Harnessing the power of empathy

How does cultural anthropology affect our ability to innovate and create things?

Ever since I can remember I have tried to make friends. I am that person in the airplane that sits next to you or walks across the isle trying to make eye contact or find a topic of conversation. Do you like your food? Where are you travelling? Where do you come from? How do you sleep better on a long flight? I do that because I want to understand you in order to build a relationship (however transitory). I am deeply convinced that the fundamental thing any relationship (no matter how transitory) is based on is empathy, meaning our ability to understand the other, to try and see the world through their eyes, to feel what they are feeling.  

Empathy triggers understanding and connection -- > connection is the starting point of a relationship -- > a relationship is the fertile insightful field for innovation.

In the marketing innovation field, I was taught early on that you have to understand your consumer’s needs and attitudes in order to create products, design the right messages and a sense of uniqueness around your brand. The trick is not to do it once but repeatedly to ensure the longevity of your brand. Each corporation I have passed through had its own set of formulas and geometric shaped strategies informed by statistical research to help you do that.  They are good tools but what they struggle with is generating empathy between their marketers and their consumers.

Let me exemplify this. I was in charge of the NIVEA baby cosmetics line for five years starting in Romania and ending in Hamburg. I don’t have kids yet but I could tell you a bunch of statistics and facts about how maternity changes a woman’s body, what is the process of skin development in infants and how women make decisions about what to buy for their kids. I could tell you that 80 percent of Romanian women are unhappy with their experience in state hospitals. Yet that particular place where they feel so unhappy is the place where they make the decision to buy and use baby cosmetics. Despite all this information, I credit one small moment of empathy – a deep conversation with one Romanian mother - with the decision that would triple my market share and propel me to a global career.

She didn’t repeat to me the numbers I already knew but she made me feel what they meant to her.  

She told me how she felt giving birth in an impersonal hospital with nurses shouting orders at her to hide her pain and “do her job”. And when the baby finally came she was asked again to “do her job” and nurse without knowing how to, go to the toilet unassisted and leave the hospital bed as soon as possible - to make room for others - with a pack of product samples shoved in her arms and a discount code for the nearest pharmacy. Listening to her I cried. I felt anger at my society that treats women and childbirth like machines in a factory disregarding and dehumanizing the process of turning from a woman to a mother. And I wondered about my role in it and the effectiveness of my product samples to incentivise trial and purchase. I knew I had to be present in the hospital because of statistics but statistics did not tell me what to do there and how to engage. Empathy and deep understanding with the entire hospital experience gave me the insight to kill my samples, focus on the transition from woman to motherhood and create a hospital program to support that. As a result, my market share tripled, Romania became the fastest growing country for NIVEA Baby and I found myself three years later in the global headquarter in Hamburg.

I credit all this to using empathy to generate marketing insight. I did not do it on purpose, had no awareness of what I had done nor I had any knowledge (until I studied cultural anthropology) of any support out there that can help me do that again. 

I believe that the key to success in any creative process (not just marketing) is stimulating a culture of empathy between the creators and the subjects of the creation. I also believe that cultural anthropology can be a useful way to generate and nurture that culture of empathy but in order to explain that I would like to make a small detour through a practice called design thinking.

Empathy and design thinking

Design thinking is a human centric “way of designing” that has its roots in 1960 within the design science field. Within this academic field, design scientists explored various participation techniques that enabled users to influence early on the design process. The methodology was made popular in the business innovation field in the 1990 by (amongst others) the IDEO organization that took the academic design principles and translated them into an easy to use process of triggering product/service innovation.

So, in the business innovation field, design thinking is an iterative process that enables a group of people to generate empathy to their consumers and each other and use that in order to define a need, design, prototype and test a product/service that solves it.

The Design Thinking Process

One of the things that made design thinking innovative at the time of its development was the fact that it challenged the design teams to look deeper into the human motivations of the (potential) users they were developing for. To go through the first step – empathy – the teams used methods such as the iceberg model to explain that in order to understand the visible (how people behave) one needs to understand the invisible (people’s values and beliefs).

