Big Ideas Marketing

Watching a Grown Man Cry in a Grocery Store and Other Ways Your Business Could Use a Chief Anthropologist

big audience

By idfive \ May 30, 2017

I’m Chief Anthropologist at idfive. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best and worst job title in marketing today.

When a potential client sees a job title like that in a proposal, I’m sure a white-hot light begins to flash in the part of their brain that processes budgets.

“How do I tell my boss that we’re considering working with a Chief Anthropologist?” they ask themselves while squeezing the life out of a stress ball and shoveling handfuls of antacids into their mouths.

At least, that’s how I imagine it goes.

Chief Anthropologist? More like “Chief of Waste of Time,” am I right?

It probably doesn’t help matters that I lead with stories of my time in Papua New Guinea studying cannibals. 

“What does anthropology have to do with my business?”

I understand where clients are coming from. In business, we’re overrun with actionability metrics and whipped into a frenzy seeking more productive uses of our time. The notion of cultural anthropology in business reeks of intangibility — and money.

But when businesses open up to the idea of using anthropology to better understand how their consumers, their employees and their markets behave — they’re blown away by the possibilities.

Imagine a world where consumer feelings, motivations, obstacles, and preferences are measured by something other than a sterile metric on a spreadsheet.

Imagine a world where people’s behaviors are governed by their hearts and the cultural contexts they exist in — not rationality and analysis.

Anthropology offers us a chance to see the problems you are trying to solve unfold in real life and real time, not a table or index. Suddenly you find yourself face to face with the opportunity to create real change through a real understanding of why humans do what humans do.

Clean Up in Aisle 9

Consider the following from a recent project of mine.

I remember standing in a grocery store in Florida with clients and a participant in an ethnographic study. We were over by the cold cuts. We’d just had some everyday banter about bread, and milk and what not.

The participant stared blankly at the shelf then, suddenly, started crying. Something had shifted. Insight happened. Apparently, he hadn’t always been able to just buy whatever he wanted without looking at prices. His tears reflected how happy he was with his family, himself and his life.

In anthropological terms, the way his family now snacked was a symbolic representation and celebration of how far they had come. A seemingly mundane moment turned into a deep insight.

You can’t unsee moments like this. You can’t take that type of insight for granted. And you can’t not thread that meaning into your strategy or approach. For example, what if this company had previously positioned their products solely on their health benefits? Now we are looking at potentially a whole new way that consumers see their products — a celebration of life and not just something that is “a good snacking option.” A moment like that could put us on a path to re-think brand, positioning, product attributes and more.

That’s where cultural anthropology can transform our thinking, and through that our businesses.

Cultural Anthropology, Action Hero

To me and to people who do this work, this is what we call “instant actionability.” After these anthropological studies, I’m confident our clients are able to make better products, provide better service, deliver more resonant advertising, create more relevant websites, and more.


Because they become the people they serve. Whether vicariously or literally, they’re transformed. They understand the true wants and needs of consumers and the limbic-driven thinking that often defies logic.

Anthro is instantly actionable. I’ve seen CEOs tell stories from our trips and motivate room after room full of employees.

And as a cultural anthropologist who has lived with both semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer-gardeners in the rainforest and bacon-eaters in the heartland of the USA, I know that ethnographic insights distilled from an anthropologist’s observations transcend what we currently get from surveys and big data alone. People are blood and brains and hearts. Not demographic templates.

Right now, I may be one of a handful of Chief Anthropologists beating the drum to bring a more human approach to understanding humans and their relationship with businesses.

But who knows: Years from now, the CA (Chief Anthropologist) may have a regular seat in the C-suite. Between you and me, I prefer the cannibals.