In the world of linguistics and anthropology one of the foundational concepts that we discuss often is how words by themselves are meaningless. What gives a word meaning is dependent on the context it is placed into in culture. Take a simple example. A red light by itself carries very little meaning but when placed into a system of traffic lights, it means STOP. We could just as well create a *new* system where let’s say green means STOP and red means GO. There is nothing innately true about the color red that makes it the only color for a STOP signal. In the same way, there is nothing innately true about any other word (be it an idea or trend or even issue). Its meaning is insignificant in and of itself, but when placed into a context it can mean many things.
Despite “systems of meaning” being a well-known framework in the fields of cultural anthropology and semiology, the corporate market research industry has done very little to leverage this framework in an effective manner.
That is why we are surrounded by hundreds of companies that focus solely on what is being said, how many times it is being said, and in what time frame.
These companies focus on quantifying ideas based on the use of words and the frequency and volume of mentions those words receive. This approach does not just blatantly disregard some of the most critical developments in the field of anthropology and linguistics, but also yields results that can be dangerous to the companies using these insights to drive action, be it for their brands or innovation projects.
Let us explore a tangible example to illustrate this point further.
If you examine consumer conversations around health and wellness, you will notice that the term ‘collagen’ has been rising in mentions and popularity since 2014. In fact, it appears to have hit peak popularity in 2021 (google trends also agrees) – if you look at it through the lens of volume mentions in a time frame. So, does this mean a beverage company should launch a collagen-boosting beverage? If it were that easy, that is, to simply examine topics rising in mentions within a category or industry and innovate based on it, corporate innovation success rates would be closer to 80%. But the reality is quite the opposite. Corporate innovation failure rates are closer to the 80% mark, and real innovation opportunities, especially ones that can be sustained over longer periods of time are rather difficult to find, let alone execute.
Now let us ask the question we should be asking of ‘collagen’.
When you apply an anthro-lens (anthropological lens) onto this problem, you will find that you’re less concerned about the fact that ‘collagen’ shows up, and more concerned about what it means when it shows up.
Here is a visual showing us the meanings consumers associate with ‘collagen’ in culture. We can see in the image above just through quick reflection that there is no clear or obvious connection to beverages or food. In fact, ‘collagen’ is very much being placed into a culture of supplement taking. And it has a clear purpose assigned to it, most of which revolves around stress relief, skin, and hair health. By examining the system that ‘collagen’ is naturally or inadvertently placed into in culture (by consumers through the natural way they talk about ‘collagen’), we can see that this is not quite a culture that is associated with taste, refreshment, enjoyment, etc. All the things that a beverage company might desire when considering a new flavor or type of beverage for innovation.
Furthermore, we also see that while ‘collagen’ is a growing trend or of growing interest to consumers, it is still relevant to a small portion of the population ~32M consumers in the United States. The maximum “size of the pie” is small, and within that culture less than 30% of the audience agrees about the purpose that ‘collagen’ serves in their lives. By taking an anthro-lens to the question of ‘collagen’ we have been able to, in a matter of minutes, see through what people are saying to get to what they really mean.
Through the anthro-lens, we can see that the answer to the question – “should we launch a collagen-beverage?” is likely a NO. But it also requires further exploration. You can see that if this were to occur in the beverage space, it would have to likely take the shape of a product that is not build for enjoyment or refreshment, but rather built for a functional health benefit, like a pill would be. You can see why collagen-supplements are better suited to addressing the cultural needs emerging than a refrigerated beverage manufactured by a traditional beverage company.
The anthro-lens allows us to ask about what something means and get past the shiny-object-syndrome to pay attention to the underlying reasons why something might be “trending”. Through the process, it allows us to identify opportunities that truly exhibit a cultural fit (i.e., the meanings consumers assign align with our business objectives) and therefore offer longevity and sustained business benefit.
The next time you see something that’s a measure of what people are saying, ask what it means and see where that takes you.