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Do You Look At Cultural Symbols As Closely As Your Website Analytics?

The Tribe
October 23, 2013

Marketing and anthropology share at least one common goal; seeking to understand culture. The biggest difference between the marketer and the anthropologist, however lies in the implementation and methodology. There is a reason why an anthropologist participates and observes. He doesn’t immerse himself within a population of people just because he feels like hanging out. It’s not just some arbitrary preoccupation with the exotic, wherein he aspires to visit an isolated, tourist-free destination for what some would consider an extensive vacation. It’s more than that.

The goal of anthropological research is to understand culture first and then tell the story from an insider’s perspective.

Understand Consumer Culture. Become One With The People.

Wouldn’t it be easier to just administer a survey, collect the data and call it a day? Not exactly. Anthropologists, professionals in the field of culture, know that immersion is the only way to really get to know a culture by answering the question: “Why do they do what they do?” With good ethnography, the anthropologist can tell you what is important in culture, what its symbols mean and how they’re used. Immersion is key to gaining an insider understanding. By participating and becoming one with the people you have something more than points on a graph.

I Take Culture To Be Those Webs


Culture is complex; it is shared beliefs, values and practices that form the structures within a population of human beings. When you wink, any outsider can see that you’ve rapidly opened and closed your eyelid, but an anthropologist sees that your wink conveyed an intimate message to another (Geertz, 1973). Accurate interpretation is a very difficult business. Every culture is rich in its own unique history, and symbols that convey meaning. As Clifford Geertz wrote, “(…) man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law, but an interpretive one in search of meaning” (Geertz, 1973: 4).

Cool. Now How Will This Help My ROI?

Perhaps you could say that marketing is equally complex. Although different in methodology it is a process by which the marketer searches for meaning and transcribes thought into print and media. Consider that it takes brilliant strategy, countless brainstorms and revisions to invent a new brand. None of it can be accomplished without being informed by your buyer. Marketing is most effective when you understand your buyer’s culture. To only see your buyers as points on a graph in your analytics reports, your website traffic, new visitors and returning visitors, it is in other words, “(…) to betray as deep a confusion as, taking thin descriptions for thick” (Geertz, 1973: 12). Thick descriptions, in this case would be doing as they do, and learning how culture is shared.

Symbols Are Just As Important As Analytics

Don’t get me wrong, website analytics are an essential tool for any marketer and they explain something about your buyers, but not everything. This is where I think we can all agree to add another tool to the marketing toolbox. Symbolic interpretation. The marketer’s objective should be to explore and understand culture, interpreting and constructing symbols that mean something to people. Meaning alone has the power to motivate and to change the way people think. Meaning has the potential to make people want to share, to teach and ultimately to understand each other.


Truly meaningful brands construct powerful symbols that demonstrate something rare. If you can create a powerful symbol that has meaning, and that others want to share, then it shows that you’ve taken the time to understand culture. In order to do this; your primary goal shouldn’t be to command larger sale volumes and rapid turnover rates, your goal should be to bring something better to the market. There isn’t only one way to do it. Professor Rafael Hernandez Barros, at The Complutense University of Madrid said, “The only risk is to see marketing as a kind of superstition in itself, in which the only beneficiary is the one with the magic cure for a product to be successfully marketed or a brand recognized worldwide” (Barros, 2013: 292). The only way to debunk this “magic cure” myth is to stop searching for one. For starters, try getting to know your buyers.

“Symbols have a vital meaning for brands that are at the heart of marketing. Such symbols have a profound impact on people’s purchasing decisions” (Akova, 2011: 139).

Participant observation is no simple task. Especially not for marketers – heck not even for anthropologists! For anthropologists it takes years of research, literature review and fieldwork to become immersed in culture. They have to remove themselves from their own cultural norms, establish rapport, learn a completely new language, and speak it well, so as to communicate effectively all on a budget designed with those goals in mind.


Marketers have a tighter budget, and a shorter amount of time to discover and construct meaning that will affect purchasing decisions, impact website traffic, attract new leads, and eventually establish brand loyalty. But, good marketers know what it takes to immerse with consumers, they don’t just let anybody in with the lowest prices anymore! The marketer has to be willing to metaphorically sit down with consumers and learn from them on their terms. It’s no secret that the marketer today must be prepared to interact, on multiple platforms, build trust, learn from others, and teach with quality content.

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