Defining Context

Planners, researchers and marketers increasingly think about consumer in complex ways. We understand that in a changing digital landscape, where people are dialed in 27/7, the context in which they learn and shop is incredibly important and influences what messages we deliver and how we deliver them.  So increasingly, we are thinking about what situations govern behavior and designing to fit that complexity. 

We spend a great deal of time talking about context, but rarely use models to define elements of it.  This particularly true when talking about mobile devices and accounts for the hit-and-miss quality of  most apps available on the market.  It is one thing to design a usable app that conforms to human factors and cognitive requirements, but it is quite another to design a stage in an environment, or an environment itself, when there are innumerable semi-autonomous devices mediating an swirl of information.  Consequently, it makes sense for us to think about how we structure context so that we can determine what exactly we can affect.

Physical Context

From the computational side of things, physical context refers to the notion of imbuing devices with a sense of “place.”  In other words, devices can distinguish the environments in which they “live” at any given moment and react to them. But this is much more difficult than it at first appears. Mapping out longitude and latitude is one thing, but reacting to socio-cultural features (political, natural, social, etc.) is much more problematic. Getting beyond demarcation of identifiable borders and structures, means coming to grips with place (as opposed to space).  That in turns having to be “aware” on some level. 

Think of a mall.  Within that mall are hundreds of stores, each with hundreds of devices and/or nodes of information. The device now has to decode what information is most relevant to itself, what information is most relevant to the user and how it will deliver that information.  Returning to the mall example, we have to think about a host of things in order to make any app relevant.  What competing retailer apps get precedence over others? When you receive an offer from one store, will the device “tell” other retailers in order to generate real-time counter offers?  When someone else is holding your device for you (say, while trying on clothing but needing to set the iPad aside or while your child plays Angry Birds on the couch in the evening), how will the device know what incoming content is private and what is public?  How will the device communicate with a location or with other devices as it moves throughout the mall? Is it even necessary? The point is simply this; we increasingly have access to the digital landscape at all points throughout the day and getting design right means understanding the systems in which people operate.

Device Context

Just as various kinds of sensory apparatus (GPS-receivers, proximity sensors, etc.) are the means by which mobile devices will become geographically aware, another class of sensors makes it possible for devices to become aware of each other. There is a fundamental difference between the ability to transmit data between devices and the ability (and desire) of devices to discover each other. And this presents a series of problems that are different in nature than those of physical context. Because this deals with choices of communication.

We are on the verge of existing in a world with zero-infrastructure networks that can spring up anywhere, anytime. That means that devices are in a potentially constant state of discovery.  Returning to the mall for a moment, imagine that you are with a friend whose device is communicating with yours.  In there mall are a couple of thousand devices, all of which are discovering each other.  What happens now?  Assuming we’ve dealt with the problem of my mobile phone communicating with my friend’s phone while blocking out the other 2000 devices, we still have several thousand potentially “identities” that may have useful information for us.  How do we select how to manage that without devoting a ridiculous amount of time to setting up the hundreds of variables that shape what we do and don’t want at any given time? Perhaps more importantly, how do we develop a process to manage it that mimics, or at least compliments, the human brain and cultural patterns of behavior? All this is couched in a neat little world defined within a single, bounded  geographical unit.  So understanding device context is as important as understanding physical context.

Information Context

This is the realm of information architecture, plain and simple.  But with the advent of pervasive mobile, this topic is becoming even more complex.  Specifically, data no longer resides, literally or figuratively, “in” our computers.  Our devices are extensions of the cloud and exist as something akin to perceptual prostheses.  They exist to manipulate data in the same way a joy stick allows us to handle the arms of robot in a factory.  And this is important because it reflects a shift in how we think about and use information because all information (and the aps that carry that information) is transitory and by and large, public. 

 This changes the nature of what the device has to actually be. Storage issues are essentially removed from the equation.  Content can leap from place to place and device to device in an instant. All content will be customizable and reflect the human-application interaction rather than shaping it. This leads to the point that devices, and the people who use them, will find themselves in the 4th kind of context of social interaction, with all its peculiarities and contingencies. Just as our behavior and worldview shapes and is shaped by the moment in which we find ourselves, so too will our apps and information need to adapt to the moment.  In other words, devices will need to be more human.

Socio-Cultural Context

The whole humankind is riven with contrasting practices, cultures, tongues, traditions and world views. A cultural context may exist on levels as diverse as a workplace, a family, a building, a city, a county, a state, a nation, a continent, a hemisphere etc. A cultural context provides a shared understanding of meaning provides a framework for what “works” in the world. It is what helps you recognize “your kind” in all senses of the word.

