Gothic Churches and Retail Displays

The art of the merchandising display is the focus this week at the Global Shop conference in Las Vegas. There are giant bottles of Knob Creek, Zombie Baby Dolls, hair care products, lottery ticket dispensers and an unimaginable host of other products. Some of it is terrific, some of it is terrible and most of it mundane. What strikes me is that while all of it is eye catching, it isn’t always the kind of thing to engage the shopper.  Product features are clear and brand identification is almost always an easy task, but there is little that tugs at the heart strings, little that tells a story. And it is the lack of underlying meaning that has me thinking about history and what we can learn, and apply, from its study. Retail displays specifically have me thinking about the Gothic churches of Europe.

The Gothic age produced the great cathedrals of Europe and brought a full flowering of stained glass windows. Churches became taller and lighter, 
walls thinned and stained glass was used to fill the increasingly larger 
openings in them. Stained glass became the sun filled world outside. Abbot 
Suger of the Abbey of St. Denis rebuilt his church in what is one of the 
first examples of the Gothic style. He brought in craftsmen to make the 
glass and kept a journal of what was done. He truly believed that the 
presence of beautiful objects would lift men’s souls closer to God.

The works served several purposes aside from the architectural. First, for a population that was almost wholly illiterate, the depictions of 
bible stories would serve as illustrations and lessons for the priests and 
bishops to point to during mass. Second, they created a holy ambience that would focus the congregation. The 
stained glass would change the color and quality of the light in the knave, 
giving what to the peasant would seem an ethereal glow. This created an 
atmosphere “primed” for worship, convenient since most of those present 
wouldn’t understand the Latin lessons anyway. Third, symbolically they represented a membrane between the sacred and the 
profane. Through the window was the real world. Sin, hate, pain, suffering. 
The stained glass was a shield from that into the sanctuary of the church 
and instead made the window a symbolic looking glass into the Heavens. Quite a lot of structural and functional utility in such a simple concept.

And so I return to retail and the displays we find in them. What works well lifts the spirit. It does more than catch they eye, it transforms the experience. The pieces that don’t work are simply loud. They impart feature information, but tell no story. They are indeed noticeable at fifty feet, but they don’t invite you to come in.

As with the retail space in its entirety, its elements should, ideally, come together to tell a story that is symbolically charged, drawing the consumer and/or shopper into the story, captivating them and providing information about the human condition, not just the product. For example, the Makita display here at the conference encourages the viewer to physically engage with the tools, but it does far more. It is made of steel, rivets and brushed, beaten metal on proud display. It reflects in every element of its design the idealized imagery of labor, adding a sense of value to the professional construction worker and a sense of mythic masculinity to the novice. The display tells a story about the person viewing it, not just the product, creating a partnership between the customer and the brand.

Just like the experience that the stained glass and sweeping arches of the Gothic cathedral was designed to convey, so to should retail. And this holds true whether you are Frito Lay, Miller Lite, or Sony. That means understanding that shoppers and consumers do more than seek out information and features. They may not be able to articulate those needs in a survey or traditional interview, but they are there. It’s just a matter of uncovering them and turning them into something more than a sign.

What Insights Come From Your Toilet? Good Ones.

I am in Las Vegas this week as a judge for the OMA Awards. One would think my eyes and ears would be riveted to signs and displays. Outside the Global Shop Expo, I should be focusing my anthropological heart and mind on gambling, the spatial layout of the resort/casinos, the press of human life as in decends into unabashed hedonism.  And in many ways these are indeed the places my mind has indeed gone to, but they are not the primary places.  No, after half a day at the Sands and the other half at the Bellagio, my mind goes to toilets and bathrooms.

The flush toilet is recognized in the West as an icon of modernity. It is 
often the first thing that pops to mind when thinking about the bathroom, 
but the thing we discuss the least ­ it is often hidden within larger bathrooms and is the last object we want to display when we give the tour of 
the home. Even with the lack of willingness to talk about toileting, we take 
the toilet as a symbol of our civilized nature. Toilets, like basins and 
baths, are often in attractive colors or designs. We tend to believe that 
our toileting habits are the best, as are our toilets, and that they reflect 
progress, hygienic superiority and the civilizing nature of our world-view. 
But interestingly, in the 1930s only 30% of American houses had indoor flush 
toilets. In the economic boom following WWII a fully-fitted bathroom, then 
later multiple bathrooms, became standard even in modest American homes.

