Applied Cultural Anthropology Graduate Students Private-Sector Companies Research Uncategorized

Winter Calaway, SmartRevenue Inc.

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For the past seven months, I have worked for a market research firm and (with the assistance of Dr. Hadder) was also able to use this time as an internship through my graduate program in the Department of Anthropology at Texas State University. Prior to this, I was knowledgeable that market research firms hired anthropologists and had already decided I was truly interested in this field because it combined qualitative research with customer service. These two things I believe I have skill in and personally enjoy. The reason I wished to use this time as an internship was to allow me an opportunity to get additional firsthand experience in qualitative data collection with the added benefit of having time to do my own independent reading about market research. But above all else, I wanted to find out why market research firms would want to hire anthropologists. Why not just hire business majors? Why are anthropologists different? More specifically, what do I have to offer to market research companies? I was able to find the answers through background reading, learning about a company that specifically hires individuals trained in anthropology, and reflection on my personal experiences working for that company.

SmartRevenue is a market research firm that specializes in consumer research and whose clients are U.S. and international based manufacturers and retailers. The company conducts practically all of its business online, since all of its staff are satellite employees who work from home or home offices and communicate via e-mail, video conferencing, and telephone (Avery 2012). The company has an unofficial home base in Stanford, Connecticut and there is a supply distribution center in Denton Texas, but none of these are regular meeting places for any of the employees. The employees only physically see each other when travel is needed for a project. This can be in order to present findings to a client or for directly managing rare specific projects. The company is not necessarily unique, as these “virtual workplaces” have become more common. In 2012, there were an estimated 1.4 million more telecommuting workers in the United States than in 2005 (Global Workplace Analytics). This distant work environment was new and sometimes confusing to me but I was able to utilize the limited one-on-one time with my supervisors by learning to consolidate work-related questions and be very detail oriented with paperwork and writing project reports.

It is common for clients to hire market research firms based on the market research model the firm chooses to specialize in. Much like theoretical perspectives used in anthropology, market research models are overarching ways of thinking about market research and directly affect which data collection and analysis methods are used based on the model preferred. SmartRevenue specializes in shopper insights, which is the combination of consumer insights and the umbrella model of shopper marketing. Consumer insights requires researchers to look into the motivations, moods, and impressions consumers have in relation to brands. Shopper insights is similar to this except it originates from the shopper marketing argument that consumers and shoppers should be differentiated. To better understand this, one can think of consumers as “users” and shoppers as “purchasers”. For example, a teenager that uses their cell phone is a consumer, but their parent that went to the store and bought the phone would be the shopper. Shopper marketing marketers would argue that the differentiation is important, as consumers tend to use certain brands, products, items, and services (whether it is due to personal preference, locality, or any other reasons.) Shoppers, on the other hand, may be restricted within budgets, shopping for items of personal interest, or shopping with the needs of others in mind (Shankara et al. 2011).

SmartRevenue—developed from shopper insights—also distinguishes between in-store and pre-store decisions. The company argues that “most pre-store decisions are brand driven: the shopper has purchased the product in the past and will continue to do so in the future. In-store decisions, however, are often based on perceived value, merchandising, and packaging. As a result, promotions and displays are a good investment” (SmartRevenue). Shopper marketing proponents would argue that current changes in technology and media have made purchasing decisions increasingly in-store (or point-of-purchase) instead of at home. One example of the shopper marketing model in practice is the increase in gluten free sections in grocery stores, which not only makes it more convenient for shoppers who tend to purchase gluten free products to find what their looking for, but also more likely to purchase unfamiliar gluten free products that otherwise would have been located elsewhere. Using shopper insights, the company has its ethnographers carefully note shelf organization, signage, and display style. For the same reason, SmartRevenue’s observational methods also include looking for who does and does not carry shopping lists, timing how long people look at shelving or directional displays, and notice where people are specifically looking in an aisle.

In a nutshell, SmartRevenue is a virtual market research company that is headed by people who approach market research on a human level. They acknowledge that behind every purchase is a person with individual motivations and context. A key aspect to this approach is in their choice to hire employees from outside marketing fields. All of these factors make the company unique and a good place to begin exploring an anthropologists place within market research.
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My position within the company was as a contract ethnographer. This means I was only involved in SmartRevenue’s data collection process and not analysis.

