5 Questions with Yahoo!

Meet a Madison Avenue anthropologist who seeks to understand how people experience their everyday lives, because this is what products have to fit into.

Cognitive anthropologist Dr. Bob Deutsch has traveled the globe studying the minds and moods of people in cultures from the primeval forest to Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. As founder and president of strategic branding consultancy Brain Sells, “Dr. Bob,” as he’s known in the ad industry, uses his field studies to gain insights that help clients engage customers in emotionally compelling ways. The Yahoo! Advertising Blog’s Becky Ebenkamp spoke to Dr. Bob about the latest trends and timeless emotions that drive the tribes of New Guinea and New Canaan.  

Yahoo! Advertising Blog: What insights and advantages do an anthropological education and worldview bring to Madison Avenue and the study of consumer behavior?

Dr. Bob: An anthropological perspective gives you an ability to see underlying structures. If you only relate to the surface manifestation of things, then you’re always in a hyper-vigilant state, and everything always seems to be in flux—everything is changing. One day you look left and that’s the be-all, end-all, then the next day you throw that away and you’re on to something new. I think an anthropological approach lets you take a more reasoned observation of what’s afoot.

YAB: Did you always intend to apply anthropology to advertising?

Dr. Bob: The mind is such a wondrous thing. I came into this in a totally serendipitous way. I was [curious about] how social events begin and end and [exploring why] all human cultures have greetings and partings. That led me to the idea of framing and metaphor and language, and that led me to the idea of how people “make meaning.” That’s the great challenge of life—and that’s the great challenge to marketers, too: how people find meaning and attach to something. That’s the real mystery story, and you have to be a good private detective. It’s fun.
I went to two primitive cultures, one in New Guinea and one in Amazonia, very aggressive cultures that were always at war [with local, competing tribes]. I was interested in how leaders begin and end war. Then I realized quickly that I had the wrong question. It’s not leaders. It’s how do leading ideas take hold in a culture? That question is the anthropologist’s way, or at least my way, of asking, “What’s marketing?”

YAB: Is there any consumer trend that fascinates you right now?

Dr. Bob: I’m always interested in the current context of the world. Right now we’re living in the world of “too”: I don’t care if you’re in Manhattan or Port Moresby [New Guinea], people report a very similar narrative: My world is too fast, too competitive, too complex. They used to feel “uncertain.” Then after 9/11, that uncertainty escalated to “unpredictability.” Now, we’ve moved into “uncodability”: Forget the answers—people are so perplexed they don’t even know what to ask anymore.
Companies need to start thinking about society, not just markets. Quality-of-life, not just income. How to be reasonable, not just extreme. When you’re all mixed up, you become a reptile, only oriented to survive. [Meaningful brands] give people a much-needed sense of coherence. GPS is a great metaphor: It gives people a lay of the land so they know everything isn’t all crazy and independent of everything else. This leads to all kinds of good things, cognitively speaking.

Three things need to happen for a person to feel situated: 1. Something—your product, a person, your philosophy—must be familiar, or like them, at least symbolically. 2. They need to feel that you like them. 3. They need to feel you can help them become more of whom they are. Not a fantasy image, but a better version of themselves. Your brand can have a spasm of sentiment if you do this.

YAB: You’ve said, “Purchasing decisions are never driven by logic alone. Emotion and narrative are … the very structure of mind and of human nature. All successful marketing campaigns have responded to this phenomenon.” Can you add more specific advice for brands and agencies?

Dr. Bob: If you want to be a great marketer, forget about marketing. Think about life—then you’ll be a great marketer. We so easily categorize people as “consumers,” but this term is too small of a box to put people in. You’ll never be able to present ideas about products, notions and ideas they’ll find compelling as “consumers.” I think the grand mistake most marketers make is they only think about their products. Brands need to understand and expand people’s identities, not just their interests or behaviors [in relation to goods]. Understanding allows you to innovate. If you listen, people will tell you everything you need to know.

YAB: Can you give an example from your research?

Dr. Bob: A company once asked me to try to develop a new language around “clean.” I went around the world speaking to women, and after I’d conducted all my research, I came back to the CEO’s office and handed him my final report: I’d written “sed” on a scrap of paper. People weren’t interested in this notion of being clean, I told him. They knew how to do that and they didn’t need his brand for that. What I learned was that they wanted to feel “cleansed.” You don’t get to that by asking people what attributes they’re interested in. You’ll just end up with an endless list of top-of-mind attributes. You cannot devise strategy from that.

Go to the interview on Yahoo!>>