Sometimes aspiring families in poor countries or countries enamored with 
the image of the West will install a porcelain pedestal in their home to 
demonstrate modernity, status and progress. The toilet gives them the upper hand in terms of social capital. They may even install the toilet even if 
there is no piped water connected to make it work or a sewer system in which 
to deposit “the goods.”

Here in Las Vegas, they are symbols of opulence and leisure. Materials, colors and even sounds are orchestrated with the precision and artistry of Mozart. And it is not just Las Vegas – there is a men’s room in Hong Kong that is something of a tourist attraction because of its striking view of the city. The point is that bathrooms, toilets and plumbing are more than they perhaps seem.

In all cases, excreta must be completely disassociated from the individual generating them. They should be invisible (even unscented where possible) and above all anonymous. The system of flush toilets we use lead to communal sewers and make the separation of the individual the waste not only possible, but mandatory. Toilets provide a strange, powerful link to a 
shared identity where everyone not only poops, but that poop becomes part of 
the collective identity, both physical and metaphysical.

So why does any of this matter? It matters because we often stop looking when we seek out insights about the uncomfortable or the mundane. Ask a person about their toileting habits and the answers will be half truths. Ethnography is often thought of in terms of interviewing with a brief home tour, but toileting provides an example as to why asking people about their preferred product benefits doesn’t work. You have to expand the realm of inquiry and the means by which you collect data. If you want to understand people’s “shit” you have to visit public bathrooms, talk to the kids, etc. Similarly, if you want to understand the motivations behind buying a car, or a beer, or anything else, you have to expand the scope of inquiry to tease out those pieces of information that would normally go overlooked.  In part, it’s because people don’t know what they don’t know, but it’s also because we often take our own cultural practices for granted. With something as simple as bathroom behavior, it’s easy for us to get lost in our own worldview and stop searching. Digging deeper reminds us that the mundane is often more complex than it seems. Understanding that complexity means understanding new sources of revenue, innovation and branding potential.

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.”



Man The Hunter and Other Shopping Myths

In 1966 Richard Lee and Irven DeVore hosted a symposium titled “Man the Hunter.” The symposium resulted in a book of the same title and attempted to bring together for the first time a comprehensive look at recent ethnographic research on hunter gatherers. The concepts that came out of the work (and work by archaeologists) were streamlined, simplified and led to one of the most endearing myths of the modern age: Men hunt, women gather.  Men are driven be the need to complete a job, that’s about it. Over time, this basic tenet has found its way into how we think about men’s consumption and shopping habits – men are driven by the need to shop ( i.e. to perform tasks) in the simplest, most efficient way.  Simple, tidy theory. The only problem with this simple, tidy formula is flat wrong.

From a purely biological stand point it might make sense. The theory goes that over the bulk of human prehistory gender roles were established wherein men, due to sheer size and strength, hunted large game and therefore were less inclined to use environmental cues and linguistic subtlety to hunt down and kill animals.  Meanwhile, given the task of rearing the young and gathering the bulk of the food that was actually consumed on a daily basis, women became hardwired for language, cooperation and the ability to tease out subtleties in the environment. No doubt there is a shred of truth in all this, but unfortunately it overlooks some major flaws in the logic. The problem is that cooperative hunting is extremely complex and relies on interacting intimately with the environment and other members of the hunting party. On top of that, while men were out hunting for large animals, it might take a damn long time to track it, kill it and then get it back home.  Consequently, men foraged and hunted small game along the way.  In other words, they were doing the same tasks as women and thus, the same evolutionary principles should be in play.  But the real key to all this is the linguistic element.

Bear with me for a moment, because this talk about language is where the myth of male shopping patterns as an extension of “Man the Hunter” breaks down. Human beings are the only animal with the capacity for language.  With have both wonderfully large areas of the brain devoted to it and a general physiology that allows us to create the sounds we do (e.g. the hyoid bone). Why does it matter?  Because language is inherently symbolic.  The sounds in the word “tree” have nothing to do with the object itself, for example.  The long and the short of it is that the human brain and the ways in which we understand the world are hardwired to make use of symbolism.  And shopping is a highly symbolic act.  Overlooks the underlying behavioral structures and you miss tremendous opportunities. It’s all rather heady stuff, but the result is simple. Context shapes everything and whether hunting or shopping, there is more to our behavior than meets the eye.