By far the most important data collection method for the company is the interview. The interviews are accessed through an application that is installed on a handheld device. The device is mailed to the ethnographer prior to fielding along with the interview incentives (to give to the respondents). Interviews include closed-ended and open-ended questions. The closed-ended questions are quantitative as they are either single choice, multiple choice, or Likert scale based. There were two aspects of the interviews that I had some particular difficulty with. First, the simple act of approaching people can be intimidating, especially since every refusal has to be logged. I found this concern to lesson with each project as refusals are short and less common than one would think. I started every approach by first keeping the incentive visible and trying to clarify as quickly as possible that the company was trying to get input from customers on “how they could better serve their customers” or something similar. The second discomfort I experienced was with time management. I found it important to be aware of how long the interviews took. It is not helpful if the respondent becomes impatient or, even worse, leaves before the interview is complete (both of which have happened to me while fielding.) I avoided this in three ways. First, I tried to become as familiar as I could with interview questions by doing practice rounds before fielding. Secondly, I would shorten longer questions when reading them to the respondents (taking care to understand the purpose of the question and interview overall before doing this). Finally, I simply tried to read through the questions as fast as possible while remaining clear and nonabrasive. Interviews seem to require ethnographers to figure out what works best for them and adjusting the interviews accordingly, even though this likely skews the data.

Visual Aids are a secondary form of data collection that is used to support interview data and observational notes. Visual aids consist of photos and hand-drawn or computer generated maps. I failed to take full advantage of the opportunity visual aids provided in my initial project. At first, I simply saw them as independent methods—another job duty. Once the initial project was complete, it became clear how visual methods are used to support the ethnographers’ insights and create a better form of communication between the ethnographer and project managers. For example, if a respondent points out something specific during their interview it would be wise for an ethnographer to make a note of it and take a picture so someone analyzing the data may have a reference point. Maps, meanwhile, are not only helpful for the company employees to understand the ethnographer’s context but also for the ethnographer to obtain a better understanding of their fielding sites. I have concluded that mapping seems to be the best first course of action before beginning data collection. Even though I did not take advantage of the communication and learning opportunities visual aids provided, I plan to keep this in mind in the future.

Observational methods, which are directly related to my training in anthropology, are divided between flow counting and reports. Flow counting is an observational method that involves the observer counting how many times people do specific actions during allotted time periods. These actions can be the simple act of passing a certain aisle or handling products in specific sections. This method is the clearest example of “quantitative ethnography” as the data is numerical but taken from qualitative observational methods. Despite the method being relatively quantitative, it can also be very inaccurate if the ethnographer is not watching very carefully, especially during periods of heavy foot traffic. I attempted to take particular special care to make this data as accurate as possible.

As for the more qualitative observational methods, they require the ethnographer to take fieldnotes on any impressions, inaccuracies, or direct observations. These notes are used to write short daily reports but, more importantly, are for writing the concluding project reports. Ethnographers should focus on both physical and visual interactions in their field notes to make their reports as in-depth as possible. Writing field notes is another method that I do not feel I took full advantage of. This is regrettable, because it is the method most specially related to anthropological methods. I initially underestimated how much the company wants ethnographers to include personal impressions. I also found myself concentrating too much on getting “enough” interviews completed instead of properly reflecting on the interviews to create in-depth field notes. I attempted to improve on this issue the most on my fourth project by keeping a small note pad in my hand (as clipboards appear to be off putting to potential respondents).
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So what do anthropologists have to add to marketing? What makes us qualified in telling corporations where they should direct their business or who they should be designing their products for? This argument could get rather complicated but I provide here four interrelated reasons anthropologists are useful in marketing and the complexity gap. The first reason is the “why” dilemma which was previoulsy alluded to. Market researchers or quantitative researchers can count how many times people do something. You can give someone a Likert scale and ask them on scale from one to seven how much they like something. But these methods do not answer why those people did something or why they liked something as much or little as they did. What are at the roots of their behavior? Anthropologists strive to answer that very question all the time in their work and it is a question that should be equally important to market research groups.

The second reason anthropologists (or social scientists) are so helpful in market research is also why they are able to tackle the “why” question; they attempt to limit the effects of assumptions by being aware of their own preexisting knowledge on a subject . For example business anthropologists have stood out from their business research colleagues because they do not commonly provide hypotheses to their clients.

