In this episode of Anthropology in Business, Robert Morais speaks with Matt Artz about his career as a business anthropologist in advertising and marketing and the work he is doing to advance anthropology in business.

Who Is Robert J. Morais?

Robert J. Morais is a business anthropologist with experience in advertising and market research, and a Lecturer in the Marketing Division at Columbia Business School. He is currently focused on advancing the application of anthropology in business through writing, teaching, and mentoring, and educating business students on the value of qualitative research.

Morais began his career at Grey Advertising and spent 25 years with advertising agencies, rising to Chief Strategic Officer. He then served for 11 years as a Principal and co-owner of market research firm Weinman Schnee Morais. He has worked with Procter & Gamble, GlaxoSmithKline, WD-40, Coca-Cola, Post Foods, Danone, Hain Celestial, Safeway, Sabra, Pinnacle Foods, Star-Kist, Prestige Brands, Johnson & Johnson, Bayer, Dentsply Sirona, Wyeth (now Pfizer), Boehringer-Ingelheim, Hill’s Pet Nutrition, Freshpet, Benjamin Moore, and the Fairmont, Raffles, and Swissôtel hotel group, among many other corporations.

His publications include five books and 50+ articles and book chapters. His books are: The Language of Branding: Theory, Strategies, and Tactics (co-author); Ethics in the Anthropology of Business: Explorations in Theory, Practice, and Pedagogy (co-editor); Advertising and Anthropology: Ethnographic Practice and Cultural Perspectives, (co-author); Refocusing Focus Groups: A Practical Guide (author); and Social Relations in a Philippine Town (author). His research articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in Forbes, Huffington Post, Advertising Age, Medium, American Anthropologist, Human Organization, Culture and Organization, Journal of Business Anthropology, and Philippine Studies, among others.

Recommended Links

– BusinessAnthro.com
– Journal of Business Anthropology
– EPIC

Watch the Video

Episode Transcript

Please note this transcript is an automated transcription and may have some errors.

Matt Artz:

All right. Well, thanks everybody for joining. This is Matt Artz of the Anthropology in Business video podcast, and I’m here today with Bob Morais. First let me say, thank you for joining me. I’m really pleased to have you because of, of all the people in the business anthropology community, you know, you’re, you’re one of those top ones that are really trying to build the brand of anthropology and really help all of us sort of a younger anthropologists succeed. So thanks for that first off. And so you’re, you’re a great guest to have on really for not only for myself to talk with, but for really all the listeners, you know, you have really impressive background that probably hardly needs an introduction, but, you know, you identify as a business anthropologist, you had 25 years in advertising ending with your chief strategic officer position, 11 years as a principal and co-owner of a market research firm, five books under your belt, 50 plus articles and chapters. You know, some of those being for Forbes, Huffington post, and really highly visible content that has made a big impact, especially that Forbes piece a year or so ago. And I think maybe more recently the business anthro.com website and community. And so, you know, really, it’s a, it’s a pleasure to have you here. And I think, you know, everything we talk about today will be a great value for all the listeners.

Matt Artz:

So can you, I know I gave a brief introduction there, but would you mind sort of telling everybody just I know there’s a lot to say, but maybe an overview of sort of your education and career history.

Bob Morais:

Sure. I’ll give you the hopefully these three minutes or five minute version. I was an undergraduate major in anthropology. Went to graduate school with a focus on psychological and cognitive anthropology. My dissertation field work was.

New Speaker:

In the rural Philippines and I thought I’d be an academic anthropologist. Looked at the job market. I, a PhD was completed in 1988. The job market by then was pretty weak, but I also got wind of a program in NYU’s graduate school of business, even before it was called the stern school of business. That refitted PhDs in the humanities and social sciences to business to essentially become business people one way or another, and the one way or another tended to exclude their actual subject matter. So the focus of this program was not to say, take somebody with a PhD in anthropology and have that person apply anthropology and business.

Bob Morais:

It would to take a PhD who had certain analytical skills some, some basic abilities in terms of writing and speaking and so on to function in the business environment. So it was like a mini MBA was a two month program. And I took that program. And then decided along the way that I was interested in marketing and specifically the advertising industry, particularly advertising, it was about human beings, hearts and minds. And I was interested in learning about them as an anthropologist. And I thought, Oh, I can do this as an advertising professional too. The only difference it’ll be will be is that it’s in the interest of a commercial hand as opposed through academic anthropology. And I was fortunate because I got a job right after the program ended at gray advertising. And I started out in account management, which is a sort of like a general manager position in advertising that was very junior.

Bob Morais:

So I wasn’t actually general manager in that formal sense, but you’re, you’re managing a bit of strategy, creative media really every component of the, of the advertising business. And then you’re interacting with the clients and account planning had been available at that point in 1981, early 1981. I I probably would have done that account planning is really focused strategic side of advertising. And it had started in the UK in the sixties, but it didn’t really reach the United States until the mid 1980s. And so I, this was 1981, so I started doing account management. And so now I’m going to make this story a lot shorter because after doing that for a number of years I thought, you know, there’s another aspect of advertising that I’m interested in that is now emerged, hold account planning. And I moved into that. I focused much more on strategy and about halfway my halfway through my overall career probably about two thirds of the way through my advertising career.

