Turning Brand Managers into Anthropologists

dr. aybil göker
6 min readNov 12, 2019


Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

Words matter. The words that we use either humanize our interactions or distance our rapport. They create gaps and have the power to alienate us from each other and from our business goals.

As an experienced anthropologist who has been working for global brands for years, I know that being a customer-centric brand is already a challenge. But let’s push the bar even higher.

Let’s replace the word “customer” with “human.”

Brands — and the managers, CMOs and market research companies that guide them — must take this challenge seriously if they want to survive in such a harsh, disloyal marketing environment.

Constructing human emotion

Here’s my suggestion: Remember that your customers can’t be fully understood by any algorithm… at least not yet! Take a step back and stop thinking about humans as customers. Think about them as people.

Humans are complicated, and they are contextual story tellers.

Humans have constructed emotions.

As brands are far — so very far — from understanding genuine human emotion, it’s understandable that they get excited to see how machines are learning to react to or read them. I get excited too! However, this isn’t the best road.

Balance your dazzlement of AI, machine learning, and big data, and have a drink with your customers. Trust me, it is much more fun and genuinely more impactful than stalking them, perfecting an algorithm that will always be imperfect, or spending money on alienating messages on Instagram.

We are humans.

We will never be completely understood or mapped out by computer technology.

No brand can survive without feeling, sensing, and talking to their people

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The styles and approaches of both Ruth Behar and Nadia Seremetakis struck me during my Ph.D. years. I was impressed by these women as they pushed the limits of anthropological fieldwork and, in return, were challenged by many classical anthropologists.

Both women questioned the place of the anthropologist in the field. Both replaced the ideal of the detached observer anthropologist with that of the engaged anthropologist, who interacts with, cares for, and analyses their subjects.

Behar and Seremetakis opened our hearts to welcome a new kind of anthropology — humanistic anthropology — emancipating anthropological thinking from the limits of Cartesian thought and knowledge and assuring us that emotions are inseparable from the human interactions that brought them forth.

As a novice anthropologist-to-be, this approach freed me to explore my own feelings while doing research — feelings that I had always believed were the antithesis of unbiased, objective science.

It allowed me to get involved in and go with the flow of informants’ narratives and stories.

It gave me the power to dismantle the traditional anthropologist way of thinking — even if introducing emotions in anthropological studies is not always straightforward. It taught me to make sense of people’s stories and their context based on constructed emotions.

With this new perspective, I began to perceive anthropological journeys as the result of embodied stories that have been generated and constructed through intimate moments between anthropologists and people.

More and more often, we see marketers promoting empathy maps, customer journey maps, or employee experience maps and hear about their goal of being a customer-centric brand or company.

But I am highly suspicious of the depth and sincerity of these already overused concepts.

More specifically, I am baffled when I experience the superficiality and sterilization of focus group rooms in research facilities and observe the shockingly desperate efforts to create empathy maps out of these artificial environments.

Let’s be honest: how could you ever sincerely think that a bunch of people stuck in a room with a couple of dominant personalities is really helping you come up with sincere insights that can help your brand connect with your customers?

There is another way

Happily, there are brands that know the power and importance of asking “Why?” rather than mainly running after “What?”. Some brands are patient, and they sincerely care about providing top-quality services that meet the unspoken needs of the people they serve.

Here’s just one example: One of our clients wanted to understand the life of truck drivers.

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Unlike a lot of other marketing agencies, we did not do any focus groups; actually, we never do.

To understand the life of a truck driver, you have to feel what it means to be a truck driver — living in the truck cabin for hours and hours on end. So we spent those days and nights with them. We went on long road trips, and we lived their lives.

I knew this was the best way to feel — or at least get closer to feeling — their own emotions. We wanted to hear/think/say/do things the way they did. We wanted to have an empathic interaction. Though it wasn’t perfect, being on the road was much better than sitting with them in sterilized, artificial environments.

We collected stories that no survey, no AI, no social media listening, and of course, no focus group setting could ever do.

Every marketing strategy needs the human voice in it. Stories and behaviors need to be part of that strategy for as long as your brand is planning on talking with humans — which should be forever.

Be an anthropologist brand

To achieve this challenging goal of being a human-centric brand, we need to see more and more anthropologist brands. Only then can the numerous maps — the CX map, the EX map, the empathy map — become meaningful tools that we can use to navigate branding, marketing and product design. Without a method grounded in realistic human interaction, these maps are just a bunch of templates with fancy infographics.

Brands want to be seen as relatable and natural. They want to have human values, characteristics, and personifications. They want to be part of human life.

Brands want to be loved and known the world-over, preferably forever, and realistically at least for one generation. That’s at least one thing they have in common with most humans: they’re not that humble.

We can be optimistic about that desire. After all, humanizing anything surrounding us is always possible. We, as humans, feel more connected with anything we can humanize with. In fact, we usually anthropomorphize everything.

Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

So, what’s the best way for brands to understand humans better? It’s not through focus groups. And it’s not through empathy maps.

Instead, brands must become anthropologists… anthropologists with high emotional intelligence, who are passionate about listening to narratives and who can empathize sincerely through more deep listening and less talking and telling.

Indeed, emotional intelligence is so critical for a good anthropologist that I would doubt the quality and thickness of any ethnographic research conducted without this virtue.

The Good Anthropologist Roadmap

A good anthropologist:

· Respects the culture and the context that they’re getting into

· Knows that humans are tangled, complex creatures

· Gives power to informants to build a more intimate, connected relationship

· Genuinely and actively listens to the stories of people

· Knows that people have different rhythms, paces, and storytelling capacities

· Believes in the power of personalization to build trust but knows that the people themselves must reveal their personal information

· Observes all the details of and participates in the ordinary life of people

· Is obsessed with the question “Why?”

· Understands that people share their emotions with you if you are one of them

· Is aware that every interaction is dialogical and that all the information that people share depends on their impression of the anthropologist

It’s time for brands to move past the idea that machines are going to figure out how to be human better than we can.

It’s time to be an anthropologist brand.

Understand, take people seriously, and make sense of their lives as a whole. Only after brands repeatedly and sincerely choose their humanity over their technology will they become humans in the eyes of the people.