Unearth The Hidden Gems: How Anthropology Can Help Your Business Grow

When it comes to your business, you’ve undoubtedly seen that much of what worked yesterday isn’t working today. What your customers want has changed. Supply chains have changed. How and where employees want to work has changed. Disruptions are everywhere and they’re only accelerating. That’s how progress and innovation have always worked.

For business leaders, this serves as a big wakeup call. They cannot cling to the old ways. They must now connect with diverse customer bases, recognize and adapt to changing market trends, and foster an inclusive workplace culture. This is a tall order, and to accomplish it, businesses are turning to an unlikely but increasingly essential ally: anthropology. Known as the study of human societies and cultures, anthropology offers invaluable insights and tools that can help businesses grow in ways they might not have considered. Here are some of the most important:

1. Cultural sensitivity

One of anthropology’s fundamental principles is the appreciation and understanding of different cultures. By applying anthropological methods, businesses can significantly develop their cultural sensitivity, which can translate into increased sales and a positive reputation in the marketplace. Being aware of wide-ranging consumer backgrounds, socioeconomic status, gender identities and preferences, and ethnic affiliations enables companies to tailor their products, marketing strategies and buyers’ experiences to resonate with diverse consumer groups. This is especially relevant in our increasingly globalized world, where businesses often interact with a large variety of cultures and ethnic backgrounds.

Case study: Old vs. new. At SAMC, we once worked with a cement company in Mexico that wanted to change its culture, particularly to respond to changes in its workforce and to allow it to succeed as it expanded into the U.S. Using the Organizational Culture Analysis Instrument, we helped them evaluate their current employees in Mexico and those they were hiring in the States. The OCAI is an excellent tool for helping people see their culture more accurately and systematically than merely through individual anecdotes or presumptions. The company’s leadership realized that their older employees wanted to retain their highly structured, command-and-control culture (“I will tell you what to do, you go do it”) while their younger employees and those in the U.S. were interested in participating in the decision-making and wanted a more entrepreneurial and team-oriented culture. Not surprisingly, retention was a problem because new hires did not want to play the old guards’ game, as they fervently told us.

Takeaway: Carefully examine what your culture believes to be the “best way to do things” and then decide if it is time for a culture change as you respond to new generations and new business environments.

2. Consumer behavior analysis

Engaging anthropologists can connect businesses with the tools they need to delve deep into consumer behavior and preferences. One such tool is ethnographic research, which involves observing and interacting with consumers in their natural settings. This provides rich insights into their needs, desires and pain points that cannot be captured in focus groups. By understanding consumer behavior on a profound level, companies can refine their product offerings, communication strategies and customer experiences to align better with customer expectations.

Case study: Observational research in healthcare. In our book, On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights, we share the story of a healthcare industry client, a Midwest hospital serving an inner city community. We taught leadership how to experience the hospital experience through the eyes of the patients and their families, as the CEO was committed to building an organization focused on family- and patient-centered care. Our job was to help them truly understand those experiences and how better to align the physicians, nurses and staff so patients could receive the care they needed in a more easily understood, compassionate and practical manner.

Takeaway: One of the critical areas we got leadership to focus on was the complexity of using a healthcare facility and the need patients and their families had for navigators. For example, mothers of patients would sometimes arrive with their boyfriend, meaning that medical staff had to be socially aware of how to communicate solely with the mother without the boyfriend being part of the conversation.

3. Workplace diversity and inclusion

A diverse and inclusive workplace is not only a moral imperative but a business advantage. Anthropology helps organizations recognize the value of diverse perspectives and the importance of fostering an inclusive work culture, thereby tapping into a wider range of ideas and experiences. This leads to greater innovation and increased employee engagement, which can be a competitive advantage. Moreover, a diverse workforce reflects the diversity of your customer base, making it easier to understand and cater to their needs.

Case study: Turning “us” and “you” into “we.” We had a client in the higher education space that was struggling with recruiting students of diverse backgrounds and getting them to stay at the institution. It was a relatively rural college attracting inner-city African-American or Latino students, but the core college community was suburban white students. This was not our first experience in higher education where the administration, primarily white, tried to understand how to build a community culture where people of different backgrounds could enjoy each other, find friends, and experience the value of diversity, not just say the word.

Takeaway: From both sides, it was a challenge. The commuter students wanted to find a place on campus to hang out with others who looked and acted like them, not just try to fit in with the mainstream students. Being commuters, there were already separated from students living in the dorms. They also had different life experiences, and while they might share a common interest in sports or even participate together on the football team, it took deliberate effort to bridge the gaps they felt, and felt very strongly. The dorm students, mainly from the region, needed to figure out how to behave around the commuter students, who had different expectations, conversational skills, and experiences.

As far as the administration, they were stumped. What were they supposed to do to create a more inclusive college campus? We encouraged them to do three things:

  1. Get to know the students in both areas on campus. Don’t think you know them. Experience them. Go to class with them. Hang out with them afterward. Listen to the conversations. Recognize you were training them for a future in business or society where the differences would define the environments in which they would live.
  1. Hold open mix-and-mingle sessions. Deliberately bring together people with different backgrounds and stage a networking experience, training them how to meet with people of different backgrounds and to share common bonds to help them bridge the chasm.
  1. Create a community of influencers or advocates. As in later life, these skills serve the students and the faculty exceptionally well. Identify those with potential leadership skills and give them a job to do, building an inclusive community. Offer them opportunities to develop their skills in several venues so they, too, grow into bridge-builders.

None of these are incidental to the job a university has to do to build a diverse and inclusive college community. But they are essential skills for their students throughout their future lives.

4. Adapting to change

Most importantly, anthropology equips businesses with the ability to adapt to change, a critical skill in today’s rapidly evolving business environment. Through the study of cultures and societies, anthropologists understand how change occurs over time and how people adapt to new circumstances.

Takeaway: This knowledge can be applied to business strategies, helping companies navigate disruptions, embrace innovation and remain agile.

As corporate anthropologists, we have built our business over the past two decades helping companies of all sizes adapt to change.

People hate change, regardless of whether they are, like the pandemic, essential, or because they are necessary and even urgent. Changes challenge the status quo of the past. Are you experiencing this? Could a little anthropology help you adapt and thrive? A few tips:

1. First, stop fearing the unfamiliar and the unknown. Your brain does that to protect you. A better response: stop the fear factor from letting you put your head in the ground and pretend the changes are going away.

2. Second, visualize what you think the future is going to become. This is often the most challenging part. You are imagining something new. Craft it so you are a success, and then work with your team and even your clients or vendors to create the new behaviors and habits that will get you there. You must see where you are going, even if it is an illusion. Once you have that visualization, you can begin to get the small wins in place to move you forward.

3. Third, accept that change is all around you, always. Don’t fall into the comfort trap where you think the past was good and the future is dangerous. This is all in your mind. Change the story, embrace the unknown, and make it your friend.

You can read more about how we work with clients to help them adapt to fast-changing times in our book, On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights. Also the following might be helpful:


Ready to see how a little anthropology can help your business grow?

At Simon Associates, we specialize in helping our clients adapt to fast-changing times. As corporate anthropologists, we apply anthropology’s concepts, methods and tools to help clients “see, feel, and think” in new ways. We are available to hold a workshop for you and your team to show you how anthropology is an excellent business growth strategy and also how you can actually learn to make change your friend. Please contact us so we can start a conversation. We look forward to hearing from you.

From Observation to Innovation,
Andi Rethink
Andi Simon, Ph.D.
CEO | Corporate Anthropologist | Author