Loading ...
How did you move from anthropology into marketing research? I started graduate school fully intending to earn a PhD in anthropology and become a professor. I was—and continue to be—deeply compelled by the way the discipline teaches you to think about our human experience. But after I completed my masters degree, I began to have serious misgivings about the professional academic path. It just didn’t seem like the right environment for me.

So, I took a detour and went to cooking school. I have two great passions: thinking about people and cooking. I’ve spent my whole adult life trying to balance the two. I attended the French Culinary Institute, worked in restaurants, then ran a small catering business in New York City. I really loved it, but once I decided to have a family, I just couldn’t envision balancing motherhood with my life as a chef.

Just as I was beginning to consider what to do next with my life, a friend called to ask if I would be willing to talk to Michael Scavone, a friend of hers who ran a small qualitative market research firm, Scavone Consulting Group (SCG). He had received a request for ethnographic research, knew it had something to do with anthropology, and was looking to learn more about the methodology. I told him what I could, and at the end of the conversation, he asked, “So, if I get the project, do you want to conduct the research?”

He did. I did. And I haven’t stopped since.

How did you prepare for your transition into marketing research? I didn’t know the first thing about marketing—except how to critique it from a liberal, academic point of view. In fact, the first thing I had to do was reconcile working in business with the morality of my academic training.

In grad school, taking a job in the commercial sector had been referred to as “going to the dark side.” To this day, I believe that underregulated corporate behavior and insufficient consumer education are worthy of critique and moral condemnation. But I also came to believe that anthropology could make business better—better at providing value for consumers, better at creating healthy organizations, better at being members of society. Plus, I love that raspy Darth Vader voice.

I had a tremendous amount to learn. I bought a copy of Marketing for Dummies, watched and analyzed hundreds of focus groups and learned to moderate them, and conducted all the ethnographic research that came into SCG, where I spent my first seven years—all the while incorporating a uniquely anthropological perspective.

I ask “Why?” all the time of everyone, including myself.

What advice would you give to visual designers who wish to produce culturally sensitive designs? I would encourage them to become eager students of the social world, considering every image, every act and every statement as an opportunity to learn. Ask why. Why does that image, act and statement exist? What meaning does it hold? Why does it matter? How might it mean something different to someone else? How might it have meant something different at another point in time?

Observe how people behave and interact. Notice not just what happens, but also what doesn’t happen. These habits won’t just produce more culturally sensitive designs—they’ll also create a whole new lens on the world.

What does your cultural anthropology training bring to the marketing industry? Put simply, cultural anthropology is the study of shared meaning—all the norms, beliefs, values, practices, symbols and languages shared by a group of people. In marketing, every offering, tactic and message we introduce into the marketplace means something, and cultural anthropology helps us understand those meanings better.

In practice, cultural anthropology also helps us avoid oversimplification, which is tempting in marketing given the complexity of people and culture, but also dangerous, especially when we rely on stereotypes or static understandings of people.

Finally, cultural anthropology encourages us to observe and interpret the zeitgeist as a manifestation of more fundamental social and cultural processes rather than a set of fleeting trends. This allows us to shift our energy away from trend chasing, which is a little like a cat chasing a laser light—fascinating and amusing, but also frenetic and inefficient. I encourage our clients to focus less on trend chasing and more on understanding the broader cultural forces that give rise to trends and shape our marketplace, things like adapting to technological change, negotiating human differences, and changing power structures. If I can help our clients step back a bit and ask bigger questions about how society is changing, they will be better prepared to build strategies for the future.

Which questions do you ask as you are researching? I ask “Why?” all the time of everyone, including myself. It’s important as a researcher to stay conscious of my own reactions. If I find myself judging something, I ask myself, “Why is that bothering me?” or, “Why am I so drawn to that?” and I try to understand what my own reactions can teach me about the subject at hand.

Describe the research methodologies you utilize at branding and marketing innovations agency Troika. We offer a full range of research methodologies, both qualitative and quantitative, and we take great care to employ the right ones for the right questions. As an anthropologist, I feel most at home with qualitative methods, especially ethnographic ones.

At the moment, we’re particularly fascinated by digital ethnography, given the rise in mobile qualitative research apps. We primarily use dscout, which I started playing around with when it first came onto the market in 2011, and which we now use regularly. When I first started using dscout, it didn’t support video—just still images and comments. But it quickly took the place of old-school diary keeping or written behavioral tracking. We’ve been amazed at the things we’ve been able to learn now that people can also send us videos of themselves and answer questions at various moments in everyday life. Now, we use dscout for a much broader array of research questions, including how specific ideas and behaviors weave in and out of everyday life, how people make consumption decisions at their moment of choice, and what emotions people feel before, during and after a viewing experience, to name but a few.

We’re also fans of netnography, an ethnographic approach to social listening. We use netnography all the time not only to observe and analyze the online conversation about specific topics we are studying, but also to understand the norms that are emerging in social media, fan sites and blogs. Netnography approaches the dialogue holistically, understanding the full range of influences—such as the social dynamics and structural conditions that prevail on a specific site—that creates shared meaning within an online conversation. 

For example, we just launched a year-long, comprehensive study of fandom. Over the course of the year, we will employ numerous research methods, including digital ethnography, a quantitative survey, focus groups, personal narrative analysis and netnography, which we will conduct on relevant websites all year long. We are including many sites in the netnography portion of our study: sites of social conversation, such as Instagram, Twitter, reddit, Imgur, Facebook, Tumblr and Pinterest; sites of social commentary, like fan sites, fan blogs and the news; and sites of self representation, which include YouTube and fanworks hosting sites. We’ll learn a ton about fandom by the range of online conversations that emerge around it, and we’ll also learn a ton about the websites themselves and the specific modes of conversation they facilitate and suppress.

Does today’s marketing industry rely too heavily on gut decisions? Troika is an agency born out of creativity, so when I first joined the company in 2014 to lead a brand new research and insights team, not everyone understood how my team’s work would impact decision making. In fact, I think I heard the word “gut” fifteen times during my first three days at Troika. But it’s a fallacy to think that there is an intrinsic tension between the gut and the head. They are both forms of cognition, as moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains.

“Gut” refers to intuitive judgment—the instant, subconscious reactions we have to any given stimuli—and it’s our primary source of information. “Head” refers to strategic reasoning—the conscious thoughts that allow us to justify or explain our gut reactions. The most talented creative people I know have keenly attuned intuitive judgment. As a researcher at Troika, I have no desire to displace the creative gut. I just want to make sure it stays as healthy and attuned as possible by understanding the social and symbolic landscapes in which intuitive judgment operates. In fact, I call my team the probiotics of the organization.
Susan Kresnicka is leading research at branding and marketing innovations agency Troika. Through ongoing qualitative and quantitative research studies focused on understanding the deeper levels of meaning that viewers bring to and create from their entertainment and commercial consumption, she sheds new light on the role of contemporary storytelling and media consumption in our lives today. Prior to joining Troika in 2014, Kresnicka was a vice president of research at leading market research company Frank N. Magid Associates, Inc. She holds a BA in international development from the University of Tennessee and an MA in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.

With a free Commarts account, you can enjoy 50% more free content
Create an Account
Get a subscription and have unlimited access
Already a subscriber or have a Commarts account?
Sign In

Get a subscription and have unlimited access
Already a subscriber?
Sign In