And it is at the point of socio-cultural understanding where we gain a better perspective on what will and will not be accepted in the mobile universe.  We need to understand the essence behind the veil of design and usage to uncover meaning.  Take the beer pouring app as an example.  Here we have a simple app that mimics the pouring of a beer when you tilt your device.  On the surface it has little relevance to our daily lives.  It serves no direct function and yet it has been tremendously successful because of the cultural needs it to which it speaks – workplace breaks from the mundane, the ability to show off the newest thing, male-to-male bonding, etc.  Its absurdity is precisely what makes it relevant.  But in another context, say Saudi Arabia, the context shifts and meaning must change to fit that particular milieu.

The nature of our successes lies in understanding the reasons behind our beliefs and actions, in the symbolic exchanges we are part of and our abilities to code and decode those symbolic exchanges.  The nature of our mistakes essentially lies in a lack of comprehension. It leads to UI and app development that speak to a minority of the population even as they try to sell to the masses. Without understand the underlying epistemological constructs of a group (or more accurately, a mix of often associated groups at different points of interaction and interpretation) then we miss opportunities.

So What?

So why does any of this matter?  It matters because good design and messaging are increasingly difficult to master.  Our great technological leaps forward have also produced more complexity, which in turn leads to a greater need to make sense of what is “going on” in the broadest sense of the term when it comes to gathering insights and translating them into design and business applications. Without a means by which to categorize context, we can’t isolate those things that matter most and we miss enormous opportunities. So how do we get at underlying contexts? To be perfectly blunt, there is no perfect system because contexts change if we’ve done our jobs well (cause and effect), but there are ways to come close. Depending on the project, questions may be very tactical and specific or very strategic and broad. In either case, the first step is to clearly articulate what the overarching goal is.

First, rethink the problem. Frequently, what we see as the problem is in fact a facet of something else. For example, when researching something like an eBook the problem to be solved isn’t technology, it may be understanding why people read different material in different contexts. It may be about displaying books for colleagues and friends as a means of gaining status. The point is that the problem we see may not be the problem at all and we need to think about possibilities before we enter the field.

Second, begin defining the contexts.
Where does an activity or practice take place? Defining the contexts we want to examine helps articulate the range of possibilities for observation. For example, if we’re studying beer drinking, we need to articulate all the possible contexts in which beer is purchased and consumed.

Third, think through the complexity of the sample.
Who are the people we want to talk with? What are the social and cultural circles that will shape the event? It isn’t enough to define a demographic sample, you need to think in terms of cultural, social, professional and environmental systems, determining not only who will be the primary participants, but also the actors that shape the context.

Fourth, make a game plan that involves direct experiential information gathering, don’t just dig into statistics. Put together a guide to help navigate the data collection and a method for managing the data (remember, everything is data and it is easy to become overwhelmed without a plan). Having a series of key questions and observational points to explore is the first component. But don’t just think about the questions you will ask, but also include opportunities for observation, mapping, and participation.

Fifth, head into the field.
This is the heart of the process. Meaningful insights and moments of “truth” are slow to get at. Low-hanging fruit will be easy to spot, but the goal should be to find those deeper practices and meanings. Because everything is data, from attitudes to mannerisms to artifacts, it is important to capture as much as possible. Take notes, draw maps and sketches, take photographs, shoot video, and collect audio – the smallest piece of information may have the greatest impact

Sixth, do the analysis. Hands down, analysis is the most difficult, but also the most rewarding part of research. A trained ethnographer, for example, will do more than report anecdotes. A trained ethnographer will bring a deep understanding of cultural understanding and social theory to the analysis process. This goes beyond casual observation and starts to pull together the web of significances and practices that get to the underlying structures of why people do what they do. Analysis should always work within a framework grounded in the social sciences. Analysis takes time, but the results will include modes of behavior, models of practice, experience frameworks, design principles, and cultural patterns. Once the data has been analyzed and crafted into something meaningful, the research team should be able to provide a rich story with a clear set of “aha” findings.

Finally, it isn’t enough to simply hand off results. As compelling as we may find our insights, that doesn’t always translate into someone seeing immediately how to apply them. Once insights and findings are shared, you need to work with others to craft those findings into action plans, product ideas, etc.

The end result is that you create greater value for the client and for yourself. The process is, admittedly, more time consuming than traditional approaches, but it ultimately yields greater insight and reduces time and costs on the back end. It also yields better work that will impact the customer or end user more significantly. 

