Friday, January 01, 2010

A Cultural Anthropologist in Brand Strategy?

When I tell people what I do for a living, they usually have a ‘say what?’ look on their face. Either they don’t know what anthropology is,
“oh my god, I loved dinosaurs as a kid!”,
or they do know what it is,
sort of,
“oh my god, I read about this ritual sacrifice they do in Africa!”,
but they don't get the connections between symbols, rituals, human behavior, etc. and branding (see? You get it.).

To me, the anthropology of modern life is so much more interesting than the traditional anthropology of ‘savages’ who clearly only live in places like Papua New Guinea. I mean, come on- a good portion of Americans have a man nailed to a cross hanging in their living rooms. Ask me who have the best two brands out there right now and I'll say Coke and Jesus. Easy question.

Archetypes, kinship and taboos might sound exotic, but what’s really fascinating to me are the same ideas as they manifest through brands. ‘Mac people’ get offended if someone suggests they might have characteristics that even slightly resemble those of ‘PC people’. To hockey players, a Bauer stick is a trusted friend. And Coke drinkers actually call it sacrilegious to drink a Pepsi.

People communicate much of modern life, whether we like it or not, through brands. What we buy, what we drive, what we wear, what we watch, what we sell, what we yell. Yes- even in Africa. The two things you can find in pretty much any village, anywhere? Jesus and Coca-cola. But here’s the kicker- those things mean very different things to Africans than they do to Americans. Or to Indians. Or to Europeans. Or to Baby Boomers. Or to teenage girls on facebook (see where I’m going with this whole “human behavior and advertising” thing?). And it’s the discovery of the different meanings of things, meanings of sacred words, meanings of sacred spaces, meanings that live between what people say and what they do, that makes my job so exciting.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


I just can't resist. For all my anthropologist friends out there- once again, the genius of anthropology creeps into the mainstream.

Sahlins said it first. The industrial revolution, following the enlightenment, created a whole culture of people whose needs as individuals aren't being met. And they feel these longings for self expression, and whatnot, physiologically. AKA they crave sugar. Sahlins called it the Sadness of Sweetness.
My girl friends and I call it something else entirely. When boys make us sad, when our jobs make us sad, when our moms or sisters or friends or global warming or teachers or bosses or experiences with sucking-at-life make us sad, what do we do? We EatOurFeelings.
Ice cream. Cake (with frosting out of a tub, obvi). Cookies.
It's a funny way to think about YouAreWhatYouEat.
Sahlins was right. It's the Sadness of Sweetness. We eat sugar like it is happiness on a fork (or when it comes to the tub of frosting, a spoon or, let's be honest, our index finger). But it isn't. It's sadness. We feed sadness with sadness. The Sadness of Sweetness. We don't EatOurFeelings because we want to feel better. We do it because we're wallowing in feeling sad. We're craving it and letting it engulf our individualism just for an hour or two. Our Sadness craves Sadness.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

It Takes a Village

Motherhood is a tricky subject. Everyone (in America anyway; let's be honest) judges mothers. Have a career? hmmm.... DON'T have a career? hmmmmm... Nanny? NO nanny? Organic foods? Consumer packaged goods? Piano lessons? Still have a social life? Helicopter much?
This is one of the best arguments for "It takes a village" I've seen.
Guess what. Daycare is the modern version of The Village when it comes to raising kids. So are babysitters, and grandparents, and godparents, and friends, and teachers. 
Spending 24 hours a day with your child may make YOU feel like a great parent- like you are 'there for them' and like 'no one can do it like you can.' My theory though, hate to break it to you, is that you might actually be missing out on doing something amazing for your children... giving them adults. Lots of them.  

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

On Listening

It's interesting what people talk about. And it seems sometimes that conversation is more present in our lives than ever. Or at least it is in mine; I have twitter and facebook and text messages and IMs all chirping at me all day long. Iran. Michael Jackson. Finally Franken. The Wild. The Twins. #fail. Unemployment rates. Honduras. Air France. Cool web links. Even cooler thoughts about web links. Blogs. Tweets. Updates. "News."
And I like that.

But I unplugged this weekend.
And I started to hear something that people AREN'T talking about.

How the recession is affecting small towns.
The silence driving through Eveleth, MN- on one of the busiest tourist weekends of the year- was deafening. One in three store fronts was boarded up in every town we drove through. Cotton, same. Virginia, same. Tower, same. And it felt like the dilapidated houses in downtown Ely were screaming out loud.

People keep talking about the death of Detroit. And the stock market. They talk about the death of American cars. And the death of American banks.
And, this week, everyone in the country has been talking about the death of Michael Jackson, an American Icon. Their conversations took down the internet.

But I haven't seen a single bit of media about the death of small towns. Or about how their people are coping or making rent or mortgage payments or buying groceries. I know how many foreclosures there were in Minneapolis. But what about Eveleth. Or Virginia. Or Embarrass. Or Gilbert... Mines on the Iron Range are opening and closing every day and the stories get buried beneath people's other conversations.

We mourn an American Icon more than we mourn our American towns.
It's interesting what people talk about. And what they don't.

What else aren't people talking about?

Monday, May 05, 2008


Remarks for Elizabeth Ann Goodman Logelin
April 26th, 2008
Lakewood Cemetery, Minneapolis

Little girls change best friends all the time. It’s like musical chairs. I got to be Lizzy Goodman’s best friend for our early elementary school years, and we attended Blake together through high school. Since that time, I’ve become an anthropologist; we really like theories. This is one of mine.

Humans are relational beings; we understand ourselves in terms of the relationships that we have with others. Nothing is really real to us unless it is shared with someone else.

And this is true for each step of our lives. It is always other people who bring out the best in us, and with that smile, and that laugh, and that genuine curiosity that I remember, I’d bet that Liz brought out the best in most everyone she encountered.

