Fast Insight Isn’t Always Best

Cultural anthropology is trending, and marketing leaders should take note.

I discovered this trend while researching the current state of customer analytics. One article I uncovered in the course of my exploration featured Genevieve Bell, director of user experience research at Intel Labs, saying, “You have to understand people to build the next generation of technology.”

Bell’s role is to don her pith helmet and carry out good, old-fashioned cultural anthropology. Bell’s staff recently had a firefighter in Australia empty out all of the personal devices and gear he carts around in his car. The researchers snapped a picture of all his stuff and interviewed the firefighter to learn how he supplements the car’s native technology with the tools and technology he carries with him.

The work Bell and her team performs is fascinating. It’s also incredibly slow and deep compared to the data analytics wizardry I learned about in the rest of my research (e.g., how online ad space matched to Internet users’ information is auctioned off and placed in milliseconds). Today, most marketers are absolutely sprinting to keep pace with ever-increasing troves of potentially valuable customer data and ever-more-powerful technology that can transform this data into clean, accurate, and actionable insights. That’s why the growing business application of social and human sciences struck me as noteworthy. And I’m not alone:

“Most people in business associate the human sciences—anthropology, sociology, political science, and philosophy—with academia, and for good reason. The work of scholars in these fields is notoriously difficult to understand, and the insights they offer seems to have little practical relevance in business. But that is changing rapidly. An emerging method is dramatically shaping how businesses can apply the human sciences.”

The passage appears in Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel Rasmussen’s March Harvard Business Review article “An Anthropologist Walks into a Bar…” The coauthors share a story about a large brewing company that was stumped as to why its core beer offering was experiencing flat sales in a key sales channel—bars—despite heavy promotions. The company hired social anthropologists to visit a dozen bars and interview owners and service staff. They discovered that the promotional schwag (coasters, T-shirts, and the like) were either ignored or discarded. The researchers also discovered some much more human needs within the channel that the brewing company would be better off addressing.

For example, getting home after a late shift was an uncomfortable proposition for some employees in certain cities. Rather than bombard these employees with one-size-fits-all product promotions, the brewer started funding taxi service for late-working employees among many other, more human initiatives (including the creation of in-bar academies to educate staff on the company’s products).

This ethnography is really a form of data analysis conducted in a much slower and more human manner. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with the blazing-fast digital data analyses that many marketing executives are so keen on conducting these days. The problem arises when the focus on technology and tools becomes so great that it clouds human insight about customers, which takes a bit longer to download.


Freelance journalist Eric Krell works with Mitel CMO Martyn Ethrington to produce DMN’s Diary of a CMO.

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