In July 1961, Charles Winick wrote in the Journal of Marketing (vol. 25, no. 5): "Of the social sciences which deal with man and society, only economics, psychology and sociology have been widely used in marketing. Marketers have been relatively slow in using anthropological insights and approaches, even though anthropology is also concerned with man and society."

In this article, Winick noted how anthropologists have helped sales training programs by looking into speech analysis and quality of interaction between customer and salesmen or even helped design chairs and knobs by applying anthropometry or measurement of the body. Other applied fields where anthropology was used included disaster management, mental health care, organizational culture, labor management relations and cultural change, among others. Despite its contributions and potential, anthropology remained to be more academic than applied in business and had been ranked as one of the worst courses to take in college.

Fast forward to year 2013 – Scott Redick, a director of strategy of an independent advertising agency wrote about the Top 10 Surprising Marketing Jobs for the Next 10 Years in Forbes.com where there are now positions called Mobile Marketing Jedi or Sustainability Tzar, and where the top spot is a job position called Transcultural Anthropologist.

When I tell people I am taking Anthropology, friends and strangers either look impressed about the mystery and exoticness of this seemingly "ancient" discipline or are baffled as to how far I seemed to have digressed from marketing and business. When I explain the concept of consumer insighting research firms spending a day or so with consumers, watching them consume or use products in its actual setting, I describe the effort as an anthropologist would - with ethnographic research.

When one speaks of anthropology or marketing, one encounters culture – of humans interacting with one another, with the environment, with technology, and with things. There are symbols, values, and knowledge that are learned that validate or motivate human behavior. Applied to business or consumer research, anthropology looks into (among other things) specific group behaviors and kinships, symbols and rituals that had since conjured images of tribes and exotic personifications but may now appear as brands, logos, loyalty and habits.

When products are bought, for example, a marketer might ask for reasons why or what unmet need would be satisfied. It may be that a product is purchased as a gift and an anthropologist might introduce into the discussion Marcel Mauss' concept of gifts being never free because of the expectation of being “repaid”, where the gift exchange forms social cohesion or social ties.

One marketing manager once asked what the difference was between "gifts" and "treats" among members of his team who were using them interchangeably. The team arrived at the definition that a gift is expected, while a treat is like a surprise. Because of this definition, they focused on giving the promo an element of "surprise" rather than calling it a gift that looked more like a form of "repayment" for having bought the product. This perspective may seem like an oversimplification of an anthropological concept but for now, it may provide an explanation for why a particular promo effort might work by simply using the correct terminology and a refocusing of lenses.

It is worth mentioning here that technology giant Microsoft is said to hire the most number of anthropologists, second only to the US government, or that the Philippines' Project Noah has a manager-anthropologist on its team to "humanize the hard science". For example, facts and data like rain and flooding metrics need to be converted to language people can easily understand without having to go through a conversion process.


Does anthropology need to be seen in a better light for application in business and marketing?

A graduate student of Anthropology, Ryan Anderson, in reaction to a statement made by John Hawks (a professor of Anthropology) that "anthropology needs a kick in the pants" noted that anthropology does not need marketing or promotions but more involvement or collaboration and "to find ways to communicate and bring the ideas of anthropology to wider issues and conversations."

On the other hand, marketing can do well to bring anthropology tools into boardrooms and bedrooms to see why people do things the way they do, know how to better communicate with them, or develop products and services that consumers don’t even know they wanted – things an insightful marketer or a trained anthropologist might be able to see.


Chiqui Escareal-Go is the CEO and Chief Service Strategist of Mansmith and Fielders, Inc. For inquiries, please email info@mansmith.netor call (02) 584-5858 or (02) 412-0034.