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Flying Seraph

What Bones Can Teach The Marketing Community

A number of years ago the Red Meat Marketing folk (MLA) ran some research into how Aussie Mums prepared dinner for their families.

They found that most Mums were providing great, rounded meals – cooking a good balance of protein and vegetables, with a good dollop of love thrown in – almost every evening of the week.

I’m hoping you just called ‘bullshit’ on that.

Thankfully, my former boss and mentor – the brilliant Reg Bryson placed some planners and ‘Walkie talkies’ (his ad agency’s third-year Uni field force) in peoples’ homes for a week. With instructions to photograph every meal.

So was born a new concept: ‘Short Cuts’. Products, recipes and communication.

Because the Polaroids looked nothing like the research debrief.

I have a strong feeling most Marketing misses out on roughly half the body of knowledge it should be drawing on. And that this kind of situation is playing out in business every day. For no good reason.

Here’s what’s going wrong, in my view: Two broad disciplines inform our understanding of consumer behaviour. (Sorry, Economics, not you.) Yet we use one almost to the exclusion of the other.

I’m talking about Psychology, on one hand, and Anthropology on the other.

Crudely put, Psychology examines individual behaviour – learning, motivation, attitude formation etc. – and tends to take the cultural context for granted.

Anthropology focuses on humans as cultural beings, so it puts the emphasis on cultural context. Among other things, how human behavior is shaped by culture and how culture affects the way individuals interact with each other and the world – cultural anthropology. And Linguistics – focusing on how people communicate through symbol-systems.

We focus almost exclusively on the concepts and practices of Psychology. And (apart from when Semiotics or Ethnography are in vogue) we tend not to look at Brands, Marketing and communication through the Cultural Anthropology lens at all.

Which is staggering considering virtually every brand owner of today seems to want his/her brands to ‘stand out within the culture’.


Small confession: One of my favourite TV shows is ‘Bones’ – Forensic Anthropology working alongside Psychology. The two disciplines help each other to a better place – creating a pretty good picture of what a cadaver (sometimes just partial remains) was like in life. Sure there are moments of conflict, differing opinions, sometimes downright disdain for one another’s methods. Almost invariably that tension forms the basis for breakthroughs.

I’m willing to bet you’ve got the Psychology going reasonably well – conventional research programs in place.

The culture piece: I urge you to leave your desk more often. Observe shoppers and users of your product. Watch how they buy and how they use. Check their pantries. Buy them a round. Get on the road with a sales rep. Hang around the call centre. Sit in a food court. Visit a suburb you’d never normally go to. Keep your eyes and ears open. Perhaps even hire someone with Anthropology skills.

My challenge to you: be more like Bones. Keep the Psych stuff going – it works well – but add the Cultural piece to it.

See a richer, more complete picture than your competitors do.

Then kill them.

Please follow me on Twitter: @MarkSareff

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