First of all, men will always say they dislike shopping and that they treat it like a task.  Shopping is a job and all about efficiency and finding the best deal (this is the point at which all of us men are supposed to eat a steak and thump our chests).  Men say it, but is it true?  No, it is not. We say it because as a culture we have been trained to say we hunt, we solve problems and we see shopping as a task.  It is a cultural norm we use to define our masculinity, not a reflection of reality.  As with all shopping, there is an element of performing a task – we shop for groceries because we die if we don’t eat.  Men, and marketers, like to think that’s the end of the discussion, but it is not.  Shopping, unlike consuming, involves a series of subconscious, symbolic interactions and men, just like women, respond to these symbols.  So what are the examples?

First, men often use shopping as a tool to teaching values and cultural norms.  It is most obvious when you see a father and son in a sporting goods store.  It isn’t enough to track down a new baseball glove. Fathers use this time, this shopping time, to teach the boy how to select a good glove, how to be a good and sport and how to bond with the child.  Watch a father shop with his daughter and you see similar teaching moments emerge. The retail environment becomes a stage on which he can impart wisdom and reinforce his role as father.

Which leads to the second example.  Men use shopping to establish and reinforce gender and marital roles. For example, when husbands and wives shop for groceries together, there is more going on than simple provisioning of the household. Men frequently slip items into the cart that are not on the list. The catch is that they do this when their wives can see them. It isn’t about sneaking a treat into the cart. It is about using shopping as a means by which playfulness and sexuality are rekindled. In terms of the general shopping process, men defer to their wives’ expertise in all things domestic, even when they are perfectly capable of selecting the right foods. Body language becomes more timid and responses to question take on more hedges and/or apologies. The shopping becomes a platform for defining household roles.

Which leads to the third example.  Men using shopping to display skills and mastery.  In a retail setting that makes men feel as if they articulating their knowledge and skill to the world, they become more likely to make random purchases.  Watch men in hardware stores or when buying a car.  They tend to exhibit more non-verbal cues of strength (standing straighter, more use of the precision grip, etc.) and tend to spend more time examining objects in detail than they would in other settings.  The catch is that they frequently have no more expertise than anyone else.  In this instance, shopping is a way of establishing status and self-worth.

Finally, though they may not want to admit it, men use shopping as play time.  The retail experience is a playground, plain and simple.  The catch is that the space needs to make men feel like they have license to play and explore.

So, Man the Hunter is a myth but what does it mean to you? Simply, quit thinking about Man the Shopper as if he is exclusively task driven. Take advantage of the symbolic and subconscious triggers that will get him to buy more products and become an advocate for your store.

  • 60% of men are using mobile apps when shopping, so do more than provide deals. Use language that reinforces his role as a good hunter, teacher and/or spouse.  Design interfaces as games.  Provide outlets for displaying his skills to the world. The point is that he needs more than 10% off his purchase.
  • Develop retail environments and signage that reinforce his need to show his prowess and intelligence.  Use language and imagery that can be used as tools for teaching his children, not just as points of information throughout the store.
  • Use signage and displays that make him feel comfortable in a seemingly non-male setting.  Signage should be used as part of the overarching retail design strategy.  Incorporate “hidden” treasures in the retail setting that make him want to explore.
  • Incorporate male-focused elements into your general media strategy. If you sell candles (a traditionally female target audience), consider partnering to set up a display at the meat counter of a grocery (men, after all, are the “expert” grillers in most homes).

The end result in all of this is simple. Stop thinking about men as hunters and you will sell more merchandise. Keep thinking of them in this tired, old cliché and watch an overlooked opportunity pass you by.

Food, Blood and Marketing

Package it, slap a label on it and sell it for $4.99 a pound. It’s as simple as that when you’re selling groceries, right? Hardly. Food, meat in particular, is tied to cultural sensibilities about production, cleanliness, family values and a host of other topics. Meat, like Norman Rockwell images of the American farm, is myth. We’ve been conditioned to turn away from the origins of our food and respond to blood and death with repulsion. Or have we? With the emergence of a “foodie” nation and a growing movement interested in eliminating those things we deem bad for us (nitrates, high fructose corn syrup, glutens, etc.) we are learning to appreciate where our food comes from again. But how far are most of us willing to go? Understanding what organic means doesn’t mean we’re ready to embrace everything. Take blood.

Blood is one of the least used parts of the pig and it’s a terrible waste.  Not just in resources, but as a culinary experience. And in many cases, it endows the adage “blood is thicker than water” with a wealth of meaning. It, like the butchering, is part of a family tradition — it creates bonds of familial piety, it teaches lessons about the importance of food is the greater social milieu, it pulls people together in a primal understanding of the role of the family bond in survival. It even teaches us about cosmology.  It may look like just a bunch of blood and gore, but it is so very much more. But the idea of selling blood as an ingredient at the local grocery, or even a natural food store like Whole Foods, is probably more than most Americans are willing to stomach, literally and figuratively.

