The Anthropology of Marketing

By 45/RPM Staff


We talk a lot about data here at 45RPM. We don’t just mean the digital 0’s and 1’s that comprise the lion’s share of data marketing and business professionals use today (although we love and consume that data, too). So, what else do we mean when we talk about data?

The Importance of Qualitative Customer Data

a.k.a. Anthropologist as Marketer

I trained as a cultural anthropologist (a fancy way of saying that I dropped out of a PhD program after defending my dissertation proposal). What I learned as a student of culture influences our approach to marketing. The goal of cultural anthropology is to gain research-based understanding of a society, culture, subculture, religion, etc. The methodology is fairly straightforward: you talk to the citizens, members, or adherents instead of making assumptions from where you sit.

You ask questions, develop theories, and test those theories. You have conversations with multiple people and structure the questions to get to the bottom of how and why they make decisions. You look for consistencies and inconsistencies in explanations. You look for patterns and themes.

We apply this same methodology to gather meaningful, qualitative customer data. We have conversations with your customers. We ask them what they buy, why they wanted or needed to buy it, and how it aligns with what is important to them. We ask them what options they considered, how they evaluated products or services they looked at, and what drove the decision. We also have a conversation with them about whether or not they got the benefits they were looking for from your product or service.

Some of our clients incorporate elements of this approach by default – and some are better at it than others. Very few companies have institutionalized this customer centric approach that frequently gets called “Voice of the Customer”. In many cases, it is impossible for companies to measure feedback effectively because they already have relationships with their customers. Frequently companies substitute anecdotal stories from their internal staff for good customer research — e.g. "I talk to our customers all the time and many of them say they want X” or “I talked to our biggest customer and they told me that they picked us because of Y”.

But those stories don’t get to the heart of what and why people buy.

Why It Matters

If you look at our approach, the first tenet is to get the messaging and positioning right. We do this by basing it on the feedback we receive from our conversations with your customers — essentially an outside-in perspective. That means that the messaging is closely tied to what they want and need.

To truly connect with your customer, you need to fully understand the problem they are trying to solve and how the purchase fits with their own personal or professional priorities. And it needs to jive with what people in the market believe you can or will do. You will be sniffed out if you go to market with messaging or positioning that is inauthentic.

Tightly aligning your message with your customers’ priorities, triggers and why they buy from you over your competitors is how you get the message right and the foundation your need to create effective marketing programs.

Without taking the time to narrow this focus, most companies try to say everything to everyone. Their marketing materials have too many value propositions, too many calls to action, too many products or services. Customers have to do the work of sifting through the materials to try to understand your company and what you sell. The result is that you end up saying nothing to nobody because all you create is noise.

We stop that. We find the real and compelling value you bring to the market and focus the messaging there.

For small companies, this may not matter because the founders/principals are on the ground selling face-to-face and building relationships. For companies that have hit a sales or revenue ceiling, for companies that feel like their marketing dollars are ineffective, or for companies that seem to get passed by their competition, this is critically important.

Here are a few HBR articles that you might find interesting: