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Anthropologists Help Explain Consumer Behavior

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Sept. 29, 2005--Instead of poking around tribal villages in Papua New Guinea or Amazonian rain forests, cultural anthropologists are invading suburbs and cities to find out how people use products while eating meals, working in the office, and even while driving. "We live in a culture where knowing your customers one by one as individuals is more important than ever before," said Ross Goldstein, a researcher with the BRS Group. "Large mass demographic trends are no longer as predictive as they once were because the marketplace is too diversified."

Marketers subscribing to this idea believe that people give more honest responses in their natural environment than during traditional focus group studies. "There's often a gross disconnect between the public persona that people present and what their values actually are," said Goldstein. "The person that shows up for a focus group is often at variance from who people are in their private life."

For the most part, large, public companies have bought into this trend, and are sending armies of PhD's into "the field" to videotape people using their products. Microsoft has a team of anthropologists studying how people use Word and Excel, and what problems they encounter. Plantronics, the manufacturer of cell phone earpieces and headsets, has a fulltime anthropologist watching volunteers talk on phones while driving to work or preparing dinner at home.

But these studies can cost up to $50,000 before any useful insights come out of them. The current thinking is that they are most appropriate for developing consumer-oriented products.

Managers and business owners may balk at the cost, especially when they realize that they're only getting data on a handful of people. (Traditional marketing campaigns may sample the behavior or hundreds or even thousands of consumers).

But they should get comfortable with paying a lot for little, said Goldstein, a former psychoanalyst. "In this business, it's quality not quantity," The data collected can help marketers embed products into people's lifestyle and daily routines.

Goldstein admits that many of the techniques are "less than scientific," but says that this is the best way to "hear the voice of the customer."




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