With wealth comes the desire to learn about where our food comes from, how it’s produced and what exactly is in it. But in a postmodern world where our food is often more a badge than an actual need or culinary norm, we have limits to what we’ll accept. The point is that shopping for food is an increasingly complex process as has less to do with securing calories than it does with symbols and meaning. And the same can be said for most products. If you’re a marketer, that means understanding layers of complexity that may have gone overlooked in the past and developing strategies to account for that complexity. Anything less and your plan is a bloody mess.


Marketing More Than Features: Windows to the Soul

We spend an awful lot of time marketing features to individuals; neat little segments that correspond to the demographic data we glean from surveys and similar devices.  We talk about features, function and material benefits. The catch is that people work, live and think in terms of a socio-cultural system. That means they are frequently doing more than buying things and that the reasons for their choices (and the marketing they respond to) are more complex than what the numbers tell us.  As an example, look at how we frequently market something as seemingly functioanl as windows.The window is more than glass.  It holds symbolic meaning on numerous levels and tells us a great deal about a culture, a time frame, the nature of a place, etc.  It is a liminal juncture that serves as both gateway between the inside and the outside world. Liminality is a period of transition where normal limits to thought, self-understanding, and behavior are relaxed – a situation which can lead to new perspectives. One’s sense of identity dissolves to some extent at this juncture. These can range from borders at the entry to a house to airports or hotels, which people pass through but do not live in. The window is a transparent border and signifies a powerful transition between the inside and the outside world.  The window signifies the border between Place and Space.

Not surprisingly, there seems to be a great deal of discussion around curtains, blinds and the ways by which we frame our windows. In some cases these mechanisms are primarily functional, serving to block out interaction with the outside world and limit the ability to look into the closed space of the home.  They serve to cut off interaction.  In other instances they define the environment, framing the outside world in an ornate display that turns it almost into an abstraction. The frame signals that what is going on outside is beyond the bounds of the lived experience.  It also signifies that the window is something special, something with meaning and power, to the person or people within the home.

There is a powerful concept in Japan around the idea of uchi and soto. The basic concept revolves around dividing people into in-groups and out-groups. When speaking with someone from an out-group, the out-group must be honored, and the in-group humbled. This is achieved with special features of the Japanese language, which conjugates verbs based on both tense and politeness.  One of the complexities of the uchi-soto relationship lies in the fact that groups are not static; they may overlap and change over time and according to situation. Obviously, the concept applies to space, place and the transitions between the two.  The transitions are usually visibly marked in some way to signal that the dynamic of an interaction is about to change. The window works on a similar principle.

So what does this mean for someone designing or marketing windows, curtains, blinds, etc.? It means that the window is more than a series of feature and price points. It means that people endow windows with special meaning and that the things we use to frame them and reflect the cultural lives and realities of the people using them, and that changes the message entirely.  How does the window fit into the concept of “home?” What are the various meanings of “home” and how do you design or market to those?  As with so many things, it isn’t about the product, it’s about where the product fits into a person’s life.  Speak to those things and you’ve changed the nature of the conversation between the product, the brand and the people involved in the buying decision.

Smoke Signals: Information in an Age of Selective Bias

In the quest to connect every citizen of earth and expand the ideal of the Renaissance Man that we’ve held so dear since time immemorial, (which was allegedly sometime in the 1500’s) we’ve instead reverted to a tribal method of information consumption that shrinks our individual perspective and is creating a fragmented and myopic population.

Think of information consumption as a parallel to food consumption. On an individual level, we crave sugars, salt and fats. For most of human history, these were difficult to obtain, so when these are available our instinct is to gorge. Now, while all three are difficult to avoid, we still have an urge to consume as much as we can, leading to obesity.

On a macro scale, we learn to love certain foods. We typically are conditioned to prefer local or regional cuisine and ingredients. It’s why everyone thinks their mom has the best pot roast or the best spaghetti. It’s also why if you’re a Texan in China and see BBQ on the menu, you’ll linger over the menu even if you know it won’t be the same.  The behavior that informs media consumption is remarkably similar to these same concepts, now more than ever.

