Innovating for context; The role of Anthropology in innovation

Although we don’t often hear the term ‘anthropology’ referenced in the innovation process, anyone charged with this objective knows implicitly that the key focus areas of language, culture, society and place, are critical when it comes to the harmonisation of a brand or the successful launch of a new global product.

The growing adoption of user-led approaches to front end innovation (FEI) means that global new product development teams are highly motivated to understand the cultural background of their target user’s social, functional and emotional needs. Anthropological thinking has a lot to offer new product innovation by providing a range of tools that help shift perspectives, making the strange appear familiar, or re-defining an experience to make the familiar even more intuitive, more relevant, more personalised…or perhaps more provocative. Our collective goal as innovators is to create products and services that will resonate within different cultures, deliver meaningful value, and improve lives. Anthropology offers an analytical lens for insights that reach beyond what people say, to access the culturally influenced assumptions that underpin their decisions and behaviour. This allows us to create products and experiences that resonate with our users lived experience.

Anthropology and ethnography

Anthropology is the in-depth understanding of people and place and is implicit to much of our FEI work at Cambridge Design Partnership because the history of Anthropology is closely intertwined with ethnography. At CDP, we use lean derivatives of ethnography to support our client’s fast-paced innovation initiatives and to keep them user-focused. With the growing pressure for innovation teams to be ‘agile’ and ‘lean’, we continually develop even faster contextual insight methods that engage real people in exploratory research, and co-creative activity. As the world changes, we rise to new challenges by adapting many of our ethnographic research methods to utilise digital techniques and ensure that we can continue to successfully access the deepest insights from people based around the world, no matter the global context. This is more important than ever in a ‘new normal’, where social distancing policy is now restricting routine daily physical interactions.

Ethnography in innovation

Whether it is conducted in person or online, ethnography is all about empathy; it is an opportunity for us to put ourselves in the shoes of our consumers, to understand what resonates with them and validate what is meaningful. This is essential to develop a unique and believable product specification and strategy. Ethnography is particularly powerful when used in combination with other analytical overlays. Anthropological thinking pushes ethnographic research beyond immediate context to access other subconscious influences behind key decisions.

Incorporating anthropology in ethnographic research creates an opportunity to interpret how deep-seated cultural nuances might also be impacting on what consumers aren’t saying explicitly in a research scenario! This is a crucial level of understanding when creating a globally relevant product that can be seamlessly incorporated into daily activities. When we run research remotely, applying an anthropological lens to our discussion guides and being creative about the way we ask people to share their lived experiences with us becomes even more important, because we are often limited in how much behaviour we can see. Our questions must therefore be clear and targeted to reach a depth of understanding from a distance! 

Learning to ‘read’ culture

Understanding the culture of our target users is crucial for success because culture changes the way that people understand their experiences. For example, the user experience provided by McDonald’s in all restaurants around the world are virtually identical (economists famously use the Big Mac as a global measure of price index), but culture alters the experience that diners have. Whereas in the UK fast food has a mixed reputation for trading off quality for convenience, in some regions of South Asia, McDonald’s signifies high status and is frequented by the wealthy middle classes. The sacred status of a cow in India, brings yet another pivotal McDonalds perspective. McDonald’s may look the same, but the experience it provides is transformed by the cultural context.

Logos, brand-marks, and tag lines are assumed to carry a universal meaning, but context can change the way that they are understood. Semiotics and the cultural psychology of colour can also be effectively combined with ethnography to investigate the signs and visual cues that influence people’s understanding of the world they inhabit, which may be missed by a research team not attuned to these themes.

Often it is only through immersing yourself in another culture that these different systems of understanding become clear.  For example, although it is common practice to eat with one’s hands in Sri Lanka, it is considered extremely rude to lick your fingers at the end of a meal. I only learned this crucial etiquette when I flagrantly broke the ‘rules’ at a dinner with some Sri Lankan colleagues.

My embarrassing mistake caused the people I was eating with to explain a rule that was usually unstated. As I walked down Galle Road that evening, I passed an advert for KFC:

It’s finger lickin’ good.

I have seen the same sign thousands of times but that evening the tag line took on a completely new significance. In a country where eating with one’s hands is the norm, but it is taboo to lick your fingers, does KFC actually offer a different brand identity? Is the tag line transformed from being nostalgic to become a bit maverick… a bit saucy?

In this case, the contextual overtones of the tag line don’t appear to have negatively impacted KFC, but there are many examples where subtle (or not so subtle) cultural readings or mistranslations have presented brands with uncomfortable challenges to un-pick, which could have been proactively predicted had a cultural research lens been applied earlier in the process.

Anthropology offers a raft of effective desk and field research tools to access the things that go unsaid within cultures which, once articulated, reveal important insights that can radically redirect and refine a product specification or a global brand strategy.

For breakthrough innovation to take place, it is essential that a new product, service or brand proposition resonates with the audience. This means not just looking beyond what people say, but adding an anthropology lens to understand the non-verbal, semiotic and sensorial cues, to reach the foundation of the very assumptions that influence their daily decisions, and which remain largely unspoken.

Find the authors on LinkedIn:

Jessica Platt

Market and Design Insights Researcher

Ben Strutt

Partner & Head of Design & Front End Innovation