Albeit restricted to the environment and the problem area they were trying to solve this approach still looked at users in a more complete way than the previous problem-solution laboratory approach where users were reduced to the functionality of their problem and their behavior.

I have given at the beginning an example from my own career on how a moment of empathy with what a woman felt about herself combined with statistical data gave me a marketing insight. Here I showed how in design thinking they generate empathy and connection by trying to understand people’s deeper values and beliefs.

Next I want to show how cultural anthropology uses culture to explain how we as humans come to have those values and beliefs.

Culture as a gateway into human values & beliefs

Anthropology is the study of humankind, past and present. Cultural anthropology is the study of the commonalities and differences of past and present cultures. It's the study of how human culture has changed and sometimes even stayed the same throughout history. However, in order to understand cultural anthropology, we definitely need to take some time on the term 'culture.'

I want to give an example using my own culture. How would I describe the culture of Romania? Should I talk about how people dress? The foods that originated there? The number of churches? The Romanian language and its Latin roots? Dracula? The way people are still obsessed with Russia? What about the archaic village values and the dual rejection/nostalgia for them while embracing capitalism and city life?

Culture can be defined as the language, norms, values, beliefs, and more that, together, form a people's way of life. It is a combination of elements that affect how people think, how they act, and what they own. Romanian culture, for instance, includes everything just mentioned. It also includes history, architecture, accepted behavior, and so much more.

Culture is an essential part of being human. No one is completely without it; in fact, an individual can be part of many cultures and subcultures. For example, I am simultaneously part of the Romanian culture, the Auckland culture, the culture of my industry, the culture of my group of friends.

I hope I made clearer what we as anthropologists mean by culture as a general term. There are two types of culture (nonmaterial and material). The 2 of them inform each other as in order to understand material culture one starts from non material culture:

  1. Nonmaterial culture includes creations and abstract ideas that are not embodied in physical objects. In other words, any intangible products created and shared between the members of a culture over time are aspects of their nonmaterial culture. Social roles, rules, ethics, and beliefs are just some examples. All of them are crucial guides for members of a culture to use to know how to behave in their society and interpret the world.

I want to give an example on how using the lenses of Romanian non-material culture I can get a deeper insight into the Romanian consumer I was talking about at the beginning of this article.  In the Romanian culture, a person’s identity and self worth is primarily associated with her/his capacity and strength to be of service to the family unit. What she/he feels as an individual – that does not serve that purpose – is being either reframed or pushed back and ignored, seen as a threat to the health of the family unit as it might lead on a path of serving less or even leaving it. Traditionally the woman served inside the household and the man outside of it.  The transition from village to city life and the arrival of capitalism has challenged this role division but not the underlying cultural principle that subordinated the identity of the individual (both female and male) to that of the family unit.

Therefore, the universal rite of passage of becoming a mother is experienced in the Romanian hospitals through these cultural lenses. It emphasizes the immediate duty of the mother towards the child and – by extension - the family unit. The unhappiness of the woman I talked to was not a sign of rejection of that value set. Quite the contrary. Her unhappiness stemmed from her fear of not managing to be of service from the first moment (which was accentuated even more by the harsh attitude of the nurses). She knew how to serve her family unit as a wife but she was just learning how to serve as a mother. Although I did not know it at the time, this was the part of my hospital program that they engaged with the most: NIVEA baby giving information on how to serve the child in the critical emotional moment when that necessity was brought to life. So with this cultural understanding it makes sense why 80 percent of Romanian women are unhappy with the hospital experience while making all their purchasing decisions there.

Material culture includes all the physical/digital things that people create or attach meaning to. Clothing, food, tools, apps, and architecture are examples of material culture that most people would think of. Natural objects and materials (rock, dirt, trees, etc.) aren't considered to be part of material culture. However, how people view natural objects and how they use them are. Let me give you an example from a material culture specialist: Daniel Miller.

