The Anthropologist on the sales floor: why CRM is not enough. (PART ONE)


As bright and eager graduate of the University of CIncinnati’s McMicken School of Arts & Sciences, I walked off the podium 14 years ago to my waiting family (screaming and throwing streamers – much to the disdain of the other families in attendance). One of the first thing my father said to me was “Y’know, I heard that businesses are hiring anthropologists because the hardest thing to understand is people. And anthropologists understand people better than anyone!”

At the time, I was focused on becoming an experiential educator or park ranger or government anthropologist working on relationships with Native Americans. “Business” sounded like a terribly boring endeavor. Now, in my 13th year with The Container Store (not boring at all!), and 9 months from earning my MBA in Marketing, I see signs of my father’s insight all around me.

In a Harvard Business Review article (“An Anthropologist Walks into a Bar,” March 2014), Madsbjerg and Rasmussen explore the growing applications of anthropology and social sciences in business. One example included a major European brewing company that sent dozens of promotional materials and items to bars across Europe for different marketing campaigns, but did not see much traction in increasing bar sales for their beer, despite “muscular market research and competitive analysis.”


Management came to a novel conclusion: they needed to embed some people into the bars, undercover, to understand why sales weren’t meeting expectations with all these promotions. Who better to fit in and collect data than a team of social anthropologists trained specifically for this type of work and with a background in enthnographic observation?

150 hours of first-person observational data revealed that the previous best work of the marketing department had created a cycle of junk that collected at the end of the bar or in the garbage. It also discovered that female bartenders and servers felt trapped in their jobs and resented flirting to be successful. The employees closest to the customers “knew very little” about the beer company “and didn’t want to know more.”

Many executives might see this data and assume his/her years of experience trumps a few academics in pubs. To the beer company’s credit, after having this info, they actually acted on it! They became much more individualized in their approach to each type of pub/bar and held “academies” to train staff – even sponsoring a program for bartenders who needed a free cab ride home at the end of each night working to feel safe. Within the first two years, the beer company saw sales and market share grow.


This is a big deal. Many companies now, including retail companies like the one I work, have implemented “loyalty” or “reward” programs that supplement their CRM data gathering and delivery methods. Ultimately, unless it is a very robust program, it gets lost in the noise and rarely leads to loyalty.

CRM stands for Customer Relationship Management. Sometimes, the “relationship” part is missed and these programs and systems instead focus on customer management. Many software developers and startups and marketing directors have banked their careers on the success of the latest CRM program. See how they did that? These directors and IT people and managers have reduced their customer relationships down to an acronym! They don’t even care about the customer relationship enough to say the whole word.

So, how do you show you care? Relationship is defined as

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Loyalty is “a feeling of strong support for something or someone.” Therefore, a loyal customer relationship is feeling strongly connected to each other. The customer to you and your brand to the customer.

Another example from the Harvard Business review (LEGOS) in the next post.  Some forward looking ideas about how to use Anthropology in your business as well. (part 2)


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