Why? Choice and availability. Instead of allowing media and information to broaden our perspective we are instead picking our  sources for information a la’ cart that already conform to our worldview. Think Fox News pundits for conservatives or Air America for those left of center. One can also compare media sites in America to sites based in the U.K. (BBC) or Saudi Arabia (Al Jazeera) to see how the culture reflects in the presentation of news. An individual’s worldview can be described as the fundamental cognitive orientation of an individual that includes normative postulates, philosophy, values, emotions and ethics. It is the framework through which an individual interprets and interacts with the world.

How does one develop their worldview? As with your palate, familial, social and cultural factors play a large role in shaping a worldview during development. As one gets older, the sphere of influence expands from family to family friends to peer groups and trusted informants.The twist is, with greater interconnectivity and communication than ever before, it appears that worldviews are shrinking. The amount of information an average American ingests daily has increased exponentially, while the range of information has decreased; evolving us into us into an arguably more myopic nation than we were 10 years ago.

Considering the fragmentation of media sources, it shouldn’t be surprising that news and information consumption is looking more like a landscape of competing tribes than a multi-channeled entity. Social media, the internet and smart phones allow us to talk to anyone at any time. They’ve also given every consenting subscriber a platform to publish or share ideas. If we’re not turning into our favorite news channel or reading our segment or demographically oriented magazine, we’re reading opinions and “journalism” from blog websites or social media figures we trust.

Why do we trust them? Is it because they’re operating as transparent entities? Do they have a track-record for accuracy? More often than not it’s because they tell us what we want to hear, or at least in language we understand. It’s the concept of subculture as applied to media. We trust and give attention to outlets or channels that conform to us.

So what? How do businesses and media outlets evolve to succeed in this rapid paradigm shift? Do we as capitalists find ways to exploit this for monetary gain, even if that means our culture is dumbed down to the lowest common denominator? Do we redact our fragmented news landscape to put action behind the words of praise we offer to the Renaissance Man ideal? In reality, the only way to do that would be censorship. Perhaps the real question is, “How do we monetize the new paradigm without compromising our culture?”

Anecdotes vs. Insights: Analysis Matters

Why does a world-class chef eat Spam? Why does a man in his late twenties, making over half a million dollars a year, choose to be “poor” on the weekends? And most important, why does it matter to a business? It is important, quite simply, because understanding the deep, resounding issues, practices, and beliefs of people provides an advantage in an increasingly complex and competitive markets.  Gone are the days of shouting a product’s benefits.  Gone are the days when is was good enough to be clever in an advertising strategy.  Understanding the complexities of behavior and meaning change the way a company talks to its customers. It isn’t enough to know what people do (or say they do), you need to know why.

Ethnography is the buzz in market research these days, but fieldwork isn’t as simple as it might seem. Although ethnographic research is a remarkably powerful tool for marketing if conducted properly, the challenge is in how to uncovering deep, often latent mode practice and meaning, then convert findings that go well beyond surface-level observations or sensational statements into something that can be used to innovate and sell products and services. In other words, it isn’t enough to go out and conduct a good interview. An ethnographer worth his or her weight in salt is one who learns to see beyond the surface and find information and patterns that the untrained eye might overlook.  This isn’t to say that legitimate ethnographers hold the key to some special knowledge or map of the human psyche.  It is to say that legitimate ethnographers have learned through training and experience to see everything as data.  And legitimate business ethnographers have learned to translate that information into something more than interesting information; they’ve learned to translate that information into something useful and applicable to their clients.

In the last few years, ethnography has shifted from a novel and often misunderstood methodology to a do-it-or-die necessity in many marketers’ and product designers’ tool kits. Ethnography has a logical appeal for business clients; market intelligence born from the homes and hearts of customers. It’s an ethnographer’s job to talk to and observe people, as they go about their daily routines, using sociology and anthropology methods for data collection and analysis – giving clients true-to-life, informed insights and a firsthand understanding of their customers. But insights come from more than simply recounting what was seen and heard, they come from having the analytical tools to make sense of the seen/heard and unseen/unheard. In other words, anyone can conduct an interview or note where people store excess toilet paper in their homes, but not everyone can dissect the encounter and identify symbolic, functional and culturally mitigated actions. And this leads back to the first point.

Relying on surface-level impressions leads to short-sighted solutions to marketing problems. If “hipsters” are drinking PBR, it isn’t enough to say the beer is a brand badge – that’s stating the obvious. No, what matters is uncovering the contexts that define “cool,” how the beer fits into general drinking rituals, what it means to be part of a special group, how objects become visual markers for subcultures, and similar deeper issues. If you understand those sorts of things, which emerge from having a solid grounding in the theoretical models of trained social scientists, you have insights that your competitors do not. If you don’t understand those sorts of things, all you have is a collection of anecdotes.