In his book Stuff, Miller studied (amongst others) our relationship with fashion and how this changes depending on culture.

For example, in the British culture in both philosophy and everyday life we imagine that there is a real or true self which lies deep within us. On the surface is found the clothing which may represent us and may reveal a truth about ourselves, but it may also lie. It is as though if we peeled off the outer layers we would finally get to the real self within. The problem with viewing clothing as the surface that represents, or fails to represent, the inner core of true being is that we are then inclined to consider people who take clothes seriously as themselves superficial. The Trinidadian culture that Miller studied, had the complete opposite relationship to fashion than the British culture. They celebrated clothes as a means to creatively construct who you are at any given moment and present it to the people around it. Style and clothes for the Trinidadians are a language of presenting and making themselves visible. It celebrates the potentiality of the new and change for a culture with deep roots in slavery. Opposite to the British for Trinidadians the “soul” is outside on the clothes, visible all the time. What is hold in the inside space for them is suspicions is bad.

I have shown here two separate cultures understand the same topic in different ways. Knowing the differences and how to adapt is crucial when as a business you reflect on bridging different cultures with your innovation.

Ethnography as a process to stimulate innovation

In this last part of my article I would like to talk about the process of how anthropologists understand cultures and how this can be put at the service of innovation. I think anthropology is quite complementary with the design thinking process that I talked about before. What it adds to design thinking is a guided, deeper, more meaningful dive into people’s motivations using the broader lenses of culture. This ensures not only a profound empathy with the users but also with oneself and the other members of the innovation team. The process through which anthropology does that it is called ethnographic research and I have tried to deconstruct it below.

  1. It all starts with a question. Reflect on the question that you have around your consumers/the people that could trigger your innovation insight. Like in my Romanian case – Why do Romanian women feel angry in hospitals? Why do they make the decision to buy cosmetics here?

  1. Decide on a group/culture to observe. Think about a community/group/a culture that you want to observe for a period of time to give you the answer to the question. For example, in the Romanian case I would choose 1 hospital as my primary site. As secondary sites would be the lives of the women I meet in the hospital outside the hospital.

  1. Conduct the observation. Immerse yourself in the group for an amount of time (I normally do 2-3 weeks fieldwork on business projects). Think of it as your day job – you will be there from 9-5 observing and building relationships with people and after 5 you will be transcribing and making sense of the data. The methods we use as anthropologists to gather data are observation, interviews, etc. During this time, you also look into data (cultural theories, general Romanian culture, quantitative data) already available that can help make sense of what you see in the field.

  1. Analyse. After the fieldwork is done you go back to the data and your initial question and you start analyzing it and draw conclusions that can help you move forward and solve the challenge the initial question addressed.

  1. Generate insight and direct activity. This is the moment where I involve the business that commissioned the research either in the form of a workshop or inserting the results into an existing process that the business is already using (like design thinking or policy development for example).

Even if you are not an anthropologist you can use some of the principles of anthropology to generate empathy. For me this would be:

  • be curious and ask yourself questions
  • listen and empathize with your consumers
  • bring it back to data
  • generate insight
  • create
  • test
  • go!

At the end of this long winded piece I hope I managed to make the case for the power of empathy to generate connection and drive creative insight. I hope I also managed to explain how cultural anthropology can help trigger that empathy or at least made you curious to know more about it. 

Corina is a business & cultural anthropologist. She founded The Sweet Spot, a company that connects anthropology to businesses to drive understanding of the human behavior happening inside and outside them.
She has a background of 10 years in local/regional/global corporate roles for companies like Coca-Cola, Beiersdorf and Natura & an MA in Cultural Anthropology with UvA Amsterdam. She recently moved from Amsterdam to Auckland and is keen to start building the Sweet Spot in this new market.