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The Value of Anthropology as a Design Input

The Value of Anthropology as a Design Input

Ben Jura


How designers and marketers can uncover a segment’s choices in order to craft a useful brand strategy

Design, when effective, is made for people. Because people exist within a unique social context, understanding the methods of meaning within a group of people is a necessary counterpoint to our instinctive ideas about the world. Customer beliefs dictate how they do what they do, including buying and advocating for the brands in their lives—and they’re always shifting. Their individual behavior is influenced by the activities of others, trends and abstract forces. And if we are to create perceived value, the cultural context and story surrounding the brand experience plays as much of a role as the tangible product attributes do.

As designers or marketers, how do we uncover a segment’s motivation for actions and choices so that we can craft useful brand strategy? How do we know how to think about an opportunity and model the ways in which a segment of society will interact with all the dimensions of a brand? And how can we avoid harmful heuristics and see a group’s behavior more clearly so we can elicit a desired response? The simple and not-so-simple answer is that we need to look at culture. Not just in the perfunctory, demographic overview way; we need to dig to uncover what customer choices mean to them and—as a species concerned about social perception—what meaning customers derive from signaling those choices to others.

In order to truly understand, we must dig until we can create knowledge around the relevance of information and understand how it informs and interacts with other pieces of information. We must discover how meaning is derived and how the different aspects of that meaning creation are prioritized. Think about Ikea for instance; the majority of the value in what they sell is completely separate from the products—it is in the act of the consumer assembling them. No one would spend three hours building something they didn’t value, so the consumer involvement is a large part of what creates perceived value in the product. This applies at a group level as well. The intersection of brand, culture and experience is where the real magic happens, so understanding the connective tissue between them is imperative.


We are constantly making choices and establishing hierarchies to address specific desires. These choices around what to communicate as brand values and how, or the way these traits are prioritized, largely determine the outcome of an initiative. Intuition, experience, perspective and practical matters factor into those determinations, but should not be a replacement for open investigation. What can be gained through ethnography, interviews—or a cycle of prototyping, testing and revising—is crucial to understanding an audience’s subjective baseline for value creation. If we omit that anthropological assessment, we risk missing invisible opportunities, or potential disruptions not clear in the context of a simplistic model with too many assumptions. We won’t know what brand values are resonant; what they should look, feel and sound like; or how to prioritize them for maximum impact in the context of social forces and the competition.

If this sounds like doom and gloom for those of us dealing with constraints on time, budget, access to customers or to people with Ph.Ds. in applied cultural analysis: Relax. We’ve all been there and there are some hacks to get you moving in the right direction, in the absence of deep research and analysis.

Employ ‘the five whys,’ pose a problem, then ask ‘Why?’ over and over with each answer forming the basis for the next question. This helps understand the causal relationships underlying the problem and why individuals are acting in a certain way. The way the problem is posed doesn’t matter so much—nor does the number of times you ask why—just keep going until you reach some insight that’s not superficially clear. This exercise often results in uncovering a deep motivation.

Another strategy is to use a hybrid framework for competitive landscape modeling, linking attributes consumers think of spatially (like amounts of cocoa in their ideal chocolate bar where the option closest to that point will be their preference) to attributes thought of hedonically (like the price of that chocolate with all else being equal, more value is better). Build a 2-axis grid where brands are plotted spatially along horizontal and vertical attribute continuums to see how crowded your spatial neighborhood is. But since selection may not be made solely on a spatial basis, your share of market may not be accurately represented. Just as more value is better than less, other attributes are viewed hedonically and these are typically defined by the target’s cultural context.

You then need to adjust the cut lines based on each brands’ hedonic ranking on different attributes. In doing this, you should be able to accurately anticipate the effect of adjustments to spatial and hedonic attributes. For instance, a 10% change to an important hedonic attribute will have a smaller proportional effect in a sparse spatial market than it would in a crowded one. Speaking with a sample from your target audience, and understanding how they think about different brand attributes, you can prioritize the mix of spatial and hedonic attributes in your communication, modeling them to see what will create the greatest opportunity.

Then, there is the concept of inversion. It’s so easy to be lured by the certainty of deduction and get caught in assumptions as we think through causes. Start at the end. What is the specific desired outcome? What specifically would prevent this from happening? This reframing is often enough to dislodge some of the assumptions we hold. We have limited processing power in a world filled with a tremendous amount of data. We selectively filter and develop rule-of-thumb shortcuts to open processing space for ‘trickier’ problems but we are famously bad at determining what is a System 1 versus a System 2 problem. Working backwards disables some of our biases so that we can see decisions and behavioral motivations more clearly. Avoiding mistakes is much easier than manufacturing brilliance.

So, be effective. Design for people contextually. Tap into the tools of anthropologists to understand the way groups act and the motivations that drive these actions. Short-circuit your high-level assumptions to get to root causes. Align brand values with cultural values and evaluate them in the same way those customers would to ensure equities are communicated or created optimally. Invert your thinking to avoid obvious traps. And create something meaningful, resonant and lasting—at least until the culture shifts.

Illustration by Bill Murphy.

As creative director of Marks, part of SGS & Co., a brand design and experience agency, Ben Jura identifies challenges facing businesses and offers thoughtful solutions that yield quantifiable results for consistent brand enhancement at key consumer touchpoints.