Connecting the Human, the Felt and the Humane in Marketing and Anthropology

This November, I will be back amongst the anthropologists at the American Anthropological Association meetings in Seattle. This will be the first academic paper I have given in years. My contact with the academic research side has been peripheral since I joined RHB in January 2020.

I am presenting a paper co-written with Dr. Rob Zinkan, our vice president for marketing leadership, in which we discuss the ways marketing and anthropology combine in our research. One element of this is that we move beyond merely reporting findings to performing interpretation and then translating findings into actionable guidance for clients. 

Rob and I are members of the firm’s Institutional Marketing practice, which he leads. Our practice also includes our firm’s creative director, Ryan Millbern, who has oversight over the editorial and visual directions of our work. A lot of the work we do in the IM practice involves guiding institutions through backstage brand perception and identity work and helping them identify ways to reshape their marketing and communications organizations so they are ready to adapt to whatever the future brings. All of our projects include some element of discovery, which our Senior Vice President for Relationship Development Alex Williams wrote about quite recently here.

In a link back to my anthropological work on indigenous language reclamation, I see RHB performing similar acts of discovery, translation and aesthetic expression to what I did in my academic life. That work included helping to provide materials for the Kotiria community of Northwestern Brazil to use according to goals the community set (the language and the people share the same name, Kotiria). They wanted books and papers that included transcribed and translated materials like songs and mythic narratives in bilingual Kotiria-Brazilian Portuguese format so that those who didn’t grow up speaking Kotiria could still access these precious connections to the language. This work also gave Kotiria people access to traditional aesthetic features like storytelling patterns or the sounds and themes of song genres.

To be coherent is to be knowable    

At RHB, we are constantly engaging in processes of translating input related to institutional experience back into useful guidance for clients. We experienced this in an obvious way during an engagement requiring interpreters to assist us in conversation with Deaf clients. Interpretation and translation can happen in less obvious ways, as well. Even though the bulk of our encounters may happen in oral English, and our data will be included in written English in reports and presentations, the mere presence of the English language should not suggest that every institution or constituency uses words the same way, or that we immediately know what each constituency means ourselves. Recently, we’ve heard different takes on the vibe, school spirit, brand identity or diversity of a campus. Those words can all mean different things depending on whether we are talking to prospective students, parents or other interested parties like high school guidance counselors. And who can offer a single definitive ranking for the qualities comprising a good school?  

In our role as audience to performances of institutional life, we may unconsciously take on the personae of constituents who want to know you (better) through the language and aesthetic expressions you use to tell us about yourself. A characteristic that makes you knowable is Coherence, or the alignment of languages and behaviors in keeping with the market position you’ve chosen. If you are not coherent, you are incoherent—unknowable. That means that if we can’t understand what words like diversity, school spirit, or brand identity mean on your campus, you have not done the work of sharing those meanings to your constituents, so they can’t share those meanings with us. 

Coherence is a felt connection  

To make it all more complicated, successful translations of institutional concepts are not just about their semantic meanings. Coherence is also a felt condition, something people get to know through the senses and their feelings. Think about the emotional or aesthetic notes your viewbook hits. What do you want a prospective student to feel when they see that piece? How do you employ the poetic functions of language to draw students into your story? How do colors, fonts, images or the feel of paper support the language you offer prospective students? Aesthetics provide vital context within which language does its work.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this Insight, the conference paper I am presenting is a meditation about how anthropology and marketing share amenable tendencies in the ways we apply them at RHB. While I had intended a more theoretical perspective in that paper and here, there are two important, humane connections that I think should hold the spotlight.

The first connection surfaces in the shared understandings that marketers, communicators and anthropologists can carry about how important it is to the human experience to build connections that shape our feelings, our identities and our self-expressions. 

Our ability to enjoy aesthetics—including institutional aesthetics like signage, viewbooks or taglines—fills some of the deepest needs we have as humans. Think back to the viewbook example. What about a prospective student’s essential human nature or unexplored wants are you revealing to them in your marketing materials? There are so many times I can point to when Rob approaches a Coherence Inventory (analysis of the look, feel and content of marketing collateral) with a holistic, ethnographic attention to the power of aesthetic expression that many anthropologists would appreciate. This is an expression of RHB’s approach to guiding clients toward creating relevance. If you can’t compel a response you can’t create relevance. One way to understand relevance, then, is that it is a product of encountering something that resonates with us, provokes us or fills us on a very human level.

RHB connects the human and humane

The other connection is a sentimental one. Our paper will be given in honor of my dissertation co-chair, Dr. Jonathan D. Hill, an anthropologist and ethnomusicologist who worked with an Indigenous group called the Wakuenai in Venezuela. Jonathan is intensely musical and a classically trained pianist whose academic work focused on the musical and lyrical structures of shamanic chants. He is also interested in linguistic anthropology as he sees both music and language as equally important and essential forces for cultural organization and identity formation. 

Jonathan earned his doctorate at Indiana University Bloomington nearly 40 years ago. It wasn’t until I started writing this Insight that I recalled this fact. The fact that Rob was also affiliated with the Indiana University system and IU Bloomington for many years is a fascinating parallel to me. The IU tradition in ethnomusicology, linguistic anthropology and folklore studies is one that encourages ethical engagement through projects that are useful to the goals communities set for themselves. By taking aesthetics seriously, the IU tradition asks that we consider all the ways people make sense of themselves and the world, through language, food, song, basketry, textiles and so many other media. It asks us to consider our humanity in its fullness. The similarity of that intellectual tradition to Rob’s approach to marketing and to the essential character of RHB is palpable to me—we strive to be ever-more human and humane in how we understand and serve our clients. 

It is in this spirit of humane service that we are excited to begin new conversations about aesthetics and shared orientations across disciplinary “boundaries” at this anthropology conference. I use those quote marks to note that boundaries are often more psychological than real, and that is certainly the case here. And, actually, some academic anthropologists have a lot to learn from marketers—especially about appreciating aesthetics and demonstrating relevance. On some level, the work we do at RHB is about creating comfort, ease, joy and excitement—relevance leading to relationships and revenue and enabling your institution to fulfill its powerful mission. If that feels like the kind of experience you want to create for your constituents, we are ready to talk about how we can help them get to know you in all the ways that matter.

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Aimee Hosemann

Aimee is a Writer at RHB.