Bob Morais:

I switched to account planning while I still had to do some account management jobs because of the nature of the businesses I was involved in. And so I focus more on strategy and I was also incorporating anthropology by that time, there was feed Barnett had written about advertising and anthropology basically in 1980s in the 1980s. And I got wind of what he was doing. And you may have heard of him, some of your listeners may have heard of him. He was really a pioneer in applying anthropology in advertising and the marketing, but I didn’t want to do that back then. I wanted a good job and I wanted to keep it. But by the early by late night, I think it was 89 90. I started working, integrating ethnography and a little bit to some of the projects I was doing. And that started to increase a little more.

Bob Morais:

I always had a kind of anthropological sensibility when we were doing market research of any kind, particularly focus groups, but I was now integrating some ethnography. And then that increased. So I was doing now, I was doing ethnography is I was doing more research firsthand and then as well, and then some friends of mine at a small market research firm was the 12, 15 people. And one of the two principals was retiring and I’ve known him for many years. I’ve worked with them and they asked me if I was interested in joining the firm. At first I said, no. And then we went out to dinner and I convinced me that it would probably be a great idea because anthropology was something they needed and was booming. They were PhDs in psychology. And most of the people in the company had PhDs in psychology.

Bob Morais:

There was one archeologist. He still had the company still exist. It’s Wyman Shanae mores. So she’s the one who retired company, kept his name in the middle. And then my name came at the end. And so I went there and I was there for 11 years as a partner, one of two active partners with Cynthia Weinman and our staff. But as I said, mostly it’s psychologist and people generally experienced, very experienced in market research. A lot of what we do is qualitative. I’d say about half of them or half of our work was quality. The other half is Quan. We were involved in a lot of client consulting on strategy. My advertising background helped with that. And then I was doing more and more anthropology and more explicitly. I mean, it wasn’t until I joined that market research firm that I quit PhD after my name on my business card.

Bob Morais:

Before that the 25 years in advertising people knew that I had an anthropology background and they knew that I apply it sometimes. But they didn’t, it wasn’t my primary job function and it wasn’t my primary job function. It was an important job function when I was in the market research firm, but we did all kinds of market research. So I, I didn’t, I didn’t if somebody called and said they wanted to do ethnography, maybe we do that. But maybe I would say, that’s really not what you need. What you really need is a, is a contract or they said, we want to do focus groups. And then I might say, well, maybe you did ethnography. But when we, we worked with a lot of clients longterm, so we were doing a lot of different types of research for them.

Bob Morais:

One on the way starting in I guess, mid, early part of the two thousands. I started getting back into academic writing. I had done some based on my original research and some other work back in late seventies, early eighties, and then put that aside and started writing academic articles and getting involved in books and so on and have been doing that for about 15 years. So engaging in the emerging business anthropology field was a big part of what I did. And I also started teaching first at the Columbia school of professional studies, but then I realized that I would be happy at the business school and I knew stumble. And then he got me in. And so I’ve been teaching now for several years and that’s been a great experience and that’s become a big part of what I do now, because I retired from my regular business job in 2017. And now not to take any commercial projects having but I’ve been involved not only in teaching, but I’ve written some chases and I’ve gotten involved with some other things and some other things in the, in the business school department and after leaving gratifying. So that’s where I am now. I just finished my fall course, which is I don’t, I teach one course I co-teach every year. And then there’s some other courses and other guest spots that I do throughout the year.

Matt Artz:

Okay, great. Yeah. Well, thanks for that. You know, there’s a lot to unpack in there. One of the first things that I think is interesting is, you know, the, the business program that you, the academic program that you went into for sort of the mini MBA, I mean, in many ways, you’re lucky, right. To have that experience, to have found that, because it seems like, you know, from our own conversations like offline of this, there are many people who are sort of just, you know, maybe falling into sort of applying anthropology and business sort of discovering it, you know, maybe after they’ve graduated, but a PhD or an ma or whatever it may be. Whereas, you know, you, you were really sort of quite lucky to have had that. Pop-Up when it did, but the, but since most people don’t have that you know, do you think, I mean, I know you’re teaching anthropology within the context of, of an academic program, but you know, what, what might others sort of be thinking of right now, you know, in terms of preparing themselves to maybe go in a similar path that you did

Bob Morais:

Well in a way it’s a very hard question, because if people have said to me, should I get a PhD in anthropology, or should I get a PhD in business stand for apology? Well, there aren’t a whole lot of business PhD programs in business anthropology. I’m not sure Wayne state is even active at this point. Because Alan Berto who really founded that program has retired and they may offer it still, there are a lot of masters degrees, like at UNT where you went and I shouldn’t say a lot, there were a few master’s degrees in business anthropology. And, but I would recommend anyone who is interested in working in the area should seriously consider getting a master’s degree in business anthropology, because you do pick up, I know at UNT, for example, you get you know, you learn a lot about methodology.

