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Updated Oct 19, 2023

How Cultural Anthropology Can Inform Business Strategy

Applying anthropological insights can give your company a competitive edge.

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Written By: Adam UzialkoBusiness Strategy Insider and Senior Editor
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This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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The subject of business acumen rarely arises in social science discussions. However, corporate anthropologist Andi Simon has mined crucial business lessons from studying human social interaction through the millennia. The business insights provided by the study of humanity might surprise you and even give you a leg up on the competition.

What is cultural anthropology?

Cultural anthropology is the study of how people within a culture create and change the tangible and societal structures around them. Like small-scale societies, businesses have unique company cultures to examine.

“Someone asked me why other anthropologists and I were not studying small-scale societies, such as the Trobriand Islands or Samoa,” Simon noted. “My response: ‘Why didn’t [they] think a business culture was a small-scale community?'” 

Simon explained that businesses, like small-scale societies, have rituals, symbols and traditional ways of doing things. “If [someone] just watched how a new hire was onboarded, they could see those cultural norms articulated clearly in everything from the policies and procedures to the equivalent of hazing a new hire,” Simon said.

In business contexts, cultural anthropology has various applications.

  • Corporate anthropology is about adaptation. Simon explained that the business world is constantly changing, internally and externally. Whether it’s artificial intelligence business trends, the rise of e-commerce, workplace automation or the influx of millennial workers, business operations are being forced to change their ways. On the outside, buyers are responding differently, forcing businesses to rethink their general and local marketing strategies, value propositions and how they engage their customers.  
  • Corporate anthropology offers businesses a fresh perspective. An anthropological viewpoint helps businesses see themselves and their customers with fresh eyes. “The real value of anthropology is to help people pause, step out and look at the way they have always done things in new ways – and then make them happen,” Simon explained. 
  • Corporate anthropology helps businesses pivot. Simon shared more about how anthropology in business is essential for necessary pivots. “Darwin may have said it: ‘It is not the smartest or the strongest that survive, but the most adaptive,'” Simon explained. “Adaptation and evolution select the most appropriate out of many options for a particular need. The same applies to business today. Anthropology is a vital part of the business toolkit today for those who want to understand their business and how to keep it active and agile in fast-changing times.”
Did You Know?Did you know
Pivoting is a business strategy that means enacting fundamental changes in crucial business operations to meet customer demand, accommodate industry shifts and respond to other variations.

What does a corporate anthropologist do?

A corporate anthropologist applies traditional anthropological insights to business. They study customers and products and examine how systems work. If anthropology is the study of humans, corporate anthropologists help businesses understand and connect with customers, team cultures and various departments.

Corporate anthropologists are closely aligned with marketing efforts. Marketing plays a critical role in defining target customers and understanding their needs and desires, helping businesses turn ideas into products and services customers want. A corporate anthropologist communicates with customers and asks in-depth questions that help clarify their buyer personas, where they shop, how they pay for products and what factors are involved in their buying decisions.

Why do companies hire anthropologists?

Corporate anthropology is a crucial subfield of business and anthropology. It applies anthropological theories to organizational practices to improve the customer experience and ultimately boost sales.

A corporation may hire an anthropologist for various reasons, including getting a handle on marketing and consumer behavior. For example, say you’re new to the corporate world and have an idea of what you want to do, but aren’t sure how to get the business to a higher level. Perhaps you haven’t identified your customer base or figured out how to connect with your target consumers. Corporate anthropologists can help you accomplish these goals.

A corporate anthropologist will do the following (and more): 

  • Observe your company’s environment, including employees and customers
  • Determine how the business’s various elements work together 
  • Talk to employees and customers to understand their perspectives 
  • Pay attention to how your business appears from the outside and see what it’s like to work there
  • Use participant observation to gather valuable data 
  • Determine what the organization must do to create optimal employee and customer relationships 
A cultural anthropologist may conduct employee surveys to gain deeper insights into the company culture.

What are the benefits of corporate anthropology?

The purpose of corporate anthropology is to understand various groups’ classification categories, meanings and representations by interpreting the information they collect. Their ultimate goal is to identify what people think and what they want. 

Here are some of the benefits corporate anthropology can bring to your business.

  • Developing marketing strategies: Knowing and understanding consumers’ thoughts and actions while making purchasing decisions helps you develop effective marketing strategies. Corporate anthropology focuses on modern consumption, how it relates to your production and how it can be improved.
  • Highlighting essential company details: While we usually associate anthropological study with analyzing past and present human societies, businesses are essentially microcosms of society. Each company has a culture and its own way of engaging with the outside world. By studying the habits, policies and procedures within a company – and how they’ve changed over time – anthropologists gain the same insights they would when studying larger social groups.
  • Tailoring products to your target audience: A dedicated consumer base will ultimately help you to target your product. In the long run, this can help your business become more productive and possibly save money. Instead of dividing your focus, you target your customers’ specific needs.
  • Increasing your competitive advantage: By examining cultural norms and reassessing what works – and what doesn’t – in the modern business environment, companies can harness anthropology’s lessons to become nimbler and more competitive.
Did You Know?Did you know
Corporate anthropology can help you uncover new marketing strategies for your business, find new ways to reach your target audience and boost customer loyalty.

An anthropological approach to business

When thinking of markets and companies as human groups with their own cultures and sets of norms, it’s easier to see how anthropology can inform an effective business strategy.

To leverage corporate anthropology, find someone familiar with developing consumer research methods, performing trend analyses and implementing these strategies to produce actual results. With this in mind, you can find a specialist who caters to your business and can help it build sustainable relationships with its employees and customers. You’ll build a human core for your business success.

Shayna Waltower contributed to the reporting and writing in this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

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Written By: Adam UzialkoBusiness Strategy Insider and Senior Editor
Adam Uzialko, senior editor of Business News Daily, is not just a professional writer and editor — he’s also an entrepreneur who knows firsthand what it’s like building a business from scratch. His experience as co-founder and managing editor of a digital marketing company imbues his work at Business News Daily with a perspective grounded in the realities of running a small business. Since 2015, Adam has reviewed hundreds of small business products and services, including contact center solutions, email marketing software and text message marketing software. Adam uses the products, interviews users and talks directly to the companies that make the products and services he covers. He specializes in digital marketing topics, with a focus on content marketing, editorial strategy and managing a team.
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