Context and the Changing Mobile Landscape

Marketers increasingly think about consumers in complex ways. It is understood that in a changing digital landscape, the context in which they learn and shop influences what messages we deliver and how we deliver them.  But we rarely define “context”. It is one thing to design a usable app that conforms to human factors and cognitive requirements, but it is quite another to design a stage in an environment when there are innumerable semi-autonomous devices mediating in a swirl of information.

Physical Context

Physical context refers to the notion of infusing devices with a sense of “place.”  In other words, devices can distinguish the environments in which they “live” and react to them. But this is difficult. Mapping out longitude and latitude is one thing, but reacting to features (political, natural, social, etc.) is much more problematic. Getting beyond the boundaries of identifiable borders and structures, means coming to grips with “place”.

Think of a mall.  There are hundreds of stores, each with hundreds of devices. The device now has to decode what information is relevant and how it will deliver information. What competing retailer apps get precedence over others? When you receive an offer, will the device “tell” other retailers in order to generate real-time counter offers? The digital landscape is continuous at all points throughout the day and getting design right means understanding the systems in which people operate.

Device Context

Just as various kinds of sensory apparatus (GPS-receivers, proximity sensors, etc.) are the means by which mobile devices will become geographically aware, another class of sensors makes it possible for devices to become aware of each other. This presents a series of problems that are different than those of physical context.

Technology is on the verge of existing in a world with zero-infrastructure networks that can spring up anywhere, anytime. Devices will exist in a constant state of discovery.  Returning to the mall, imagine that you are with a friend whose device is communicating with yours.  In the mall are a couple of thousand devices, all of which are discovering each other.  What happens now?  Assuming we’ve dealt with the problem of one friend’s device communicating with the other friend’s device while blocking out the other 2000 devices, you still have several thousand potential “identities” that may have useful information.  How is it decided what to manage without devoting significant time to setting up the hundreds of variables?

Information Context

This is the realm of information architecture. Data no longer resides “in” our computers.  Devices are extensions of the cloud and exist as something akin to perceptual prostheses.  They exist to manipulate data in the same way a joy stick allows us to handle the arms of robot in a factory.  This reflects a shift in how we use information because all information is transitory.

Storage issues are essentially removed from the equation.  Content can leap from place to place and device to device in an instant. Content will be customizable and reflect the human-application interaction rather than shaping it. Devices will find themselves in the fourth kind of context of social interaction, with all its contingencies. Just as behavior is shaped by the moment, so too will the apps and information needed to adapt.

Socio-Cultural Context

Each person is unique to contrasting cultures, tongues, traditions and world views. A cultural context may exist on levels as diverse as a workplace, a family, a building, a county, a continent, a hemisphere. Cultural context provides a framework for what “works” for each consumer in the world.

It is at this point where a better perspective is gained on what will and will not be accepted in the mobile universe. Take a beer pouring app that mimics the pouring of a beer when the device is tilted.  It serves no direct function and yet it has been successful because of the cultural needs it to which it speaks – workplace breaks, male-to-male bonding, etc. But in another context, say Saudi Arabia, the context shifts. Success lies in understanding the reasons behind the consumers beliefs and actions in the symbolic exchanges, and the ability to code and decode those exchanges.  Marketing mishaps come from a lack of comprehension.

So What?

Our great technological leaps forward have also produced more complexity, leading to a greater need to make sense of insights. Without a means to categorize context, marketers will miss identifying trends that matter most. What to do?

  • Rethink the problem. Frequently, “the problem” is a facet of something else. For example, when researching an eBook the problem to be solved isn’t technology, it is understanding why people read different material in different contexts. It may be about displaying books as a means of gaining status. The point is the problem seen may not be the problem at all.
  • Define the contexts. Defining the contexts helps articulate the range of possibilities for observation. For example, if the consumer behavior is drinking beer, all contexts in which beer is purchased and consumed need to be articulated.
  • Think through the sample. Who is the marketing targeting? What are the social circles that will shape the event? It isn’t enough to define a demographic sample, you need to think in terms of cultural systems.
  • Make a plan that involves experiential information gathering, not just statistics. Develop a guide to navigate the data collection and a method for managing the data (everything is data). Don’t  just think about the questions to ask, but also include opportunities for observation and participation.
  • Head into the field. This is the heart of the process. Meaningful insights and moments of “truth” are slow to get at. Low-hanging fruit will be easy to spot, but the goal should be to find those deeper meanings. Because everything is data, from attitudes to artifacts, it is important to capture as much as possible.
  • Do the analysis. Analysis is the most difficult, but also the most rewarding. The goal is to bring a deep understanding of cultural behavior to the analysis process. This goes beyond casual observation and gets to the underlying structures of why people do what they do.