Bob Morais:

You’re taught by apologists. You know, it’s a good program. I just wish there were more of them. Of course you can take as an undergraduate, you can take a little bit of business and a little bit of anthropology. Clemson has a certificate program. University of Pennsylvania has a program that is the organizational culture. There are a couple out there that are more certificate oriented and there’s been some discussion about maybe some others. As far as formal credentials go though, I think an undergraduate degree in anthropology, but also if you’re interested, for example, in, during consumer marketing, take a marketing course, take on managerial statistics course. If you’re interested in organizational culture, you should check a course in the business school in that, as well as whatever you can learn, if you can, and your anthropology department about the cultural organization.

Bob Morais:

And so crossing over is really important. So that’s, that’s what I would recommend. I think, you know, if you’re already in a PhD program in traditional anthropology and there’s a business school at your university and you’re interested in working in business, it would be good idea to get a little bit of a taste of it. I was very fortunate in that I had some training, of course you learn a lot on the job too, but it does help, I think, to make the case to say, well, I’ve taken not here. I have this degree in anthropology, but I also, I also have taken some business, which it shows the our commitment among other things.

Matt Artz:

Yeah, no great, great recommendations. And so, you know, back to your, your journey you, you sort of said how you left the PhD off your business card, you know, during your advertising role and you were using ethnography, but you weren’t sort of explicitly maybe identifying as an anthropologist and sort of quote unquote, like doing anthropology, but at, at some point we, at least as you started bringing in ethnography, how did you go about pitching that, you know, maybe first, internally, but also to clients and how did you get buy-in to sort of start bringing that methodology into, into the brand?

Bob Morais:

Well, you know, it was interesting in that account planning was a call at the time it was introduced in the United States, one of the greatest new business tricks ever because it was a way of separating strategy. There was a lot of theatrical to it. It was a combination of research and a little marketing acumen certainly advertising strategic planning. And if you could bring in a fresh methodology, which at the time I was initially doing it was still pretty fresh up. A lot of people using ethnography now it added a little pizazz to the whole process. So it was a relatively easy sell when I was working at an ad agency to convince management. In some cases I was management to invest in doing some ethnography where we convince my clients to spend the money on it. But of course that’s just being performed before performance.

Bob Morais:

There there’s a much more substantive side of it, which is of course that I would tell my clients, you know, and they would know they don’t have all the asterisks. They don’t seem to be getting them from focus groups or from surveys or from the other, you know, wanting to get the one-on-one interviews that you’re doing. It’s just something that they’re not they feel like they’re not going far enough. They’re not going deep enough. And so I would say, well, why don’t we do this? Or, you know, I would apply anthropological thinking and focus groups or in depth interviews, or even sometimes I’m thinking about surveys, like bringing out a kind of anthropological spin, but doing ethnography. It very often had to do with the need to learn what we had not learned previously and just seemed to be missing.

Bob Morais:

And we didn’t know what we’re missing. And we thought ethnography is an exploratory sort of discovery technique would be worthwhile, but that’s a little bit of efficient expedition. Sometimes we would use ethnography to understand product use and context. So you want to understand how people use the salad dressing or how they go shopping for baby food or how they use an industrial lubricant or why they’re not using a type of industrial lubricant, why they’re choosing competition. And it’s a really good idea to go to the field to see that because if we know from surveys and focus groups and other interviews or, or methodologies, but at time people are reporting what they want to report, what they remember you know, you’re not, you’re not seeing. So you know, it’s, it’s like the difference between believing what people tell you and believing with your own eyes. And without biography, you can hear what they tell you, and then you can see with your own eyes. And that’s a real plus,

Matt Artz:

You know, as you first started doing that, especially since the firm wasn’t really doing that kind of work before, what kind of challenges did you have, you know, for, I’m asking you to sort of in context of anybody who’s maybe moving into this role and they’re sort of trying to make sense of how they apply, you know, academic anthropology and the business sense. So like, you know, what, what kind of challenges did you face as a young anthropologist?

Bob Morais:

Well, first of all, I wasn’t that young at the time, and that was an advantage in the sense that, like I learned enough about business and how it worked to learn the language and the customs of people in business. And so I knew how to sell an idea and that’s important. You know, if you don’t, if you don’t have that context, if you don’t know enough about business, it can be very hard because you don’t know your audience very well. And I think it’s important for anthropologists to look at, and I’m not the first person to say this. But to look at the businesses they’re working with, whether it’s the one they’re working for, or the clients, or any other enterprises as a, you know, tribal societies, there’s small scale societies, they’ve gotta learn their customs, they gotta learn their language. And and that’s how you can get into their heads and figure out what might be acceptable to them.

Bob Morais:

That’s sort of a guiding principle. The other side of it would be the specific project. And what I would do is I would going back to what I said before, is that for a specific project need, I would I would say, you know, we’ve asked the question we have, we have, we have tried to discover why people aren’t using your brand as much as you’d like them to use, and we’re still not getting to where we need to go. And so this could really be a worthwhile way to get there. And and they would very often be convinced. The other thing that I’ve told people, this is the advice that I give to young people is that it’s a really good idea to either have a case that you’ve worked on or to read about occasions that the journal of business anthropology or in the Epic perspectives collection and or anything on Epic that you could go to Epic and, and the Epic website.

