How social anthropologists relate to brands differently from planners

I studied sociology and anthropology when I was at university. On the face of it, ‘sociology’ seems a simple enough word, formed by the combination of two words: ‘logos’ meaning ‘the study of’, and ‘socius’ meaning ‘society’. Wikipedia has the latter’s Latin root down as ‘companion’, but lets stick to ‘society’.

‘Society’ is of course not an easy word to define. As a person who spends a lot of time looking at society’s response to various communications initiatives, the truth is that you’re going for broke if you think you can predict with 100% accuracy how people will react to any new initiative, even if you do intense consumer or market research. You may be 99% sure, but at the last minute that 1% can take over and prove you wrong.  This is in essence what Nassim Nicholas Taleb says in his book The Black Swan.

I was thinking about how traditional planners and social anthropologists would have different approaches to the same problem. Traditional planners come up with ideas based on extensive consumer and brand research – but their research usually doesn’t provide for that Black Swan or 1% probability. They focus on the 99%, because that’s what they’re trained to do. A social anthropologist, however, on the other hand, would think of ways to collect that Black Swan, that unlikely bombshell. Newton didn’t discover gravity because he planned for the apple to fall, did he?

One of the other sociological ideas that marketing guru Seth Godin has picked up on is that of tribes or brand communities: ‘Tribes’ is in fact the title of his latest book. People aggregate around something that has what Simon Cowell calls the X factor. ‘X’ may be defined differently by different groups of people, but that factor is responsible for Apple tribes, Nike tribes, eco-warriors and so on. People join these tribes for various reasons: most are bound together by their love for the brand/issue or a shared value system, some join to have a sense of belonging, some to be part of the first wave of adopters, some to have something to show off, some join out of curiosity and remain passive observers.

In any case, this common bond is what all brands aim to create and sustain. If they’re lucky, they can create a frenzy, such as the behaviour exhibited by teenage fans when they see the latest boy band in person. I remember reading in university that this ‘tribal’ behaviour needs to be kept in check, because it can be the difference between a harmless yet passionate group of people and a mob or riot crowd, especially in the case of politics. With regard to brands, where reputation is all they have, stirring up negative emotions for rival brands will probably cause damage in the long run, just like the politics of hate in mainstream politics. Personally, I was surprised when Microsoft and Apple entered into their ‘I’m a Mac (or not)’ series of verbal parries. I don’t think that kind of tactic will go far. It is too direct and undermines the viewer’s intelligence – which is where psychology comes in, which is again part of social anthropology.

Ahonen and Moore have also brought sociology into their latest book called ‘Communities Dominate Brands’. In their blog, they talk about the different stages that people go through and how brands that channel people’s needs during different stages can retain them as fans when they move to the next stage.

There are lots of other examples to prove my point: by studying society – in essence, sociology – brands can evolve and achieve progress faster than they would otherwise. Alternatively, they can get a social anthropologist on their team. You know how to contact me!