The process is more time consuming than traditional approaches, but it ultimately yields greater insight and reduces time and costs on the back end. The end result is that you create greater value for the client and for the company.

Liminality and Shopping

You will not find the term “liminality” in many dictionaries. For instance, at last check it is not in the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary does, however, have an entry for “liminal,” the adjectival form, which it lists as a rare usage: “Of or pertaining to the threshold or initial stage of a process.” Both liminal and liminality are derived from the Latin “limen,” which means “threshold”—that is, the bottom part of a doorway that must be crossed when entering a building.  And it is this notion of a doorway, or passage from one space to another, and the consequences of doing so, that matters to consumption and shopping, because in a world where the procurement of goods is increasingly simple the act of transforming a person from one state of being to another is more and more important.  We no longer sell just goods, we sell something much more profound – or we hope to, at least.

As a brief refresher, it was not until the second half of the 20th century, that the terms “liminal” and “liminality” gained popularity through the writings of Victor Turner. Turner borrowed and expanded upon Van Gennep’s concept of liminality, ensuring widespread usage of the concept in anthropology.

In 1967, Turner noted that “the subject of passage ritual is, in the liminal period, structurally, if not physically, ‘invisible’” (1967: 95). That is, the status of liminal individuals is socially and structurally ambiguous. From this he further developed the idea.  “Liminality may perhaps be regarded as the Nay to all positive structural assertions, but as in some sense the source of them all, and, more than that, as a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise” (1967: 97).

Fundamentally, the idea is relatively simple.  When a person is in a liminal state, she or he is betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremony.  Their roles in the cosmic order are ambiguous. He then goes on to name this state of non-structure or anti-structure through such concepts as the “realm of pure possibility” and structural invisibility. He chooses the Latin term “communitas” to express this idea of anti-structure, and refers to social structure and communitas as two major models for human interrelatedness.”

The first model is of society as a structured, differentiated, and often hierarchical system of politico-legal-economic positions with many types of evaluation, separating men in terms of “more” or “less.” The second, which emerges recognizably in the liminal period, is of society as an unstructured or rudimentarily structured and relatively undifferentiated comitatus, community, or even communion of equal individuals who submit together to the general authority of the ritual elders.

Yes, yes.  All very interesting, but what does it have to do with consumption and shopping?  Shopping is, at a functional level, about getting things we need – food, clothing, shelter, etc.  But if it were as simple as that we wouldn’t have specialty stores.  We wouldn’t spend hours rummaging around a bookstore when we could simply order the product online.  As the outlets for acquisition have expanded with the growth of broadband, the nature of shopping has changed.  It is as much about fulfilling social, cultural and psychological needs and desires as it is anything else, perhaps more so. Which means it is often a transformational act of a transitory nature that takes us from one state of being to another, if only for a short while. And it is at the gateway that we find the symbols that successfully transition of from one state to another.  Retailers who do this well (Abercrombe, Anthropologie, Swatch) become points of destination and alter the nature of interaction, both with the store and with fellow shoppers, at the point of entry into their space.  They set the stage where shopping becomes akin to a rite of passage.  It signals that we have entered a special place and while we’re there, we are not the same person we were on the street.

The idea that the passage of the magical threshold is a transit into a new sphere of reconfigurement of who and what we are is symbolized by the gateway and harkens back to the worldwide womb image of myth.  It is the hero entering the belly of the whale and emerging transformed, carrying special knowledge or objects that can only be found by going through the passage.  This is why the approaches to temples are flanked by guardian symbols – dragons, angles, sword-wielding demon slayers.  These are the threshold guardians used to ward off those incapable of encountering the higher silences within. They illustrate the fact that the devotee at the moment of entry into the temple undergoes a metamorphosis.  Similarly, in a cultural construct where shopping and consumption have taken on the role of defining personal meaning, the threshold at the store signals a metamorphosis into the stylistically elite.  Those entering the space understand that they are unlike those outside the space and have entered a place that is beyond the confines of the mundane, daily life.  And like the hero, once having crossed the threshold, the postmodern shopper moves into a dream landscape of often curiously fluid, ambiguous forms.  It is here that shopping becomes something bigger than consumption.  It is here that the trial, the hunt, the act of self-becoming takes place, turning shopping into an expression of self-worth and of profound worth to the tribe (the family, the peer group, etc.).