Bob Morais:

And you can you could post that you can post the Matt. Maybe you can post the general business anthropology journal link. There are lots of great case studies and you can pick the one or two, whether you’re in tech or whether you’re in consumer products, your organizational culture. And of course you don’t want to just have people read the article because a lot of those, even on Epic, that can be a little academic. The Epic ones are a little more consumer friendly than a lot of the academic journal articles, but you can synthesize them. And you can say if you haven’t done it yourself, if you’re working in a particular category, you can say, well, this method would, you would use in this category, let’s say consumer packaged goods. And here’s what they learned. And here’s how they applied it and a strategy. And it really had a great effect in the marketplace. That’s how I teach MBA students. That’s sometimes how I would convince clients. Usually I could do it with a story based on my own experience when I had clients with students. Sometimes I talk about my own work with, sometimes I talk about published work, and I think that’s, that’s the advice I would give someone if they’re having a hard time you know, to really illustrate concretely if you’re too vague, people will just say, this is just too expensive and too time consuming.

Matt Artz:

And that’s great. I think yeah, it was one of the things that comes up often when we speak. So I think that’s a very concrete way of giving, pointing somebody in the right direction. Now, you know, in there, obviously we contribute to research, but you know, you, you ended up in your advertising portion of your career in the chief strategic position. And I know you feel that anthropology can contribute to, you know, far more than just conducting the research and producing the sort of insights. So what else do you think, you know, from your own perspective, what did you think your contribution was at the time and you know, how, when you were in the strategy position, how does that maybe relate to something like business strategy?

Bob Morais:

Well, as I said, I had an advantage because I I’ve worked in business who was able to bring methods and areas from anthropology in a business context. I wasn’t just trying to shove it. If we’re talking about a specific research role, vis-a-vis a strategy role. My main role was strategy and, and the research was in the service of strategy. And so I would need to select the methodology that best suited the learning need and then apply that to ultimately a strategic discussion and the codification of everything I learned into a strategy and in the handbook of anthropology and business that Rita Denny and Patti Sunderland, did I have an article that speaks very directly to your question because it has to do with the how does an anthropologist or someone with anthropological training insert himself or herself into the strategic planning process and the way of doing that is to fully understand the business problem and, and to, to lay out the research in a way that responds to the learning need, that would address that business problem.

Bob Morais:

And there’s actually a really good article that I use in teaching called backward marketing research, where you think in of where you want to go, you don’t know what the answer is in Europe. The solution is, but you go back to the kind of research that’s needed to answer those questions. It seems very simple, but a lot of people don’t think that way. But in any case the idea would be to have some hypotheses, some thoughts about what you might see in the field partner with your client, always keep your clients as a thinking partner, bring your client to the field, have them, you know, what I always loved was it say if I was doing ethnographies in the morning and the afternoon, say three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon, you know, one, one, one house, the home visit and a shop along in the morning.

Bob Morais:

And then the same thing in the afternoon, that was a frequent pattern. Not always there’d be an hour and a half break in the middle, and the hour break was out to get lost from one ethnography to the other. You always have to, without the time, even if you have GPS but also to meet with the client over lunch and talk about what you’ve seen and heard and talk about the implications that are both strategically and tactically. And that’s how you integrate yourself into the planning process as an anthropologist. So rather than what you’re doing, be a handoff, you know, here’s the research, here’s the report, you know, you present it in your PowerPoint. You’re done. Thank you very much onto the next one. There’s more of a sustained involvement in the field, just brainstorming. And then once when the report is being written, communicating with your client again, in a partnership, a kind of co-creation of where you’re going strategically start there on board when you’re presenting to the larger group, whether it’s at a workshop to come up with more ideas or to management to talk about the future planning process.

Bob Morais:

So for me, a lot of it was understanding the business, understanding how to write a strategy and knowing that I knew what part the research would play in the strategy when finally was delivered and all the way through partnering with the client. And knowing that the research was that in the service of what needed was the strategic blueprint, really, because the blueprint is what, whether, if it’s advertising it’s for creative team, it’s for promotion and for promotional team, if it’s for a brand innovation, in terms of a new product development or line extensions of a product it might go to R and D all of these things needed to be ultimately transfer. They, they, they needed to be not really so much translated but transformed in ways that were palatable to these other constituencies. And you as an anthropologist need to know how to do that. And the more you can stay involved as a partner, the better.

Matt Artz:

Yeah. It’s yeah, it’s something I was going to bring up here in a bit, but just to maybe dive into that. So, you know, in terms of selling it to the various stakeholders, you know, after you have your sort of insights, obviously like, you know, going to lunch and building a rapport with your, your project sponsors is sort of critical to getting that buy-in then, like you said, it’s got to go onto other teams oftentimes, and, you know, if you’re not involved in that, it can certainly get watered down. And even over time, even if you’re involved up front over time, it could maybe get watered down and, you know, there’s always organizational memory problems. So did you find there is any way to, to codify that work or to transform it, to use your words there, like, you know, in a, in a particular format that worked best to hand it off, was there, you know, not just giving out a deck, but was there anything particular that you did to shop it around that you found, worked really well to get people to, to really embody the findings?