Myth Cycles and the Ad

Mythology is perhaps the most archaic and profound record we have of our collective spirit. It creates and defines our experiences. From the inception of cave art, and presumably long before that, we find myth and myth-making as a fundamental element in relating to the mysteries of life, the cosmos and the world around us. It goes beyond recounting the day’s events and the mundane, giving life to the essence of what it means to be human. Myth is the symbolic revelation of eternal “truths”, an expression of our collective psyche and our role in the unfolding of the universe. As it relates to brands and marketing, it reminds us, or should remind us, that while features are central to a product, they are not what drives us to select one thing over another. If we think about brands as myth, as stories conveying something grand and extraordinary, we generate more than a passing interest in the consumer, we establish a connection to something transcendent, something that speaks to the underlying need to find meaning in the world.

In this case, I return to the idea of the universal hero in myth. Why? Because beyond buying a product to fulfill a functional need, we frequently seek out products and brands that allow us to step into a role that is greater than ourselves.  There are certain patterns which recur across cultures regardless of time and distance. Jung called these patterns and Joseph Campbell immortalized them for the non-scholar. And while there undoubtedly flaws in the possibly essentializing nature of their analyses, the fact remains that the underlying currents of these archetypes hold true, regardless of the minutia.  Archetypal images embody the most essential elements of the human drama. The trickster, the hero, etc. manifest themselves across space and time. They are a repertoire of instinctive human functioning. As an example, consider the archetype of the universal hero.

As it relates to marketing and advertising, we pay attention to stories that have conflict, resolution and challenges that allow us to project ourselves into the role of the protagonist.  A problem (i.e. monsters/struggles) is overcome by brands (i.e. hero/ heroine) reestablishing order in the universe.  The hero myth tells us that the character’s courage to suffer the burdens of fear and the conflicts within his personality set him apart. In myth, the ego is banished to a world full of opposites which war with each other within the personality. Out of the conflict something new and marvelous emerges.

The journey of the hero typically includes most of the following stages:

  • The Call: the character leaves his ordinary life to enter an unusual and often supernatural world.
  • The Trial: there she/he encounters one or a number of challenges.
  • The Reward: a boon the hero receives as a result of his trials, usually accompanied by a new knowledge of self and/or the cosmos.
  • The Return: the hero must consciously decide to return to his world, sharing the new-found knowledge. Here the hero applies her/his new skills, powers, and understandings to somehow make his world a better place.

The advertising for Dodge Ram trucks often follows this motif, tying the truck (and the driver) to overcoming a series of challenges that only this brand can cope with. The driver is able to step in where other brands fail and vanquish the problem. He emerges stronger, wiser and more powerful than his counterparts. Similarly, cleaning products frequently do this.  The would be hero/heroine is confronted with an impossible task of cleaning a bathroom. Armed with a specific brand, she/he not only vanquishes the problem/monster, but is able to demonstrate both her prowess and knowledge to other members of the family, sharing the product/hidden knowledge with other members of the group.

Another mythological archetype that appears frequently in advertising is the Trickster. The trickster is a figure who plays tricks or otherwise disobeys normal rules and conventional behavior.  The trickster figure, whether as a deity, folk hero or literary figure breaks the rules of the society, the gods or nature, usually, albeit unintentionally, with ultimately positive effects.  With the help of his wits and cleverness, he evades or fools monsters and dangers with unorthodox manners. Therefore the most unlikely candidate passes the trials and receives the reward. The character of Mayhem as a representation of the Allstate brand or the Trix Rabbit represent the archetypal motif of the trickster. Why do they work? Because, like the hero, they conform to an underlying, universal storyline that entertains, teaches and makes sense of the world.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because advertising and marketing far too often engage at the superficial level of the mind. They sell features and, occasionally, benefits. While that may be good for point of purchase or short-term gains, it does nothing for establishing a brand as something enduring. If you think in terms of designing a message or a campaign from the standpoint of mythical archetypes, you create something powerful, moving and universal. You create devotion. It certainly does nothing to turn a brand and its story into something iconic, something we share. And without that, a brand isn’t a brand at all, it is a commodity.