Thinking about a shopping space and the symbolic cues to which we respond at the outset of the shopping journey means taking a more subtle view of how we promote our wares. Rather than screaming “low, low prices,” it means thinking about shopping and spatial design as promoting a change in the people to whom we would sell.  And it means putting as much though into the store front as it does the size of type on an end cap.  It means thinking of both the entry and the space as transitional, transformational structures that compel the shopper to alter his or her sense of being.  And this is where loyalty comes from.  Just as most people do not hop from on hose of worship every week, let alone from faith to faith, so too should they feel compelled to return to your space again and again.

Liminality is almost always a temporary phenomenon. That is not to say that the temporal nature of liminality should be one of its defining characteristics. Rather, human nature being the way it is means that liminality cannot be permanent. Either we are absorbed into the social structure or we shun it all together—we cannot remain betwixt and between.  But liminality can be something that draws people back to a retailer time and again.  It turns shopping beyond the ordinary and signals that your space is beyond the daily grind.  It signals a place of rebirth.

Taking Clients Along for the Ride

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. The idea of 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.

Perhaps naively, many ethnographers assumed that we would work in a vacuum when they learned their trade. We’d go into the field – people’s homes, workplaces, and leisure areas – and then report to clients what we learned. However, we soon realize that some clients take us literally when we state ethnography will bring them into their customers’ homes. They aren’t always satisfied with just overseeing the project or telling us what they want to learn and why. This is a great opportunity for clients to see customers using their products in real situations and a chance to get to know the customers personally. But it presents ethnographers with certain challenges. 

Involvement Risks

Ethnographers tread delicately. Every time we perform fieldwork we need to become instant friends with participants. We need them comfortable enough to behave “normally” while we point a camera at them, and to feel that they can tell us anything – even if they’re just talking about peanut butter. The field is spontaneous and sensitive, and anything can happen. That means making sure we and our clients do all we can to ensure that the field remains as natural as possible.

Clients have varying levels of fieldwork experience. Some are qualitative market researchers with a little in-context interviewing under their belts, and others don’t have much first-hand knowledge of qualitative research or the human sciences. Consequently, clients might interfere with the interview process, misinterpret the data, or overlook important but subtle information. However, ethnographers can take steps to mitigate these concerns.

1. Explore Motives

Understand why clients need to go into the field and what their expectations are of the project. DO they want direct exposure to generate ideas, ease issues of trust/competency/legality, train their in-house ethnographer, or simply be more engaged in the process? For the sake of both the research and the client-ethnographer relationship, articulating these issues is essential.

It’s paramount that clients communicate goals for a smooth operation. On one occasion, a busy client of ours wanted to see his products used in context, so he attended two field visits early in the project. Knowing his reason and planned number of outings, we ensured they’d include use of his products. Everything went well, and his observations were eye-opening. Because he didn’t have time to invest in more fieldwork, we sent him a video document every time someone used his products during the project.

2. Establish Boundaries

Before fieldwork, ethnographers must communicate the research boundaries and client role. Clients should recognize that ethnographers’ expertise consists of more than an ability to build rapport with strangers; their skills are rooted in a keen understanding of social theory and methodological rigor, and entail years of training.

Ethnographers have a process and particular mindset that directs the interview, interaction, and interpretation, so guiding client input before starting a project will help prevent everyone from asking leading questions or biasing conversations. Limits ensure quality work and allow clients to make the most of a field visit.

It also permits them to function within a frame of hierarchical authority, lessening their need to be project leader. In other words, clients understand that the context reduces or removes a layer of authority. It lets them focus on learning and executing predetermined tasks, instead of feeling compelled to handle everything. They can filter information through a training perspective while taking a holistic approach.

3. Allocate Responsibilities

Providing clients an indispensable role in the projects, such as videotaping an interview, helps them feel more like team members and less like visitors. It also raises comfort levels of everyone involved. Assigning tasks s also a practical necessity: Clients can replace research assistants in the field. Two researchers plus a client can threaten and crowd a participant, who just wants to demonstrate the best way to clean a bathroom countertop.

4. Encourage Reciprocation

It’s important to know clients well and be thoughtful about their flexibility, political realities, and character traits. Unfortunately, there often isn’t enough time to do so in-depth. Clients might arrive a half-hour earl for an afternoon interview and leave that evening, never to go into the field again. In this case, an ethnographer can only outline some expectations and techniques – through phone and e-mail conversations beforehand, and on the spot (frequently while sitting on cushy hotel-lobby chairs).

When clients have more time to invest in the ethnography, there are two parts to building a solid team and guaranteeing productive fieldwork (despite their lack of experience.) Clients must be willing to adapt to new or unfamiliar methodologies – techniques for data gathering and interpretation – regardless of their backgrounds (e.g. design, business strategy, engineering). And ethnographers must appreciate and incorporate clients’ theoretical and practical contributions. Success requires devoting time and energy to discovering the capabilities of all the team members – ethnographer and client alike.