Bob Morais:

Well, there are a couple of ways. One of them is that in, in market research, it depends on your client terms of what your ultimate report will look like. You know, some, some of my clients would say, we want, you know, just the facts or we just want the we’ve just want the basic report. We don’t even want you to make recommendations, but those were usually weren’t long-term clients. And they weren’t even clients. I really like working with pretty much what I wanted, as I said, was a partner. And they would want the report to you’d have your findings, and then you’d have your insights would be, which would be a leap from, you know, the, the core of what you found in the field or from wherever you might’ve found it. So I just wouldn’t only apply to something that was ethnographic.

Bob Morais:

And then there would be a very clear section of insights that could be drawn from the findings. So you’d take your client along in that way. And they would ideally have an epiphany, the same epiphany that you had when you were first, considering the findings, maybe you had the epiphany in our field and you wanted to transmit that excitement to them in the presentation where if you’re giving it in their presence or even just the written report, but insight section is really important. And then of course the recommendations flowing out of that. So that’s one thing and that’s pretty basic. And, but I think something that really I found worked really well for certain clients was to add a little more color to it. So for example, I have an article that just came out in the journal of business anthropology pet food product.

Bob Morais:

That project that I did was actually the last big project I did before I retired. And and so it was on a fresh path and I, it was a very unusual project because my company was hired to do two components of qualitative research. So it was kind of a mixed methodology, but we didn’t mix it all the way through. We only mixed it at the end. And that’s part of the point of the article. So the client who was an insight director, who we had known from work, we’d done with her many over many years at pro foods, cereal company had now moved to fresh pet as the insight director there. And she asked us to here’s my partner, Cynthia, to spearhead the focus group portion of it and put her psychological spin on it. And for me to spearhead the ethnographic side of it and put my anthropological spin on and in an unusual way for us is that she wanted us to sequester ourselves from each phase of the research until eventually our joint report would be created.

Bob Morais:

And then it would be mixed if you will. And so my partner did her thing and I didn’t read it. I didn’t usually, normally I would have attended the focus groups and sat in the back room and she did that. And then I did, was done sequentially in that way. And then I went to the field and by the way, the client went to the focus groups and the client went to, I think it’s not all, but most of the ethnography. And so she knew what was going on. But we didn’t. And then my partner and I didn’t, there were some other people from our company that were also involved. And when I was writing up the report on my side I had a kind of Tiffany my, my partner had an epiphany of her own about cognitive dissonance.

Bob Morais:

And if anybody wants to find out about that, they can read the article and they can read the articles or find out more about what I’m about to say, which is that I was talking to people in their homes and I asked them to imagine essentially a two poles, one of them was fresh food. One of them was dry food has been, you know, when you get in the bag and one of them was what would be called wet food. When you get into cannon, that was their nomenclature. And that was what the client year, they divided the category into wet food and dry food. That’s how they still have, that’s how they thought the consumers thought. And I went in with, in a way that assumption, which, you know, maybe it wasn’t the best research question, because I could have just said, how would you think of that?

Bob Morais:

I mean, I did ask them that I haven’t talked about wet food versus dry food, but it was still an opposition. I had an assumption in that way, before that I did have him talk about what dog food was, purposefully naive question, but then I, after they did that, even if they didn’t get to that binary, I gave it to them as a binary. What was interesting is we had also been talking about homemade food along the way, because people would say sometimes I make my dog a little bit of homemade food, not just feeding frappes at the table, but maybe when they’re sick, I make them a little chicken soup. You know, they think of their pets as their children and which isn’t a big revelation in that category. And they would give their dogs that they, what I realized when I was talking to them is that in a number of these people were freshmen users, but not all of them.

Bob Morais:

Some of them were hoping non-users people that were using other brands that were open to using fresh preps. So we looked at, we talked to both types of people, and what I realized is that fresh hat didn’t fit the, by now, it wasn’t wet food and it wasn’t dry food. It was somehow closer to fresh fruit, partly because it was bought in a refrigerator case. They have K news stock keeping units for those who don’t know what that is, that are that are not in the refrigerator. But the one that we were focusing on was in a refrigerated case. And it really looked kind of like a pepperoni or a salami that you’ve sliced and then put her dog’s bowl and it looks very fresh and bought that way. And it’s stored that way. So my epiphany was that maybe this category is not a binary.

Bob Morais:

Maybe it’s the hierarchy. And maybe the hierarchy, which is, this was Google discovery process was dry for them because everybody always got dry for, with the most basic wet food, which they knew their dogs love more, but they thought it was good for their dogs to chew on dry food. And they thought maybe the wifi would have been too much fat in it, fresh pack. And none of the top of this hierarchy, there was homemaker. And so maybe that doesn’t sound like such a big revelation, but it’s that, it’s like this immediate category that we talk a lot about anthropology, that my client had this idea, their perspective, or that they were in the category with this binary opposition. They didn’t talk in terms of binary opposition, but that’s how they felt about it and that their customers did. And even in the research approach, maybe we were too assumptive.

Bob Morais:

We thought they did too. Turned out it wasn’t that explicit. You know, if you just ask them, you know, they wouldn’t say worth the hierarchy, you had to discover that in the conversation. And it wasn’t just one person. So a few people, and you know, I had taken a psychology when I was an undergrad to remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. So I had this little idea, it’s a spark of an idea when I was working on the report and I felt like, Oh, what about the hierarchy of fee? And it was just funny. And then I did a little graphic on the pattern of PowerPoint, and I thought, this is, you know, this is kind of cool. This is fun. It’s a handle. It’s not meant to be an advertising line. I explained it by saying, it’s not wet food. It’s not dry food, it’s fresh bread.