Using Old Studies to Articulate Ethnographic Insight

I was cleaning out folders yesterday and came across al old study that reminded me why it is important to return to our work.  In addition to shedding light on existing problems and theories, it reminded me that they serve as marvelous tools to demonstrate what it is we do, both in terms of fieldwork and creating new ideas.  This study dealt with pets, dogs more precisely, and how people shop for medications, high-quality foods, etc. It was a limited study and what’s written here is a significantly reduced version of the final piece of work, but it serves its purpose, so I would like to hope, fairly well.

As consumer pet ownership continues to increase and pet owners are continually striving to create better lives for themselves and their pets, the potential to serve these consumers is presenting some remarkable opportunities. However, in this market environment, the space  is flooded with products and services. So how can a marketer truly begin to understand how today’s pet owners purchase and consume products or services?

Tied to this is the question of how they conceptualize their pets, as well as how they understand and construct meanings around “experts.” On the surface, both of these issues seem to have common sense answers. But if asked to define what it is that makes a person’s hunting dogs different from the beagle that lives in the house, the distinctions become exceedingly difficult to articulate. Ask them where they learned about the flea and tick treatments they use and it’s very likely they will discuss their groomer just as often as their veterinarian.

What this means then, for a marketer, is that a seemingly simple, straightforward situation is in fact fairly complex, and the best way to develop a campaign is to address both explicit and implicit needs. The definition of “expert” must be redefined in this context, and a more complete understanding of what roles pets and animals play in people’s lives is vital to the success of a campaign. And it is this sort of insight that ethnography taps into. Ethnography means looking at and analyzing events through the anthropological lens, searching for hidden meanings, cultural symbolism, and the contexts in which people experience the world. Ethnography seeks to find information that ties together large-sample statistical data and individual psychology – it seeks out why people do what they do, believe what they believe, and say what they say with a focus on culture, interaction and context. And it is at this juncture where truly differentiating advantages, both tactical and strategic, lie.


The field team spent time visiting dog parks, pet retail chains, pet resorts, shelters, veterinary clinics and pet owner homes. During this study, the following raw field insights were collected and weighed against the majority of marketing and advertising produced by pet health product manufacturers to date. A large amount of marketing dollars are geared toward veterinarians and clinics, which, on the surface, makes sense. But for the end customer, the person with the pet, the process of learning begins earlier and often revolves as much around unofficial experts as it does the veterinary professional.

The field study was conducted in various locations in the US and focused specifically on dogs and dog owners. The insight summaries below demonstrate how the data is collected and represented, but this is by no means exhaustive.  It’s meant to illustrate a point – fieldwork is more than a home interview and it leads us down avenues of investigation that yield unexpected things.

The Dog Park

The dog park is communal space wherein people and pets congregate. They share advice, tell stories and discuss topics of interest to people engaged in what we will simply term “dog culture”. Waste-bag dispensers are sporadic and disorganized, toys laying around for all dogs to play with and communal water bowls are located at front gate and upper gathering area. Random leashes hanging on the fences near gates are unlikely to belong to anybody at the park. “Regulars” gather at the picnic tables to talk and socialize, while “Irregulars” hang around the peripheral fences with dogs and observe, waiting to be invited into the fold.

In communities defined by shared interest and shared materials, there is usually a strong sense of trust that extends into how the value of knowledge is perceived. The opinions of the fellow pet owner often hold more weight than the opinions of the expert, be it a veterinarian or vet tech. Becoming part of these social units means gaining their trust and advocacy.

The Animal Hospital

There is no doubt that the veterinarians and staff at clinics care about the animals they treat and the people who live with them. They often own multiple pets and sometimes find themselves lying awake at night thinking about animals they’ve treated or operated on. But at the end of the day, they are small business owners. Time and resources are limited, both for explaining products to pet owners and for dealing with pharmaceutical representatives. One veterinarian commented, “They don’t teach business in vet school. Perhaps there’s an opportunity to sponsor business education for vets. Especially the ‘old school’ vets on current trends.”

Oddly enough, more affluent individuals spend less on their pets, while less affluent spend more. Veterinarians can’t understand how people can spend $30-$40 per day on boarding, and complain about a $25 rabies shot. Again, context likely plays a part in this phenomenon. The offices are usually filled with pharmaceutical collateral and images of animal anatomy. From the perspective of the visitor, everything signals cold science and big business. The warmth and candor of a veterinarian or the staff is diminished. Levels of trust are curtailed. Consequently, anyone and anything in a clinic is defined within severe social limits and couched in impersonal terms.

