory, emotions, goals, feelings, habits, relationships and even their spiritual side.  So how do you market to the subconscious?  Here are two recommendations.  First, choose a Marcomm Strategy that is Deep and Simple, not Shallow and Complex.   The more you force a customer to perform rational thought at the point of communication, the more likely your message will not access their subconscious mind [ie. it will stay in the shallow end].  To rapidly access the subconscious, keep your messaging deep and simple, especially the communication of implicit or psychological benefits your customers can experience, while using a predictive logical framework second so you can gradually invite the conscious logical mind into the decision making process.  Buyer’s Journeys are perfect examples of this as many brands have launched failed programs by rushing to share decision-level content and correspondence at the awareness-level.  Right now you may be asking, “Yeah, but how do you know what the customer’s targeted implicit or psychological benefits are?”  Second, perform Implicit Association Tests.  We recently performed extensive IATs for a midwest Startup to discover what the target market looked for in companies of a similar discipline, what logos, colors, names, slogans and taglines meant to them, their initial thoughts/attitudes/beliefs of the startup’s brand, and why they chose what company when given the choice.  IATs are cost- and time-efficient when compared to immersing yourself with the customers in-person [see next recommendation…] or collecting data that can expose intriguing behavioral trends [see last recommendation…].

bigstock A man wears a Monkey or Chimpa

2. Launch a Customer Immersion Program
I’m always surprised by some clients reluctance to do this because it’s actually the most informative, bears the most fruit, and it’s fun!  Customer Immersion Programs are simply simulated or first-hand experiences of customers interacting with your brand/product and your competition’s brand/product, and the most accurate observations of their behavior and thinking.  Please do not mistake this for a focus group.  The goal here is to establish the most important subconscious trait there is—TRUST—by experiencing what the customers experience side-by-side, face-to-face.  These programs are perfect for introducing new messaging, packaging or product, and for developing, optimizing or updating buyer personas.  CIPs are especially important for buyer personas because we’re always uncovering shared traits between different personas, and this can go a long way in such disciplines as positioning, product development and customer service.  Another key takeaway, especially in B2B, is observing the formation and interaction of buying teams.  We recommended to one of our clients in a saturated market to sit down with different players of their clients’ buying teams to discover what unique problems their content should address, and what was born was content made specifically for each team member, which leads us to my last recommendation…


3. Don’t Just Segment your Personas, Track Your Personas Behavior
Spending years in the Marketing Automation / Lead Gen / Email Marketing world, I’m always amazed by the flatness of reporting, the expectations of short-term results, and the lack of evolution in programs. Why?  Because there are patterns of behavioral data developing at your fingertips that can expose new insights to shorten the sales funnel, create and optimize content, and more!  Unlike the obvious virtual and personal interaction of the previous two recommendations, this is more of an unobvious observation of customer behavior that still achieves an insider perspective [an essential key to marketing success!].  Here’s a client example.  We had four personas that made up a buyer team: the CIO, the CFO, the IT Director and the IT Manager, all of which contributed to the decision making process.  We also had a dozen pieces of content that either delivered a unique advantage for the buying team overall, or for the individual persona to strengthen their role [great subconscious targeting!].  What came out of this program was the WWWWWH [who, what, where, why, when and how] predictability for future marketing.  We were able to discover the patterns and behaviors of each persona: who downloaded what content and when, who they shared the content with, where and how they downloaded the content, what they did after downloading the content, why they downloaded the content, and so on and so forth.  You get the picture.  From these observations of the buyer personas and the B2B cultures that they work in, the marketing programs were elevated to new heights, creating more timely content that satisfied not just the buying team and individual personas, but the subteams that we didn’t know exist and that required an established level of personalization and trust.

Lastly, Gut Instinct and Reciprocity.  Don’t forget that once you satisfy the subconscious of the customer, you will not only integrate with their “gut”, but you’ll also encourage one of the greatest expressions of human behavior there is—sharing with others.

Friendly Disclaimer:  I’m not an Anthropologist.  I’m an advocate for the study of the subject, and I practice applying Anthropology to marketing as much as possible, but I’m not a seasoned Anthropologist.  However, if you want to talk about it, reach out to me.

Anthropology or Psychology?

Keith Kellersohn's commentary on Kyle Börner's "Anthropology: a different, overlooked approach to marketing success"

As a Business Anthropologist, I’ve been asked to write a commentary to Kyle Börner’s article, Anthropology: a different, overlooked approach to marketing success.  While my professional focus is in organizational culture, like many anthropologists, different areas of anthropology are nonetheless fascinating; hence, I am always here for a conversation about marketing, especially from an anthropological perspective.