Bob Morais:

But that wasn’t meant to be an advertising line either. It was a positioning and it was a way of positioning the product in the brand, in the minds of customers. That was very different from the way they, they weren’t trapped position. That was why I got this assignment in the beginning. They were, they were looking at different ways of positioning it, but to position it as being very different from the rest of the category, a very different way of thinking about the category and what was cool about it was, it was also a flip for the clients. So when I talk about email and eat it, you know, the times were not, they were borrowed by cultural anthropologists from linguistics, and now they’ve been borrowed by consumer anthropologists. And, you know, the purists would say, that’s not really what they are, and that’s not really what they mean, but are certainly for my purposes, very helpful.

Bob Morais:

That is to say the clients thought about it in one way, the consumers trying to did, but maybe we weren’t quite sure. And then it turned out, maybe they could think about it in a different way. And so fresh pet could be positioned within a hierarchy closer, very different from wet and dry, very different and come closer to homemade food, but that also connected to it being in the refrigerated case. So it will fit with what the brand was in terms of its reality in terms of its form and the way it was sold when purchasing someone. But it was also really cool for the presentation. So this was a long story, but it was meant to say that the use of the hierarchy of feed and the way I did it in the meeting generated a lot of excitement. And, and so what I would suggest to people that work in the world of consumer anthropology, at least, and maybe other areas of business, half apology is don’t be afraid to be creative. Don’t be afraid to add some not just the DAS, but add some strategically informed insight that may be graphically depicted or certainly telegraphic in the way that you express it. They can get your, your client or your colleagues excited. They understand it right away, and then they can apply the, got it. And then that could then be transformed, or sometimes they use the term transposed into a strategy, more, more formal strategy document. So that’s the long story, but that’s an example.

Matt Artz:

Yeah, no, but it’s a great example. Yeah. I appreciate you giving real world examples. I think that’s helpful to everybody. And, you know, just to, to build on that, I oftentimes recommend to students that I speak with, to develop some basic design skills, because I think that having those and to communicate your ideas visually goes a long way,

Bob Morais:

But

Matt Artz:

Also in there. So you, you know, you mentioned Maslow’s hierarchy and EDIC anemic, so you’re, you’re pointing to something that comes up in a lot of the conversations we have when talking with people and, you know, the questions around, you know, the, say the pace of research being different or that, you know, maybe in business, you know, we don’t get to bring in theory or it’s, you know, it’s somehow like a, you know, like a watered down version of what you’re doing academically. And so in your career, at what point I know you’ve spoken in other presentations, I’ve heard you speak and you’ve mentioned like liminality. And so I know at some point you were starting to bring, say theory in more overtly into what you were doing and maybe that wasn’t always brought in, but when did that start to happen in your career? Like at what point were you established enough to really make that a little bit more over?

Bob Morais:

Well, it really depends on the client. It’s not so much of it being established in that you know, I always had the basic credential to do it. But in fact, in the liminality study that I, that I, that you’re probably thinking about on this breakfast food was for honey honey bunches of oats. That was the one where the insight director that ultimately may years later God has been to the freshmen project. I don’t know if I talked about liminality in that presentation was actually a focus group based piece of research. And and I, the insight was sort of theoretically informed about breakfast as a kind of Rite of passage and the importance of liminality within that Rite of passage and how the brand could kind of own the transformations that occurred during that liminal period.

Bob Morais:

And there are a lot of business anthropologists written about liminality. A lot of anthropologists are written about liminality. So it wasn’t, but it’s not so much a matter of feeling comfortable if it goes back to reading the client, you know, any business anthropologists can tell you this or that, that there are some clients that will hire you because you’re an anthropologist and they want that credential and they want you to lay it on. They want you to talk about liminality. They want you to talk about any kind of theory that you can bring in, and it really enhances their position when they hired you. And it helps convey the idea. Some clients either will say, or you just know, want you to keep it under the hood. And so, for example, in this fresh pet study, there was a lot that I kept under the hood because they weren’t particularly interested in hearing about some of the theoretical ideas, you know, as soon as I’ll talk about things like like in refrigerator tastes, I talked about making the unfamiliar familiar because the refrigerator case is something that really didn’t belong in a fresh in the pet food section.

Bob Morais:

And so how do you make, can you get people to see it that’s a design challenge. And that was also part of the report that I worked on and the discovery process, but that was an easy one. I don’t, I didn’t mention it. You take an email to my client and I think it’s a lot of it is that, you know, even in 2020 slash 2021 you know, anthropologists can be seen as eggheads. You know, even psychologists and business can be seen as eggheads. Some clients want that some don’t and you’ve got to read your client, you’ve got to know what they want. So it’s really not a matter of, of, for me, it’s adjusting to what they want and what they need. I want to do good work and I’m going to apply it no matter what the theory, but some studies are purely ethnographic. They’re purely observational and there’s really no need for theory. But the ones where theory helps depending on the client, I’ll, I’ll make it. I, well, I’m not doing that kind of work now, but, but I made it either more explicit or less explain.