The Pet Supply Store

The pet supply store in and of itself presented nothing surprising. Signage is everywhere and employees move between stocking shelves, checking out customers, and answering questions. Consumers question the expertise of staff because they are low-wage employees. However, within every store there are several “animal fanatics” who are viewed as credible by the people they interact with. This perception is only created, though, after the customer has engaged with this employee.

Additionally, pet supply stores have “specialists”. Groomers, vet techs, etc. are pushed to the edges of the store, and have a different façade. This symbolically sets them up as being something more credible and professional. It takes special training and expertise to work in these sections of the building and the people in these places are smart. While a groomer might not be able to discuss heartworm prevention, his/her occupation does set them up as an expert in all things dealing with the skin and by extension, flea and tick prevention.

The Shelter

Shelters are unique in terms of trust and credibility. Anyone working at a shelter, particularly a no-kill shelter, is given a near saintly status. They are the pinnacle of trustworthiness and affection, devoting themselves to the welfare of animals regardless of reward. Interestingly, people who adopt a pet will frequently make return visits to the shelter both to socialize and to get advice on treatment or training for their pets. Pictures and stories of pets are kept in special books that both the staff and visitors can look through. Volunteers and employees can all tell extensive stories about their own pets (many of whom they adopted and nursed back to health), and visiting pets are remembered. All of this potentially sets the stage for creating the perfect combination in establishing brand loyalty.

Granted, adoption care packages come with each adopted pet, which may influence return behavior, but they also serve to reinforce a company’s brand on two levels. First, there is simply the issue of familiarity – I used the product once so I’ll use it forever. But on a deeper level, the products and brands in the adoption package become associated with the people working and volunteering at the shelter. A veterinarian may suggest switching to product X, but if the people who take on an almost angelic aspect recommend product Y, the owner will likely take the latter recommendation.

Added to the sense of selflessness, is the fact that many staff members are seen as being “scientists,” particularly if, and many of them do, hold degrees in biology, primatology, or another “animal science” field. Expertise and commitment are conveyed through the stories told, both personal and about the animals.

The Pet Hotel

Pet Hotel staff was incredibly knowledgeable and willing to discuss their views. As with the staff at shelters, the staff had stories and advice readily willing to disperse. For example, the general manager of a pet hotel owned hunting dogs, which was her reason for using Advantix for flea and tick prevention.

“If it’s strong enough to deal with what comes at a hunting dog, it can handle anything coming at a typical companion pet.” The story was meant to convey real-world applications rather  than what she considered to be vague recommendations from vets. Two central insights came from these encounters. First, life experience conveys expertise. Second, unlike a veterinarian, this person has nothing to gain from pitching a product – profit motives are absent and only the pet’s well-being is important. Suggestions about medication are made on a fairly regular basis, but people in these positions are always careful to state that it is personal experience, not formal training. So, while credibility is established, it always involves getting a second opinion from the vet, thus forcing a discussion of preferred brands and products.


Yes, yes, it’s all interesting, but so what? Simply, imagination, or the lack of it, is the only that hold us back from turning facts and observations into insights. In this case, there are any number of opportunities. First and foremost, consumer learning from an “expert” begins well before a visit the veterinarian. It is driven by context and a sense of real-life experiences. The owner of a pet daycare facility and the person with hunting dogs has experiences that go beyond what

is addressed by the clinician. So, how might this insight be developed into an executable strategy? A company could deploy representatives in major metro area that would be responsible for spreading the word about a product among shelters, resorts, retail and groomers. These locations have the “real” referrers, not the vets. This ambassador would have a very different function from sales reps and would engage unofficial experts and consumers in their normal environments to establish awareness without the motivation of sales.

Other opportunities might include sponsoring entire dog parks or shelters to demonstrate on an emotional and grass roots level, that the company cares about the same things pet owners do. The idea is to become a point of reference for consumers when they make visits to clinics, pet hospitals, or any other venue where pet health products are sold and prescribed.

The second major insight is that the “type” of pet impacts where you go to get information about what to use. How a pet is functionally and symbolically conceptualized has a dramatic impact on purchase choices. If, for example, a dog is seen primarily as a work animal or investment vs. companion and a part of the family, it impacts how and why people invest in that animal. If a cat is an “indoor” vs. “outdoor” cat, it sets expectations about what are acceptable levels of disease and/or discomfort. Ultimately these issues shape whom the consumer asks for product advice, how and where they shop, what types of messaging and imagery they respond to, and how they define “expertise”. It is in these points of implicit meaning that marketing opportunities lie.