Business Anthropology

by Mari Anixter

Business AnthropologyMany consumer product, retail, and software companies are reinventing themselves and growing market share by better empathizing with the people who use their products or services. Increasingly, other businesses—from B2B companies to doctor clinics—are learning the potent power of empathy.

Traditional market research and connection tools only take insight so far. To build a real bridge for innovation and new product efforts, new applications and approaches were needed to supplement the old mix.

While some aspects of this trend are labeled as Design Thinking or User Experience, the field gives rise to a new role: anthropologist or ethnographer. Whether it is a retail, consumer, or business anthropologist, these specialists take an immersive approach to getting to know the people for whom products and services are being created.

Companies such as Proctor & Gamble, Target, and the Mayo Clinic have gained insights that create new markets using this method. Empathy is the key here. Business anthropology unlocks the opportunities.

Disclosure: Because this discipline is so rare in our part of the U.S., we interviewed an employee of our company about this growing trend and her role as anthropologist/ethnographer, Cole Bradley.

What is ethnography?

Strictly speaking, ethnography is a qualitative research method used to understand a population through empirical evidence.

How is ethnography a useful tool for businesses?

For businesses, understanding the lives, desires, motivations, and habits of their client is critical for providing the right products and services to the right people. This is where ethnography is crucial. You can make assumptions about a person’s purchasing habits or service needs, or you can discover what’s beyond their wallet through direct interaction and communication. This discovery process is the cornerstone of ethnography.

How can ethnographic methods be applied to business?

Where business can truly benefit from ethnography is through consistent and systematic application of techniques. The models can also be applied within the business. Want to reduce turnover, increase worker satisfaction, or streamline a process? Don’t assume a top-down approach. Oftentimes, the person with the most insight is the person actually doing the job, and ethnographic exercises are ideal for vetting the expert knowledge and experiences of your team.

Why is a human-centered way of doing business more important than ever?

In a mass produced society, we are desperate to know that our individuality and sense of self are being cared for through the things we purchase, be it an iPod or a yoga class. People want to feel that the product or service they are buying is right for them as a unique entity. Ethnography can be vital to determining what drives a specific group or individual so that their experience feels more personal and fulfills that need for connection.

What is the most surprising thing you have discovered working in the private sector?

How much a person’s network influences who they are and what they do. Even though we are increasingly disconnected- from our food, our people, our heritage, our planet- we still seek the advice of those closest to us, just like we have done for the last 200,000 years. From where to get a haircut to what type of job we should do to who we should marry, we rely on other people to guide us. We like to think we are secluded in our decision making, that we’re islands of choices, but it’s simply not true. We need our networks.

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Michael Graber is the cofounder and managing partner at Southern Growth Studio, a Memphis, Tennessee-based firm that specializes in growth strategy and innovation. A published poet and musician, Graber is the creative force that complements the analytical side of the house. He speaks and publishes frequently on best practices in design thinking, business strategy, and innovation and earned an MFA from the University of Memphis.

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