Matt Artz:

Yeah, no, that’s helpful. So, you know, pivot going away from maybe your, like your, your life, you know, as, as a practicing anthropologist and maybe more so into what you’re doing now, which is teaching, building the brand business anthropology through the business, anthro.com community I’d like to maybe you know, to dig into that a bit. And so what would you you know, I do, well, first off, let me ask you this. Do you think business anthropology has a branding issue? I do something I think we’ve talked about, so, okay, go ahead.

Bob Morais:

I think part of it is that you know, despite the fact that people have been writing articles on either anthropologists and business for, you know, ethnography being applied when marketing or organizationally you know, for decades, I have a whole collection of you know, going back to the eighties people are still unclear about what it is and so work needs to be done.

Matt Artz:

So how would you define it for everybody that’s listening?

Bob Morais:

How would I define business anthropology broadly? But it partly depends on my audience. But I would say in general, it’s the put very simply it’s the application of ideas that are derived from anthropology and methods that are derived from anthropology in business. Although more specifically, I would say in marketing organizations organizational cultural, organizational culture change again, you know, it’s like those examples that I talked about getting into specific examples in design studies in user experience. So it starts to divide itself into very specific areas and that helps define what it is because it’s manifested in different ways in, in, in different domains. So it was the most basic it’s really basic is applying the method because a lot of people get ethnography right away because that’s where you have to probably just do. But I always like to say that theory turbocharges the work you’re doing in most cases, not a wall. And when that happens, you know, that’s what you get to there’s really great aha moments. And that, and depending on whether it’s an organization or a or a consumer product or a technology experience, or any of these kinds of things, the, the, the anthropology manifests itself very differently.

Matt Artz:

And so what do you think we all need to be doing to some, to be more public, to say, get hiring managers interested in what we do to, or clients to get interested in what we do?

Bob Morais:

Yeah, I, I do. I think that I’ll relate this to a question that I’ve been asked, which is should I put my anthropology upfront in a job interview for a user experience job, you know first of all, it’s more likely that you’ll see an ad for user experience job than an anthropology job in business. And what not, my answer is always that you should you should distinguish yourself as, as an anthropologist working in user experience by talking about very specific skills you have. So, for example, when you use your experience like ethnography, but a lot of them aren’t trained in how to do ethnography, you are trained in doing and, and a lot of people that are applying ethnography and user experience, or maybe it’s shift observation, don’t really know much about theory. And so if you can add that, that’s a tremendous plus, but of course you had the word theory can scare people. So that’s where I would probably get to a very quick, you know, elevator pitch type example of how theory might help something. But I, but I, but I do think those are, those are some ways in I don’t know that fully answers your question, but that’s how I start to think about it.

Matt Artz:

And so building on that in, what do you think when I look around, I would say that though, there are many of us doing great work all across the globe in a lot of cases, unless we’ve started our, our own businesses or work in maybe smaller practices. We oftentimes don’t seem to have LAR you know, a seat at, at the quote unquote table, if you will, in large organizations yet. So what, for those who are practicing, you know, do you have any suggestions of what people can do to, to increase their influence, you know, within their organizations?

Bob Morais:

Yeah. You know, it’s interesting, it’s been a way it’s an anthropological scale it’s listened and observed. Understand, as I said before, what the core business problem is, understand what the corporate culture is all about in terms of what will bear, what you can bring to the party, you know, what, how much you can bring to the party. But I think a lot of listening and observation is critical because you’ll learn businesses have so many big problems and so many little problems there’s plenty to work on. And so the, the, the, the question is, as you’re listening, the question, you have to ask yourself when you’re listening to when you’re in meetings. And when you’re engaging with clients, are you getting engagement to prospective clients is how can I help them solve this problem in a way that someone else can? And I think that’s true for RFPs or request for proposal, you know, if you get it and you’re competing with other people, if you’re say a supplier you have to bring your unique skillset to that.

Bob Morais:

And again, without getting too heavily into the jargon, just talk about the way that you can help them in that, whether it’s the, of course, the front end or a discovery process, or a texting user experience, problem that you can, you can gain, give them access and understanding, and ultimately insight that they won’t get from anyone else. And you know, you, don’t, you’re positioning yourself as a distinctive property, but just think of set of skills. And I think you’ll be invited to the table because you’ll have something fresh to add, and they’ll listen to you more. I don’t know that you’re going to get a job as chief cultural officer and the way grant McCracken would like the story. I think it’s a great objective. I mean, it’s, you know, we’d love to see every company have one maybe more than one.

Bob Morais:

But I also think, you know, it depends on your job title. I remember when we were doing the song at the, in 2019, I was asking some people who were user experience folks and I have had this conversation with some design people. So how do you identify? And some of these people have PhDs map apology, how do you identify around the office? How would you identify and interview? And they said, it’s user experience expert. Whereas the design expert, they didn’t try to push themselves into the table as an anthropologist. That gives them to say that sometimes that’s not exactly what a company wants. They want the anthropologist there, but if you don’t know that, then you have to discover it through a listening, observing process. And if somebody says, well, I actually got a call like that from an ad agency, a friend of mine was creative director there.

