Marketing to Culture: Using Anthropological Thinking in Your Marketing Strategy

Blog Post
March 19, 2020

Marketing Strategy and Anthropological Thinking

How are they related?

I will start right off the bat with a question that you might be asking yourself, “What’s the connection between brand marketing strategy and cultural anthropology?” Fear not, wise sceptic. I think I might have the answer!

Now, since you are most likely here for a marketing read, we will take a short detour in order to define cultural anthropology. Encyclopaedia Britannica offers a detailed definition of the discipline, revealing it as the division of anthropology that “deals with the study of culture in all of its aspects and that uses the methods, concepts, and data of archaeology, ethnography and ethnology, folklore, and linguistics in its descriptions and analyses of the diverse peoples of the world.” To put it briefly, cultural anthropology studies human culture in all its iterations and employs a variety of methods as a means to its end.

Can you think of any companies that used cultural aspects of their target audience to boost their sales? I will give you an example. During the 2019 holiday season, Netflix used a very well-known Romanian Christmas carol to create a social media campaign—targeted to Romanians—for their newly released series, The Witcher. The Netflix team just changed the lyrics to fit the theme of the show. This is an excellent example of using anthropological knowledge about a specific target audience to actively market a product.

Holiday-themed ads or emails are elementary methods of leveraging the power of culture over your audience to obtain the best possible impact with a well-timed and targeted campaign. Coca-Cola understood this very early on in the life of the brand and created a long-term marketing strategy, which eventually led to a special relationship between their products and holidays like Christmas.

Even so, it’s important that you don’t develop a strategy without properly studying it and giving whatever aspect of that culture you are going to use the respect it deserves.


Notoriously failing

Respect is key in this case. Creating an ad or an email that is cynical towards one’s cultural convictions almost always springs visceral negative reactions. What may seem like a playful joke to you will almost surely degenerate into a heavy blow for your entire brand, especially in the age of social media.

Take, for example, one of Dove’s most controversial ads, presented by Business Insider in this article. Sure, the brand received lots of attention, but their insensitivity toward the politically correct zeitgeist made sure that they didn’t receive the right kind of attention. While we can’t conclude that Dove’s target was controversy itself, under the “any advertising is good advertising” principle, it’s hard to find any other rational argument for why they approached things the way they did.

As such, using the science of anthropology to create meaningful and impactful campaigns can be done in at least two ways: overtly and covertly.

The overt way is defined by respectfully channelling a key cultural aspect into a campaign to achieve a deeper and more meaningful emotional reaction from your audience. Being cynical towards that cultural element—such as a holiday, a specific ritual or sensibility—will only attract unhealthy controversy.

On the other hand, the covert way consists in studying the culture of your target audience to understand what to actively avoid in your campaigns. It should have been obvious for Dove from the get-go that such an ad would be a bad idea (to say the least), particularly when targeting such a multicultural audience as the one you can find in the United States.

So, how do you apply anthropological thinking to develop a campaign similar to Coca-Cola or Netflix? Download the document below to get an idea about how to lay the foundations of your strategy.