What Fortune 500 Companies Learn From Corporate Anthropology

I had a client not long ago (a sink manufacturer) that had ethnographic research conducted to better understand how people choose to buy sinks. The company really wanted to fully comprehend the meaning of different sinks to different people along the buyer’s journey. What the research exposed was the changing buying process as consumers, designers and even manufacturers’ representatives turned to the Internet to find and buy their sinks. What happened to the power of the showroom?

Similarly, at SAMC we conducted ethnographic research for a healthcare client of ours to better understand the meaning of urgent care centers which the client and others were building everywhere. What we learned was that this fast-growing care delivery channel was siphoning patients away from emergency rooms, as expected, but also away from primary care physicians. Indeed, consumers were just as happy seeing a doc-in-the-box as they were having a relationship with a physician.

Why? What has happened in the world of business innovation that has made it far more important to observe, listen and share the experiences of people searching for, selecting and using a company’s products and services than just to survey them or conduct traditional focus groups? Why is ethnography becoming the “go-to” solution to really dig deep into understanding the changes taking place in how people solve their problems today? No longer is it enough to just project onto consumers what you think. The point now is, what do they think and how can that influence what you do with your business and how you do it? 

What Is Anthropology And How Is It Useful For Business? 

What does the word “anthropologist” mean to you? For a lot of people, it’s Margaret Mead studying the inhabitants of Samoa, maybe, or Claude Lévi-Strauss’ cultural hypotheses in “The Raw and the Cooked,” a study of Amerindian mythology. Whatever comes to mind, I’m willing to bet it’s not Fortune 500 companies! But the fact is, the Fortune 500 use anthropological methods and tactics all the time.

Cultural Anthropology is the study of human society — the shared values, beliefs, language and behaviors of people who form cultures and get things done in their daily lives. Applying anthropological theory, methods and tools in business settings means looking at a company as a new and unfamiliar culture. Using the anthropologist’s lens, we can see things that people on the inside might completely miss.

Anthropological tools — such as observational research, ethnography, deep hanging out and storytelling — enable anyone from the C-suite to management and even line operators to better see, feel and think about their business with fresh eyes.

What Fortune 500 Companies Are Learning From Ethnographers

Here are a few examples of how some Fortune 500 companies have used corporate anthropology to keep their edge:

  • Google: That’s right — arguably one of the most innovative tech companies of all time has used anthropologists to, wait for it…better understand the meaning of mobile. Talk about the meeting of old and new!
  • Intel: This company actually has anthropologists on staff. At times it has even joined forces with other companies, like GE, to use anthropologists to better understand how people use technological devices in their home environments.
  • ReD: ReD is a NY/Copenhagen-based research company that conducted research for Absolut Vodka, focusing on the emotional nuances of social settings where people share alcoholic drinks. To do this, they actually went exploring into bars and homes where people drink. They looked at how people told stories in which liquor brands played a memorable role, and then advised Absolut on how to better become a part of those kinds of story-worthy experiences.
  • Samsung: This tech giant ventured into customers’ homes to learn about how people interacted with their large screen TVs. They found that while Samsung as a company focused on building TVs with superior resolution, customers were more interested in how the TV looked in their living rooms! With this insight, Samsung engineers retooled the look and feel of their TVs, paying special attention to how they fit into a variety of living spaces, not just how they functioned on the technical spec sheets.

There is a great story in a blog post on Zapier called Get Better Customer Insights: How Anthropology Can Guide Product Design.” Charles Peterson, an anthropologist on the Photoshop team, described his work as learning about people — and then applying that knowledge to products.

“I do fieldwork and spend a lot of time with people,” says Peterson. “Immersion is key, and connections and empathy flow from it, letting me understand what makes folks tick. Then, working from that place of empathy, I become an advocate and help build stuff .”

In a related case study, the research firm Point Forward shared how Wells Fargo brought anthropologists into businesses where they were planning to provide management services. The research enabled Wells Fargo to match the right team of people with the culture with which they were going to be engaged.

Cultural Anthropology Is Not A Fad, It’s Smart Business.

Microsoft, pharmaceutical companies, start-ups and even the U.S. government are finding that there is much to be learned by stepping outside the office and looking into how people actually see, feel and think about things, the values and beliefs they hold dear, and the meanings they attach in different ways and at different times to what appeared to be the same actions.

If you like these stories, you’ll find full versions of them and many more in my new book, “On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights. You might also learn how to integrate anthropology into your business as you adapt to changing times.



Andi Simon, Ph.D.
Corporate Anthropologist | Blue Ocean Strategist
President, Simon Associates Management Consultants