Börner begins his article like any good advocate of anthropological approaches would, that is, posing the question of what anthropology has to do with anything involving business, not to mention sales & marketing… That question is a common theme among those of us who are fighting the good fight of promoting anthropology in various areas of business. Yet, frequently, despite Herculean and Promethean efforts in educating others of the benefits, many of us are still left with the “eyes-glazed-over look” from various audiences. 

Yet from an anthropologist’s perspective, it should be very simple. The word itself “anthropology” is of Latin origin and literally means “the science of people”.  Therefore, if the subject at hand involves people, then here we are. Whether it is a remote tribe in South America or a “tribe” of software programmers in a Silicon Valley tech company—makes no difference. In fact, the software programmers may even have a more exotic appeal as so much discovery has already been done on various remote tribes.

There are several branches to anthropology, and while the Indiana Jones-type work definitely fits into the Anthropological field it is not the same kind of Anthropology that we are concerned with in business. The main branch of anthropology that deals with business is CULTURAL Anthropology. The business branch of cultural anthropology has sub-branches of Economic Anthropology, Design Anthropology, Techno-Anthropology, and Business/Organizational Anthropology. So many companies today spend a lot of time being concerned with their culture, but yet so few employ those from the long-established science of culture, anthropology.  Yet every one of these anthropological branches inevitably pursues the study of culture, otherwise, the context and meanings cannot frame the reality or phenomena being studied.

1. Cultured Individuals.
Börner does a great job leading the reader into anthropological thought in his first section entitled “Focus on the Customers’ Subconscious, not Conscious.”.  But wait… isn’t “Subconscious” from psychology, Freud,  Yes, however, early pioneers of anthropology came from psychology backgrounds.  Anthropological pioneers like Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict founded the “Culture and Personality School” of anthropology, which established that individual personalities and psychological profiles are framed by culture.  Let me repeat what I just said: INDIVIDUAL PERSONALITIES ARE FRAMED BY CULTURE. Yes, your individualism, your ambitions, and what makes you “unique” has been highly influenced, defined, and and (ahem!) “programmed” by your culture. We are the Borg, resistance is futile.

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However, as westerners, we want to believe that we are not at all influenced by our culture, that our decisions are our own, that our opinions come from our own consciousness and individual experiences. We may even consider ourselves a “self-made man/woman”.  Thus, accepting the fact that we are highly influenced by others is a huge obstacle for those of us who pride ourselves on our individualism and self-reliance. Psychology appeals to us more in understanding ourselves and those around us, seeing each person as a unique individual who acts and responds to their environment independently.

To illustrate this, let’s take a look at a common psychological phobia. The fear of snakes may be frequent in a culture that sees them as a symbol of evil, dangerous, or bad luck. In another culture, there is little to no fear of snakes as they symbolize healing, protection, and good luck.

That being said our fear of snakes may not be due to any of our personal bad experience (trauma) from them at all, but rather the social and cultural framing we received all the way back from our formative years, rooted in religious belief, superstition, media, or family origin.

2. Colors, Names, Logos, and Anthropology, Oh my!
So what does any of this have to do with marketing? Börner mentions “colors, names, and logos” in his article in terms of Implicit Association Testing:

“Second, perform Implicit Association Tests.  We recently performed extensive IATs for a midwest Startup to discover what the target market looked for in companies of a similar discipline, what logos, colors, names, slogans, and taglines meant to them, their initial thoughts/attitudes/beliefs of the startup’s brand, and why they chose what company when given the choice.  “

Colors, names, and logos are a great way to understand how anthropology informs marketing.  While, again, one’s first thought maybe…”Wait, this is psychology again”… Well, not exactly, and I’m about to show you why.

First of all, let’s take a look at this Color Emotion Guide from

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In this diagram, it is clear to see how companies use colors in their logo to send a message to their customers. The colors correspond with emotions subconsciously and in turn, become attractive to customers. 

One might think that companies within the same industry would have similarly colored logos, ah, but take a look at BP, Exxon, Gulf, Pennzoil, and Shell, all of which are oil companies. If their logos showed an oil derrick or oil can dripping with oil much like the oil light on your car (uh oh!) what message would that send to you subconsciously?  These oil company logos are much more inviting and positive. Even BP’s logo projects a message of health and environmental consciousness standing within the same color field as Whole Foods Market, Animal Planet, and Seattle-based Starbucks Coffee.  

Now take a look at the color field with the most Technology companies.  With the exception of Apple; Dell, AT&T, Bell Telephone, HP, GE, NASA, Facebook, and Vimeo are all under the blue “Trust, Dependable, Strength” color category.   This is ingenious when you consider how unreliable technology can actually be. Even the infamous “blue-screen-of-death” sends us a subconscious message of trust, dependability, and strength. If it were red, as you would imagine it should be, what message would that send about that particular brand? 

If you are still questioning the impact of color on marketing and branding, let’s imagine what it would be like if all of these logos were monochrome.