Each team member can learn to apply findings across a range of activities. After all, a key to business achievement is using seemingly disconnected information to build new products, brands, and business models. Learning how best to conduct research and understanding individual roles in the field ultimately helps the client use the gathered information most effectively.

Protection and Collaboration

As ethnography becomes a staple of market research, we just might see marketers and product designers make an exodus to the field – with or without us. Ethnographers need to prepare for the possible outcomes. They should do so by not only preventing research from being disturbed, but also by harnessing clients’ intelligence and know-how – using their involvement as a springboard for more effective and actionable ethnography. In the future, most marketing decisions and product innovations will be based on real-world experiences with ordinary people.

The Business of Language and the Language of Business

Entering the world of business is a significant challenge for an anthropologist.  There are questions about the moral ambiguity and exploitative nature of the capitalist system.  There are concerns about the relationship between industrialized nations and the indigenous populations that invariably produce the goods that are sold.  There is the internal debate over globalization and the development of new forms of colonialism.  And finally, how do we speak to our employers in such a way as to effectively communicate our findings?  The first issues are exceedingly difficult to resolve, requiring individuals to look within and determine what is and is not acceptable from his or her philosophical and theoretical understanding of the world.  The last is perhaps less difficult intellectually, but at times just as painful.  Learning a new language is never easy.

Today, my anthropological training is applied to attempting to understand the ways in which culture influences and reflects how people interact with, use, and conceptualize the brands, objects, and products.  The nature of the work is such that research time is often dreadfully limited and the results of fieldwork are frequently ambiguous.  Communicating this to groups that expect simple, concrete answers and recommendations is at times a seemingly insurmountable task.

My first presentation (part of the far distant past) to a combined group of business executives, industrial designers, and marketing experts did not go well.  I was branded as being too academic when I did the unthinkable and used polysyllabic words such as “epistemology” and “neocolonialism” (never mind that I had failed to reduce the finding to a series of bulletpoints on a PowerPoint deck).  To make matters worse, I made the mistake of talking about “building” the business as opposed to “growing the business organically,” an act of sociolinguistic impropriety so great as to draw angry glares and barely concealed threats of banishment.  While my initial reaction was to dismiss their reactions, further reflection brought the realization that I had failed to live up to what I had learned as a student – in essence my reaction was ethnocentric and perhaps arrogant, if we view the business environment as a culture in its own right with rules of behavior and communication – all of which I had largely overlooked or dismissed. 

For an anthropologist interested in practicing in the business world, it is as important that he or she learn the language, so to speak, of that culture as it is for an anthropologist entering the a small, tribal society.  It would be tempting to initially argue that the university settings in which we first learn the basics of our discipline are remiss in preparing students for the corporate life, but this would be shortsighted, inaccurate, and unfair.  Preparation ultimately rests on the practitioner’s shoulders – we receive the fruits of experience of our teachers, but ultimately we must learn the basics of the languages and customs of the people with whom we will live and work on our own.  Unfortunately, learning the communication styles and language of the business world must be done rapidly – the “natives” are largely unforgiving and impatient, casting the “academic” anthropologist out on the street if they do not perform within the approved social and linguistic norms quickly.  And so I have learned, or so I like to believe.

To my mind, the most significant change comes in the way we present our findings.  Increasingly, the preferred mode of communication in the business world is the bullet point.  Findings typically must be distilled to their most basic principles and recommendations asserted with the voice of command.  While painfully frustrating, it often serves to engage the audience enough to get them to begin asking more detailed questions.  This does not mean the abandonment of detailed reports.  Rather, the report serves to defend or expand recommendations.  No matter how dependent they may be on the bullet point, the in-depth report is still an expectation of the employer.  With time it becomes a respected element of the work.  My limited experience has indicted that we are a new voice to business and though respected, we are expected to adapt to the social and linguistic rules of this unforgiving lot.

So, as we talk to the issues that will develop into holistic synergies, we continue to harvest constructive relationships and build a new paradigm – or something along those lines.  

