29 April 2016

What is "sensemaking"? Anthropology in marketing

Quantitative research -- which has long been the market research standard -- can provide insights into broad patterns and customer metrics. While this 'big data' can tell a company a lot about their customers' habits and needs, there are some questions that this approach simply cannot answer. This is where "sensemaking" comes in.

In short, "sensemaking" is how anthropologists approach problem-solving. Applying the kinds of qualitative methods and critically culturally-relative perspective that anthropologists are trained to these questions provides insights into the everyday life experiences and meanings that people use to understand their worlds.

In "An Anthropologist Walks into a Bar…" (Harvard Business Review, 2014) Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen explain how "sensemaking," or approaching a problem from an anthropological perspective, works and can provide companies with market-research solutions. "A growing number of organizations globally have begun to apply sense­making, having recognized that it can help solve some of the toughest business problems, such as finding new growth, winning in new markets, and capitalizing on cultural change." The authors recount how "sensemaking" solved key marketing problems for a major European brewing company, Lego Group, and Coloplast (a Danish medical technology firm). Coloplast found that despite their sophisicated R&D, their "biggest division, the ostomy division, was stagnating, even though the company was investing heavily in innovation and sales." This is when Coloplast decided to take a different approach.
Coloplast recast the question “How do we capture new sources of growth?” as “What is the experience of living with ostomy?” Its managers knew a lot about customer metrics—who bought how much of which products when, and so forth. But they realized they knew less about their customers’ worlds. What was it like to be an ostomy patient? How did it affect your self-image? Your social life? What was a good day, or a bad day?
In a classroom, this article might be useful for talking about the differences between qualitative and quantitative research, for illustrating cultural relativism in action, or for talking about the kinds of things that an anthropological perspective can bring to a workplace.