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An anthropologist in the boardroom

A number of years ago, Coca-Cola, the mighty US beverage group, decided to sell bottled tea products in China. It set about marketing its fruit-flavoured, sugary teas, which were already popular in the US.

The venture was an unexpected flop. In desperation, the company then asked social scientists to conduct so-called “ethnographic” research (on-the-ground cultural analysis) into what had gone wrong. This produced a fascinating explanation: in America the word “tea” is associated with indulgence and pleasure, so adding fruit flavours makes cultural sense; in China, by contrast, “tea” has different associations and significance.

“Tea — like meditation — is a tool in Chinese culture for revealing the true self,” writes Christian Madsbjerg, a consultant with knowledge of the Coca-Cola project, in a new book, Sensemaking. “The experience should take away irritants and distractions like noise, pollution and stress.” So Coca-Cola removed the sugar and flavours from its Chinese products — to great success. As Madsbjerg explains: “It wasn’t until Coke incorporated this fundamentally different understanding of the ‘tea experience’ that their bottled products gained significant market share.”

On one level, this is just a trivial tale. On another, it is highly revealing. It is often tempting to think that the 21st-century world is so closely integrated and digitised that the issue of culture is becoming irrelevant. But behind the scenes, a growing number of companies appear to be quietly realising that the reverse is true: as the world becomes more globalised, there is actually more — not less — need to understand cultural difference. 

The consultancy that Madsbjerg co-founded, called Red, is now doing ethnographic work with companies in the pharmaceutical, engineering and finance fields. Ford, for example, is using its social scientists to study how self-driving car technology might be received. Separately, corporations such as Intel and Microsoft have hired anthropologists to look at consumer use of digital products. Facebook is using social scientists to study tribalism in cyber space.

“Using social scientists [in business] is a growth industry,” Roger Martin, former dean of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, recently told me. “I tell kids who want to study business to do courses in anthropology first.”

Is this a good thing? Many classically trained economists or business school professors might be tempted to howl, “No!” The idea of analysing culture seems irritatingly vague and slippery to anybody who normally uses a spreadsheet to study the world. More surprisingly, even some academic anthropologists seem ambivalent about the trend. It is usually presumed that the whole purpose of the social science disciplines is to advance human knowledge in a general sense. As a result, some academic purists think that it is morally wrong to use anthropology to help companies sell their products; to…

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