 

      

 

Getting Over Ourselves: Make research meaningful

The other day I was privy to a discussion by a researcher who was decidedly upset about having to “dumb down” the research report he had completed. The client was impressed by the depth of the work, but equally frustrated with the seemingly academic depth of the language of the report and the use of jargon that was, realistically, more appropriate to anthropological circles than to a business environment. The researcher was upset by the client’s request to strip out discussions of agency, systems design theory, identity formation, etc., and stated something along the lines of “I had to learn this sort of thing in grad school, so they should take the time to do the same”. And while I think it would be lovely (and perhaps beneficial) if clients took such an interest in what we as researchers study, I have to say my views on the matter are very different. Making what we learn useful and meaningful to the client isn’t “dumbing it down”, it’s performing the task for which we were hired. We do not receive grants and write peer-reviewed articles when businesses hire us. Indeed, we may not write at all. What we do is produce insights and information that they can use, from their design team to their CEO. If they aren’t asking us to become expert in supply chain models or accounting, then asking them to embrace often daunting concepts in socio-cultural theory is both unrealistic and, frankly, arrogant.

In general, companies hire ethnographers (anthropologist, sociologists, etc.) for a simple reason: to uncover new ways to achieve competitive advantage and make more money. This translates, most often, into research to understanding new product opportunities, brand positioning, or salient marketing messages. Unfortunately, our clients often have no idea what to do with the research. But more often than not, the fault lies with ethnographers, not the client, and can be overcome if we apply ourselves just a bit.

Usefulness means being a guide, not a lecturer. So why are we so often disinclined to make what we do useful to business people? Part of it, I believe, stems from an unwillingness to address our own biases openly and honestly. There is a tendency among many of us coming out of what have traditionally been academic disciplines to ridicule or react negatively to people in the business world. To be honest, it’s why we chose, say, an anthropology program over a business program in college. We often, consciously or subconsciously, hold these people in contempt and believe that it is they who should bend, not us, as if we are providing secret knowledge are indeed of a higher order of life than they. We resent the idea that these lesser minds would have to audacity to ask us to curb our genius. And yet, there’s nothing new in making complex ideas useful, simple, or intelligible to people without advanced training in the social sciences. Look at any Anthro 101 course and you realize we’ve been doing this for a very long time already. The fact of the matter is that in order to be relevant and to get the client excited about what we do and to value the thinking behind our work, we have to remember that not everyone wants to be an expert in social science any more than they want to be physicians or painters – they want us to be the experts and to know what we’re doing, including crafting what we learn into something they can grasp and apply even as they try to balance their own work load. Balancing jargon with meaning is, or should be, the goal.

Another struggling point I often think stems from how many of us were trained. Traditionally, the researcher is either left to work alone or as part of a very small team. The findings are analyzed, complied and shared with a small group of like-minded individuals. (We would like to believe that the numbers of people who care about what we write are larger, but the truth is most of us don’t give the work of our colleagues the attention they deserve or would at least like to believe they deserve.) Our careers are built on proving our intelligence, which means making an intellectual case that addresses every possible theoretical angle in great detail. But in the business context, to whom are we proving our intelligence? And do they care? They hire us precisely because we are the experts, not to prove how smart we are. This isn’t to say that we can or should forego the rigor good ethnographic research should employ, but it is to say that whether we like it or not, most of the theoretical models we use should end up in the appendix, not in what the client sees, hears or reads. Not only does it overcomplicate our findings, it often comes across as either arrogant or needy, neither quality being something the client finds particularly enticing or reassuring.

The fact is that we do ourselves and the discipline a disservice by not learning the language and needs of business people. We complain that untrained people are slowly “taking over” ethnography, but it’s our own doing nine times out of ten. It isn’t enough to have a better grasp of the complexities of the human condition, we have to learn to translate our work and come to terms with the fact that the people hiring us have a very real, practical need for our findings. If it cannot be translated into something that can be grasped in the first two minutes, then in their way of seeing the world, it is money wasted.

Are we there to educate or inform? Our work is frequently deemed too academic. So what does it mean when a client says, “It’s too academic.”?
 It means that they didn’t hire you to teach a class about anthropological theory and method. It means they don’t want to sit through a 100 page Power Point presentation before getting to the heart of the matter. They are in business and have neither the time nor the interest of a scholar or student.  Again, this doesn’t mean you don’t do the work or fail to set up the points you are trying to make, but it does mean that you be cognizant of the  fact that the audience hired you to improve their business and products, not teach a course on anthropological methods.  And indeed, some concepts are simply too complex to turn into a couple of bullet points. But that doesn’t mean we cannot try, particularly if we hope to get more work from the client.

The people with the luxury of sitting through a lengthy presentation or who have the time to discuss the intricacies of social theory rarely have a significant amount of authority in the decision-making process, and they rarely hold the purse strings.  This isn’t to say that those two hours of research findings we present aren’t meaningful, but rather that presentations need to be tailored to the needs of the people buying your service (research) and product (recommendations). For the business community, the product is not knowledge, but intelligence.  In other words, the product is knowledge that is actionable and useful. And to be fair, it’s worth noting that the client is the one who pays for our work. If the idea of providing them with the service and product they need is unpalatable, then I would argue that the ethnographer needs to quit complaining and start exploring a different line of work, plain and simple.