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Chances are, your brain is quietly rebelling against these monochrome images and subconsciously filling in the proper color where there isn’t any. Why? Well, take a look at Taco Bell, Denny’s, KFC, Tropicana, and Dairy Queen.  Not very appetizing are they? Without the color, you don’t know what Welch’s, Crush, or Fanta even is. The grey, black and white normally denotes Balance, Neutrality, and Calm, but this surely does not work well with Nintendo, Nickelodeon, or Monster Energy Drink.

3. Incoming!
However, I’m about to throw a small grenade in this whole discussion. Here’s where the anthropology comes in.

First, Implicit Association Tests may be polling individual subjects, but in the end, the results are synthesized into a coherent whole. Thus, it is transformed into a CULTURAL study. Yes, at that point, the study performs its rite of passage from psychology to anthropology.  Psychologists may disagree with me and say that this is still psychology, but a form of “Group Psychology”, “Social Psychology”, or “Industrial/Organization Psychology”. Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict would question the purport of those psychologists and ask them how those individuals first associated emotions with colors to begin with.   The psychology of color is by no means hard-coded into the human brain at birth. They are all CULTURALLY conditioned.  

After all, in the end, you are trying to sell your brand to an entire population, a culture, not a specific unknown individual.  Even when “personas” are developed in marketing strategies, the persona reflects the characteristics and behaviors of a large population of people, not a specific individual. 

Take a look at this diagram from Information is Beautiful, 2009 by David McCandless.

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Now you can see that depending on the culture, colors can have an entirely different meaning from what we discussed above.  Depending on which culture you are referencing, yellow can convey a message of health OR sickness. Death can be black or white, complete opposites on the color spectrum.  While we associate the color grey with balance in the logo discussion, depending on the culture, balance can be orange, black, or green. 

Furthermore, colors themselves denote multiple unrelated meanings within the same culture and can be contradictory. For example, in Western/American culture, the color red can symbolize danger, courage, strength or heat. The color blue can symbolize healing, unhappiness, freedom, or intelligence. The color white can symbolize purity, respect, luxury, or marriage.  But if you put those three colors together within the same symbol, it symbolizes patriotism and association with the USA. Yes, there is even a fairly complex language to color.

Recently, Volkswagen did some work on refining their logo to send a better message to its consumers. Keep in mind, Volkswagen is a German company, and their new logo may not appeal to say, for example, American buyers.

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That’s it? Yes, that’s it. What happened to the 3-D silver and blue metallic logo? To some, the new logo seems too plain, too simple, boring, no pizzazz and no color. But to Germans, this conveys the message they want to send about their brand:

“Speaking at the unveiling, VW sales chief Jurgen Stackmann said: “The brand is undergoing a fundamental transformation towards a future with a neutral emission balance for everyone. Now is the right time to make the new attitude of our brand visible to the outside world.”

Neutral, balance, flat, and reduced to the essentials. This type of logo is not unusual for German brands. If you look at the logos for Deutsche Bahn, Deutsche Welle, Deutsche Bank, Siemens, and SAP you will see the same “reduced to the essentials” designs. Less is more in German culture.

4. Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast
Implicit Association Testing is a great way to mine the meanings and associations of a culture for market research. In anthropology, we simply refer to all forms of such testing as Qualitative research.  We anthropologists also realize that color associations can change over time. For example, traditionally, Halloween colors were orange and black, and sometimes green. Nowadays, purple and yellow have made their way into the Halloween pallet.  Christmas is traditionally associated with the colors red, white, and green, but midnight and icy blues, as well as bright lime green, has also been used more recently.  Every year Pantone announces its new “color of the year”, setting color trends for everything from fashion to household paint – but only for one year, as the “color of the year” will inevitably change as certain as the earth revolves around the sun. 

In this age of globalization, it is clearly not enough to consider only the emotional associations and cultural nuances of one’s home market.  Cross-cultural and sub-cultural research must be conducted to appeal to those segments of the population your brand or products are not appealing to.  This may even mean modifying your logo to send the right message to those consumers.  

Recently I found a psychology article that advocated for cross-cultural research within Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology.  Perhaps this is an anticipation of a new field within I/O Psychology – “Cross-Cultural Industrial/Organizational Psychology”.   That’s an awfully long name to simply say “Business Anthropology”.

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If what Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict say is true, then perhaps culture eats individualism for breakfast, giving anthropology the prime position in market research.  

The next time you are sitting in the waiting room of a doctor’s office staring at the Caduceus or Rod of Asclepius symbols hanging on the wall, wondering which culture associates snakes with healing, consider the fact that your market research team or culture team may need more anthropologists. We’re experts in culture and have a knack for exposing the overlooked obvious. 

Keith Kellersohn