Marketing Is Dead; Long Live Anthropology

August 1, 2008 at 6:15 am | Posted in Business, Communication, Forrester, Li, Charlene and Josh Bernoff - Groundswell: Winning in, Marketing, Online marketing, Research, Social Media, Web 2.0 | 6 Comments
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Courtesy of jbhill via Flickr

Courtesy of jbhill via Flickr

I’ve had a little case of writer’s block this week, so I started with the basics: I read the definition of “marketing” in Wikipedia.

The impetus of this was a comment I wrote on a recent Brazen Careerist article in which I boiled down marketing to selling stuff. Really? That’s the business I’m in? I get up at 5am to write because I love making crap fly off the shelves?

Listen to Wikipedia’s definition: “Essentially, marketing is the process of creating or directing an organization to be successful in selling a product or service that people not only desire, but are willing to buy.”

Bleh! Sure, there’s creation and desire (positive), but there is also directing and willingness to consume (negative). It’s almost like it’s not enough for them to buy it; you gotta make them want to buy it. Make ’em beg.

Frankly, this doesn’t sound like the business I’m in at all. I find marketing these days to be customer based – where are they and what do they want? – and less, well, skeezy. Ideally, marketing these days isn’t invasive or worthless or annoying. In fact, marketing these days sounds a lot more like anthropology than marketing.

What do you think? Are web 2.0 marketers really anthropologists of the present time? Don’t we study why certain people behave a certain way (and how to influence that behavior)?

Maybe Not

Maybe I’m way off base. Maybe I’m an idealist. Is marketing these days really that different from the old days? Sure, maybe we have flashier toys and get better insights, but does this alone more it into the category of anthropology?

Maybe So

Here’s the difference: Now, relationships are a prerequisite to business, not vice versa.

You may want to read that last sentence again. Even if it’s not that way right now, all signs indicate we are moving in that direction.

But not just in a direct sense, business to customer. Now, blogs have as much or more influence as official channels (e.g. company websites, newspapers). And recommendations from friends have even more sway than blogs. (Sounds crazy? It’s not. Scope the numbers via Groundswell [page 132 for those of you following along at home].)

All the while, people who call themselves marketers are camped out in the bush, observing all of this new commerce occurring, jotting down furtive notes in our journals on our blogs.

What do you think? Is marketing now anthropology of the present day? Do we need to change the definition of marketing altogether? Or am I just full of it?


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  1. I don’t think you are full of it at all and, at the same time, I think marketers have always been observers of human behavior who individually, and often collectively, aggregated their observations [data], arrived at pragmatic conclusions, and then acted to influence opinion and action.

    Where I think the shift has occurred in our Web 2.0 world is that the observers who were previously ‘camped out in the bush,’ going relatively unnoticed, are now being targeted by consumers who hurl product and service feedback at them and the organizations they represent. Through blogs, product reviews, customer feedback channels, YouTube and other vehicles, customers now have access to venues to declare their wants and needs.

    When marketers were ‘in the bush’ to use your analogy we simply (and sometimes in very scholarly ways) postulated about consumer motivations and classified their behavior into nice little profiles that made sense only to us observers. Today, the customers are saying — “put me in this category – this is me, and this is what I want.”

    No, I don’t think we need to change the definition of marketing. I think we need to come out from behind the bushes [as many have or soon will] and engage in the conversations that will result in the those deeper, more collaborative relationships that all good organizations want with their customer base.

    My two cents.

  2. I think you hit the nail on the head. I just got my degree in anthropology, and unfortunately have discovered that anthropologists have not figured out their own power yet. Marketing has always been at least a bit like the TV show “Mad Men”: a lot of the process was creating a need for a product, as much as it was selling the product itself. Sure, marketing specialists need to know people. But marketing, at least recently, has lost touch with a lot of demographics, and with the advent of the internet, creating amateur experts all over the place who can do their own research, marketing often misses the mark. Anthropologists haven’t noticed yet (at least not at my school) that if they turn away the ritual practices of isolated groups just a little and focus on, say, the impact of comic books, tv shows, video games, the internet, etc on the people around them…they could make a lot of money. I’ve discovered that, with my training as an anthropologist, I sell myself, my company, and the product we’re trying to launch a lot better than any of the traditionally trained marketers do. It doesn’t hurt that I actually understand the phrase Web 2.0 and they still have issues with the difference between inter- and intra-net.

  3. If you are talking about the intersection of cultural anthrolopy and marketing, the conversation begins and ends with Grant McCracken. I just wrote a post about him based on a ridiculous post on his site. Ray Cha, another WordPress Marketing Blog Network member also wrote recently about Grant. Check it all out here:

  4. Perhaps I’m not hip to the correct lingo, but I think Marketers are more Sociology than Anthropology. When it comes down to it, while you may be after a relationship, and the following sale, it is still about targeting a group of people who you can build that relationship with, not individuals. Ultimately however, stopping at either field of study would be wrong.

    I do a lot of work with the Defense industry, and the most bleeding-edge thing right now is human-terrain mapping. This is psych, sociology, anthropology, geography all made (ideally) to work together. In the case of defense, it’s for preparing the battlefield, but ultimately, I think that in Marketing, the same concepts apply to building that oh-so-important relationship. Without knowing where, both metaphorically and physically, people come from, it can never develop.

    Basically what I’m saying is that to leave it at anthropology would be selling Web 2.0 marketers short. It is much more than a single discipline; like everything else driving technology these days, integration is the key, and marketers are the ones who make it happen.

  5. I definitely think marketing is moving into a new direction. Especially the more everything moves online, the more social media gains popularity and the web 2.0 (interactivity) movements gains speed.

    I personally think this new revolution is exactly what we need.

  6. Product development is certainly closer to anthropology lately. But marketing? Not sure. I would still subscribe to the ‘selling things’ definition. On the other hand: when selling marries the internet, some weird stuff happens, and anthropology would be wise to take a look at it 🙂

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