One way anthropologists have assisted in curving problems with assumptions in market research is by assisting in the popular use of market segmentation models. Market segments is how firms divide large target consumer groups into smaller subsets. These segments are commonly divided by demographics including culture and ethnicity. The problem with the market segmentation model is that firms who use it assume that certain people fit together and act similarly but it is ethnocentric to assume that cultures or different ethnicities are mutually exclusive. Thus, market segments are primarily designed by the preconceived biases of each marketing firm (Herselman 2008). Market segments are a primary tool used in market research and will not be disappearing anytime soon. Having someone within the analysis process who would attempt at being aware of these sort of issues aid in curbing them. Or as Herselman more strongly stated “(anthropologists’ have an) obligation to expose ethnocentrism and unethical behavior where-ever they are discerned. The anthropological perspective to marketing is thus critical” (2008: 46).

The third reason anthropology is useful in market research is because qualitative research is, by nature, exploratory. For example, one such way anthropologists approach design research is by doing a form of “self-critique” on their client companies. They often interview not only the customers, but the employees and company heads to learn what is unique about their company which can reveal their clients strengths or market niches (Madsbjerg and Rasmussen 2014, Graffam 2010). Another reason the exploratory approach is so helpful is because it can tackle what Madsbjerg and Rasmussen call the “big unknowns.” An example of a “big unknown” could be when a company is doing poorly, have no clue why, and have exhausted all other options. Another example could be if a company is trying to “understand unfamiliar social and cultural contexts” (Madsbjerg and Rasmussen 2014: 87). These problems can appear overwhelming, without a starting point, but the exploratory approach is specifically designed to narrow down a problem. Anthropologists’ previous work with Starbucks can be used as an example of this. Most market researchers would ask “How can we create a premium offering in coffee?” but an anthropologist would ask “What is a good coffee experience?” (Madsbjerg and Rasmussen 2014). The later question tries to limit assumptions about the problem and understand the customers from their own experiences. If a researcher was able to narrow down what consumers’ value and enjoy the most when purchasing coffee drinks, a market research team would then have areas in which to focus their work. The exploratory nature of qualitative methods allow for market research groups to explore areas of consumer studies that they would otherwise be closed off to and have the added benefit of guiding future areas of research.

Finally, and most importantly, anthropologists commonly work to humanize consumers. For example, design researchers make a point to design for people and not market segments (Graffam 2010). Anthropologists do this first by listening to the customers. In-depth interviews can show how people perceive a brand or product. Secondly, anthropologists reveal what people are unable to, or unwilling to, articulate by observing their behaviors. Additionally, the rapid integration of technology into people’s lives is an important reason to humanize targets in consumer research. Technology currently has a significant place in society as people are extremely involved with their personal tech devices. As Graffram (2010) has stated, “technology is much more than a mere set of tools; it is a context in which things enable and constrain individual and group behaviors.” Understanding how people interact with and perceive technology unveils information that cannot be gathered by numerical surveys. Acknowledging that behind every service or product being purchased and used are real people and that they have a variety of sub-contexts related to their lives helps companies obtain more realistic approaches to reaching them. Anthropology is (by literal definition) the study of people and therefor is quite useful in market research.

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  • Avery, Jennifer Laurel. 2013. Becoming the Corporate Native…Virtually: An Ethnography and Corporate Culture Assessment of a Virtual Organization,/i>. Ph. D. dissertation. Department of Anthropology, University of South Florida.
  • Graffam, Gray. 2010. Design Anthropology Meets Marketing. Anthropologica 52(2010):155-164.
  • Herselman, Stephné. 2008. ‘Dabbling in the Market’: Ideas on ‘an Anthropology of Marketing’. Anthropology Southern Africa 31(1&2):39-47.
  • Madsbjerb, Christian and Mikkel Rasmussen. 2014. An Anthropologist Walks into a Bar: To Understand What Makes Your Customers Tick, You Have to Observe Them in their Natural Habitats. Harvard Business Review. 80-88.
  • Shankara, Venkatesh with J. Jeffrey Inmanb, Murali Mantralac, Eileen Kelleyd, and Ross Rizleye. 2011. Innovations in Shopper Marketing: Current Insights and Future Research Issues. Journal of Retailing 87(1):29-42.

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