Anthropologists in the boardroom

Anthropologists in the Boardroom

When I discovered that the discipline most closely related to branding was not psychology or sociology but anthropology, I also discovered that in the UK, anthropologists were still busy investigating primitive tribes in New Guinea. Some qualitative researchers with an instinct in this direction incorporated insights from anthropology in the reporting of meanings that brands carry but they approached it in a fairly dilettante manner.  Then I discovered a goldmine of anthropologists plying their trade in the modern commercial world and to my amazement discovered they were almost all Canadian.  And all excellent at their job.  (By the way, Malcolm Gladwell is a British-born Canadian citizen).

I guess the reason is obvious: if your society’s institutions and the origins that shape your culture are British but you live cheek by jowl with the big brash confident propagandising United States, you are in an ideal position as an outsider to see what insiders can’t.

The top guru is Grant McCracken who published a great deal as an academic anthropologist until he turned to commercial teaching at Harvard and now MIT.  I came across him years ago and was delighted to find he had just published a book called ‘Chief Culture Officer’  in which he describes how companies would benefit enormously from anthropological insights. Brands, after all, are cultural artefacts carrying meanings that are essential to their survival.

For a taste of what an anthropologist thinks about, check out his article in this issue of Market Leader:  The enemy within: Philistines in the contemporary corporation. One of these ‘Philistines’ is the CEO.

As an example, he relates the story of Doug Ivester who was CEO of Coke for a (perhaps not) surprisingly short time.  R&D produced a vending machine that adjusted the price of Coke according to the temperature.  Entirely logical: as the temperature goes up, demand for Coke would go up so why not charge extra for it? He thought it was a great idea until finally talked out of it.  This is clearly a man with no understanding of the brand he presides over and its relationship with its users.  Think of the damage this exploitation would have undone to years or reputational good work the company had poured into Coke.   A more imaginative response would have been to calibrate the machine to reduce the price when people are hot and desperate.

A Chief Culture Officer in every boardroom may not happen tomorrow but all companies need ‘outsiders’ like the Canadians looking at Americans to interpret what the culture is saying; how meanings change and how brands can absorb and use them.

Do you agree with Judie?  Why not leave a comment and get the debate started?