Shopping's tribal customs

Rituals: Polls and focus groups are no longer enough for marketers. Now they are turning to anthropologists to find out what makes America spend.

July 15, 1999|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

When people think of anthropologists, they may picture Margaret Mead studying the remote culture of Papua New Guinea, or Louis and Mary Leakey unearthing the remains of human ancestors in Africa.

But in the plush offices of a Baltimore marketing company anthropologists are taking root and training their sights on the tribal customs of Jane and Joe Consumer here in the United States.

Cultural anthropologists head and staff Context-Based Research Group, a subsidiary started this month by Richardson, Myers & Donofrio.

Fresh from research in -- you guessed it -- Papua New Guinea, Belinda Jo and Robbie Blinkoff, married doctoral candidates at Rutgers University, are the principal anthropologists and managing partners of Context.

"What marketers want to know is what people really do, not what they say they do," explained Chuck Donofrio, president of RMD and managing partner of Context. "That's why we wanted to use anthropologists. We're trying to make discoveries, not just confirm preconceived notions."

In a pilot project designed to give clients an idea of the types of information the group can produce, Context employed seven anthropologists in New York, Chicago, Minneapolis and Seattle to study how women interact with the outdoors.

In October, the anthropologists identified 36 women who said they had an enthusiastic or casual interest in the outdoors. They then conducted in-depth interviews with the women about their lives, their activities in the countryside and the outdoor clothing and equipment they use. They also provided each woman with a disposable camera so that she could document her outdoor experiences.

The anthropologists posted their field notes on a private Web site where the Blinkoffs could analyze the data and document trends. The project's results revealed marketing venues that Donofrio said he'd never considered.

"[Nearly] every single respondent talks about going to a farmer's market," he said. "That wasn't a huge finding, but if you're an outdoor wear manufacturer you couldn't go wrong with a booth at a farmer's market. We never would have figured that out."

"We're getting far into their ideas," Robbie Blinkoff said. "We get closer to lived experience."

Experts are not surprised that interviewing and observing people in their natural habitat would yield insights not gained from surveys and focus groups.

"If you actually watch people use a product in context, you see them doing things they do habitually that they wouldn't think to tell you about when you ask them," said John Sherry, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School at Northwestern University who holds a doctorate in anthropology.

"Most companies assume they know what their product is and what consumers are actually doing, but this is not always true."

The practice of using anthropologists in business dates back to a Harvard University study in the 1920s and '30s on human interaction and production, said Marietta Baba, chair of the anthropology department at Wayne State University in Detroit, which specializes in training its students in applied studies.

Though the practice faded significantly in the 1960s and 1970s, it started up again in the 1980s and has proliferated this decade. Companies employing anthropologists include Motorola, General Motors, Ford, Intel and Hallmark, Baba said.

"It's a new skill," she said. "Not that it solves all the problems, but it can do things that other disciplines can't because of the way we are trained."

Though Donofrio said RMD, which had $84 million in billings last year, does not expect to turn a profit from Context this year, clients seem enthusiastic about using its methods to learn more about their customers.

Context's first client, Campaign for Our Children, a charity aimed at combating teen pregnancy, is underwriting an anthropological study on youth and technology. The charity was founded by RMD Chairman Hal Donofrio, who is Chuck Donofrio's father.

Context also recently approached another RMD client about a study looking into the ways Americans are expanding the master bath beyond the utilitarian. The proposal was made to ICI Acrylics of Memphis, Tenn., a manufacturer of Lucite acrylic for bathtubs.

While ICI has yet to commit to the project, Lucite business director Simon Ellis can see the possibilities. "We find it an interesting way to look into life," Ellis said. "We certainly would be interested in getting a more realistic look at how the bathroom of the future may develop."

In addition to the Blinkoffs, Context employs one other full-time anthropologist, Matt Barranca, who has a master's degree in anthropology and is the company's project manager.

Context employs anthropologists on a free-lance basis for its studies. The Blinkoffs have created a national network of 60 anthropologists by going to anthropological conventions and by advertising in professional journals and on the Web.

In the last week, four to five anthropologists have signed up every day using the company's Web site, www.Anthrojob.com.

Chuck Donofrio is optimistic the company's research will go global in two years.

"We're riding a wave of increasing interest in bringing anthropologists into the business world," he said.

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