Bob Morais:

And his boss, the CEO said, you know, we need a social anthropologists, good we’re pitching. I think it was red lobster. This was a few years ago. And he said, Oh, I know someone. And he called me and I basically did a little consulting job with them talking about food and restaurants and that kind of thing. And they apparently showed some of the video and a new business pitch. And it was all about me being an anthropologist. I never thought the video. But sometimes that’s exactly what people need and, you know, not always.

Matt Artz:

Yeah. And I think that’s a good input. And I think a lot of that really would extend to the related question of, of selling it to, again, sort of the hiring manager or the potential client, right. It’s not always just selling an internal, but of course, selling to them as well. And so I think those are all good tips for people listening, if you were you know, I know we, we talked about this very briefly at the outset because of your, your sort of mini MBA experience, but if you were, and, and in that context, you recommended sort of cross training. And, you know, I would say maybe like upskilling in, you know, various business areas, tech design, you know, all those things I think contributed. And you’ve also mentioned, you know, a lot of the good academic programs for people to look at, but if there was one thing aside from like that stuff, if there’s one thing that you could do over again, if you were starting your career, you know, is there any other way you would approach it?

Bob Morais:

What would I have done differently? You know I don’t, it’s hard for me to say, I think I would have made some, you know, we’d have some better insights faster for sure. And maybe listened to better along the way. So I didn’t make some mistakes that I made. So certainly some of those things, but in terms of the way my career flowed, I kind of liked the way my career flowed. You know, if you talked to any given business anthropologists or anthropologists business, depending on how they want to define themselves, they all have different paths. You know, the, the series that Elizabeth Powell is doing for the journal of business anthropology, so terrific. She interviewed a lot of people including me, but a lot of people who are, who were business anthropologists about their career paths and the most recent one talks very directly about the path.

Bob Morais:

I’m glad that I learned business. Now. I got my degree. Then I learned business. I only a little bit in the NYU program, but mainly learned it on the job and then was able to integrate anthropology. That’s what worked for me. I’m not saying it works for everybody, but I think if you’re going to be an anthropologist working in business, you really have to have a good business sense. So and I also think it’s great to work in different areas, you know, in a way that you have, you’ve worked in a lot of different functional areas. And I think that’s an enormous asset asset in business because you, you see through a number of different lenses and that can only help you you know, anthropology, isn’t just one lens, but it certainly in general, a very different lens than say someone gets has if they just have an MBA.

Bob Morais:

But if you, if you really think hard enough about a company that you’re working with, or business business problems that you’re dealing with, then you look through their lens a little bit, not just MBAs, but you know, people that are just working in business you see differently. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing anyways, anthropologist. And and so my career is in terms of the basics of my career, it’s gone the way that I liked. I don’t think it’s necessarily, in some ways it doesn’t make any sense at all. I mean, here I am doing traditional anthropology, doing field work in the Philippines on suddenly I’m working great advertisement that doesn’t make any sense, a lot of people. But I, you know, I’m happy with the way it worked out. And I know that a number of anthropologists that I know in business, and I would probably say, I would say, if not all the vast majority of people I know who are anthropologists working in business, they were very happy that they, they took the route that they took, even though it may have been a little Rocky at times, a little Rocky.

Matt Artz:

Yeah, for sure. It’s funny. It’s always interesting to hear the different paths in it is also very varied. So you know, in closing, you know, you obviously have a lot of things going on the teaching business, anthro.com. So is there anything you would like to sort of bring up anything you’d want to mention that would be good for everybody?

Bob Morais:

A few things one of them is if you’re in business school and watching this walk over to the anthropology department and try to take a course at Lisa and method and maybe another course in theory, because it will enrich your business experience no matter what you go into in distance. If you’re an anthropologist who is an undergraduate, as I said before, and you’re interested in business, it’s a good idea to take a course or two or three, whatever you can fit. And the same thing for if you’re in graduate school the website that I’m involved in that you’ve been such an asset to as well business and fro.com is a wealth of resources. We’ve got a lot of good information there. And I would recommend that anybody who is interested in this field going visit that site and look around a little bit, because then you’ll, you’ll find some interesting things to read.

Bob Morais:

You’ll see some podcasts and other, other other resources there that will educate you and give you some ideas. And the last thing I’ll say is that if you’re interested in developing your career in this field talk to as many people that are in it as possible, do as many informational interviews as you possibly can. And you know, if you’re, if you’re interested in a design career you’ll benefit from talking to an anthropologist even if you don’t even use that much anthropology, because some of the ideas can still be applied, some of the methods cause,

Matt Artz:

And so where can all the listeners find you,

Bob Morais:

People could find me? Let’s say there are a couple of ways you can Google me. And the first thing that comes up in Google with my Columbia business school website and my Columbia business, my Columbia email is there. They could also contact me on my basic email, which is on my Gmail account, which is our more raised 67 I guess gmail.com or whatever, like with gmail.com at, you know, dot com. So either, either one of those ways is bird. My other information is on our business anthropology site, but those are two ways.

Matt Artz:

All right, great. And so Bob, thanks very much for coming on and really appreciate it. I think you’ve offered a lot of great advice that I think everybody listening will really benefit from. So thanks very much.

Please note this transcript is an automated transcription and may have some errors.