The researcher, research team, creative team, client, and everyone invested in the project need to work toward turning information into something they can act upon. When the time comes to sit down with the client and explain what you learned, the ethnographer must be prepared to also explain what to do with it next in a simple, clear way.

 

 

Translating culture and opening markets

Success translates well into narrative. Who hasn’t heard those wonderful stories of marketing campaigns gone astray when introduced into a global setting? Remember when Puffs tissue started marketing their tissues in Germany and it didn’t do so well because “Puff” means “brothel” in German?  Or when Bacardi launched a fruit drink named Pavian in France it translated into slang as “chick,” but when they promoted it in Germany the same word meant “Baboon?”

We’ve all heard of these mistakes and we all get a chuckle, but the business ramifications of not doing your cultural homework are tremendous. And this goes well beyond something as superficial as a mistranslation.  We are prone to imposing our way of seeing the world on others, but what we may see in the developed world as universal may be significantly different in developing countries. Culture shapes how we use, interpret and shop for goods and what US shoppers may see as simply, say, buying chicken for dinner may mean much more in another part of the world. In other words, retailers and manufacturers need to understand what matters and why it matters according to different cultural perceptions.

Returning to our example of purchasing chicken at the grocery in the US, take concepts of cleanliness and food safety. As a population that has had easy access to meat for longer than most of us can remember, our concerns revolve around the promotion of “health” as a means of reducing fat in the diet. Increasingly, we make decisions based on the sanitary conditions of the farms where chickens are raised and the ethical treatment of the animals.  We increasingly associate “healthy” with being “green” (another wonderfully loaded and vague word). That has led to a push for reduced packaging as proof of sustainability and healthy living.

Now, take China. In a place where access to meat was – until fairly recently – limited, chicken is associated with status and upward mobility.  In the past, the source of the meat itself was often suspect because you may have purchased it in less than uniform locations.  Consequently, what we would see as excessive packaging is understood differently – the factory setting implies progress, wealth and modernity, which in turn imply good “health.”  Meat is something you want to show off to your friends and family because it is associated with status, which is associated with good health. Add to that the fact that people in much of world (unlike the US) have traditionally seen the chicken as something other than a pure commodity.  Indeed, there are many poems written about chickens (He Crows the Morning by Hsieh Ling-Yun or The Most Noble Fowl by Mohammad Ibn Sina). The result is that if you position chicken in the developing world as you might in the US, as a low-fat, easy to prepare alternative source of protein, it won’t correspond to the local worldview and your brand won’t gain traction.  You will invest a lot of money and may get very little in return. And China is only one example; expand this to the BRIC nations or the Middle East.

Of course, this is only one example, but the idea cuts across all categories. Don’t believe it? Tropicana initially failed when pushing orange juice in South America because it was pushed as a breakfast drink, which in South America it is frequently not – our beloved breakfast icon is something for the afternoon, a treat and a snack.  Papa John’s, on the other hand, is doing wonderfully in Egypt by maintaining it’s “American” mystique while incorporating toppings and product names that reflect local tastes.

Understanding what it means to shop on a global, national and local level is central to developing successful new products, sales channels and marketing campaigns. That means going beyond the product or retail environment and asking bigger questions:

Question: How does shopping convey status and wealth?

Answer: Pabst Blue Ribbon is a premium brand in China and signifies wealth because it has been positioned as a classic American Lager rather than a hipster yard beer. In China, it conveys a sense of worldliness, refinement and cultivated taste.

Question: What cultural norms shape how people interact with you brand and your store? Answer: Victoria’s Secret can’t be promoted in Riyadh or Bangalore the way it is in London.  Attitudes outside the West about sexuality, exposure of the human body and gender roles are radically different, shaping everything from marketing content to store displays.

And this could go on and on.  So what does it mean for marketing your brand in the developing world (in fact, what does it mean for marketing your brand in Alabama vs. LA)? It means that before you decide to launch or even reposition a brand or product around the world you need to spend some time digging and learning why people live the way they do and how your brand can fit into that complex system of practices and beliefs.  It isn’t enough to make sure the language is translated correctly or the color pallet makes sense. You have to come to understand the population the way you understand your neighbor. That’s where you find new opportunities and that’s where you find growth, both in terms of brand equity and the bottom line.