I think that as we move through life, it’s as if we allow parts of our younger selves to be kept and carried in relationships- relationships that often times grow farther and farther away. I think that’s why you can have those kinds of people in your life who you don’t see for years and years, yet when you reconnect, it is as though no time has gone by. Because for those bits of each other you have each been carrying along with you on your journeys, none has. And in that moment of reconnection you recognize and suddenly become those previous selves again.

Apparently, encountering the death of a friend has a similar effect. I have been 8 and 12 and 17 quite a lot in the past few weeks. The 8 year old me is heartbroken. Yet at the same time, this idea of mutual bit carrying comforts the 30yr old me.

Because I’m pretty sure that all of my 8 year old, 12 year old and even 17 year old selves were kind of fun haters. So, sorry for the baggage, Liz, but I think I got the better end of this deal.

Because the bits of Liz’s 8, 12 and 17 year old selves that I get to carry around with me are AWESOME. I get sleepovers… and forts and four square at Highcroft recess, and cool houses ‘in town’ with trees growing out of the porch. I get the bittersweet sadness of an 8yr old girl who switches from Highcroft to Hopkins, leaving her best friend behind and finding new ones ahead. I get dance routines and trampolines and a bright smile. I get the New Kids on the Block. I get blond bangs that defy gravity. I’m even kind of psyched to carry around getting dumped by a boy in middle school (and I think dumping at least one as well) because I didn’t even know how to TALK to boys back then. I get swimming for the BearHawks. I get trips to middle in the Montero where every passenger is more than a little terrified.

And I get an incredible star-crossed moment in the Mobile gas station on Minnetonka Boulevard when Matt and Liz met.

And I think about all the bits of Liz that are swimming around in this room right now. Her birth, her death. Her college graduation. Work bits and play bits and creating a home bits. And the ones that are floating around online on flickr, and in the blogosphere with total strangers who have left bits of themselves through comments and emails, and who have carried bits of Liz to countries and cyberspaces around the globe. We are all carrying these bits.

They are both who she is, and who we are.

But really, what they truly are, all bundled up in neat little bitty memory shaped packages, are love.

Liz, we are honoured to carry them.

Monday, January 07, 2008

New Direction

So it's been awhile. And I've changed careers. Sort of.
I'm still an anthropologist, I'm just employed. It's real nice.
And what I do now involves marketing and brand strategy and ideas and patterns and insights and social objects and semiotic analysis and all kinds of great stuff.
But what is very new and cool is that I'm getting slowly connected to all these other folks out there doing the same kinds of things. Anthropologists, and Social Media-ists. And lots of them have blogs and good ideas.
And I (think I) have good ideas too, and opinions on things like twitter and facebook and the future of advertising. So I'm going to start posting them here. And linking to anyone who'll have me.
Game on.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Price of Beer

What is it about the Price of Beer that makes it an universal ice-breaker?

I've lived in three countries in the last three years and have found myself many a time in the mixedest of groups-- with friends from Lebanon, England, Peru, Germany, Iceland, Australia, Japan, India, Denmark and many other nations one of my favorite pastimes has become 'the observation of small talk.' What I noticed, however, was that this pastime quickly became instead 'the observation of the ice-breaker called The Price of Beer.' It usually occurs in groups of three or more, and goes something like this:

Hey Max! This is my friend Kjarten from Iceland.
Whoa man, I hear beer over there is really expensive; is that true?
Yeah, man, it's rough. But dude, you have to pay in POUNDS over here-- that is almost as bad.

And then, and I am often astounded at how unaware of how incredibly nerdy this can get, there ensues an entire discussion about currency exchange, the cornerstone of which is The Price of Beer.

So, if a pint in London costs about 3pounds, and last month I was getting .67pounds to the euro, then that would be like 4euros50 per pint?
Yeah, that's awful. You really have to go to Latin America or Africa, man.
Oh yeah! I'm going to South Africa next month.
Hey guys.
Oh hey-- we were just talking about South Africa.
Oh cool! I've been there-- beer is totally cheap there.
Yeah, well not as cheap as it is in Peru-- I got three huge bottles of Arequipena for 10nuevos soles because the guy at the hotel totally had a deal with the shop on the corner-- that's like a dollar a bottle and a bottle was like three pints... three pints for a dollar! And it is good beer too!

No way, you can't get a good English Ale or Stout for that though. I mean you can't even get it there at all, but you can get something like that at this great little place I know in Brooklyn-- you have to know where to go though. It's totally a locals only deal and you have to know exactly where it is because it is impossible to find. It's in the basement of this old warehouse and you would never know it-- but once you get inside it is all dark wood paneling and old casks and a huge long wooden bar with about a zillion micro-brews on tap...
Yeah, but those places close at like 2am. That's the problem with Pubs in London too though-- most of them close at 11pm. But when I go out with this one friend of mine, we go near Picidilly Square, and he totally knows all the crazy signs that the cab drivers leave outside random 24hr shops-- one time he walked into one of these places and asked for the owner. When the guy up front said he wasn't there, my friend walked to the back of the place, knelt down and knocked on the floor. A little trap door to a cellar popped up-- my friend passed a tenner through the door and someone passed a six-pack up to him! It was amazing! And dude, a tenner for a six pack in London is pretty good. I mean, it's better if you can get to Paris on the Eurostar, since the pound is so strong now, it's way better to use Euros, but really if you take into account the cost of living then the Price of Beer really is about the same probably...

These conversations can go on for hours.
The only thing, and I mean the ONLY thing, I have ever seen able to stop one mid-one-upping is a quick switch to soccer talk. The only thing more universally discussed that the Price of Beer? The World Cup. But that, of course, can go both ways...