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Anthropology and Marketing: A Marriage Made in Muma College of Business

By Keith Morelli

TAMPA (Nov. 17, 2016) -- At first blush, the comingling of anthropology and marketing in a single course would seem to be a head scratcher; kind of like blending classes of partial differential equations and dodge ball. But beneath the surface, researchers are discovering, the disciplines of anthropology and the business of marketing really have a lot in common and are mutually beneficial.

Marketing students can learn nuances of consumer behavior and hidden cultural perspectives and anthropology students can parlay that major into real jobs in corporate America that come with hefty paychecks.

So, the apparent disparate fields of study were combined in a fall semester graduate class in the University of South Florida's Muma College of Business, co-taught by Anand Kumar, an associate professor of marketing and marketing research and Antoinette Jackson, an associate professor of cultural anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

"It's new here," Kumar said, but more and more the science of anthropology – the study of human societies and cultures and their development – is being recognized as a critical component in helping some businesses succeed through focused marketing strategies.

"The trend is increasing," Kumar said. "Anthropology is playing an increasing part in market research. "Corporations are finding that there is a lot of value in that and they are starting to recognize that."

Anthropologists now work inside some of the leading manufacturing and service companies in the world, including Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft and Proctor & Gamble.

Employers are seeing that anthropology brings a certain understanding of cultural issues, an understanding that can result in upticks in profits if properly incorporated into marketing strategies. And job applicants with anthropology degrees are finding doors of businesses and industries are opening for them.

The thrust of the class is this: Combining anthropology with marketing research can produce effective product designs, interpret social trends and identify opportunities for intercultural marketing.

The class itself was an interesting experiment in human nature, Kumar and Jackson agreed.

"The students were different," Jackson said, "totally different in the way they asked questions and made observations. Not everybody was on the same page."

The "anthros" were protective of their science and skeptical about handing data they had generated to marketers to create a need for a product where, maybe, no need existed. It just didn't seem right to them, Jackson said. The marketers saw nothing wrong with that, and considered anthropology just another tool to achieve success. It's what they teach in business school. It's what corporations are paying more attention to these days.

"One reason corporations are interested in anthropology is that they are trying to identify needs, gaps that have not been articulated," Kumar said. "It's identifying needs people are only thinking about and maybe not even consciously."

In the end, both sides saw the other's perspective, an accomplishment in itself, the professors agreed.

Muma College of Business graduate student Erika Troconis, who is graduating in December, said she took the class to get a new perspective.

"One of the reasons I enjoyed this class was having anthropology students in it," she said. "At the beginning, there were a lot of differences between what anthropology and marketing students thought, but being able to share ideas from both sides puts you in a new environment, something that I wasn't going to find in my marketing classes."

She said she wanted to learn new ways of connecting with consumers.

"In previous marketing classes, I learned about research methods that help marketers understand consumer behaviors," said Troconis, "however, I did not think that a strong relationship was ever developed between marketing and anthropology."

"Everybody," said Jackson, "benefits from this."