An anthropologist in the boardroom

A number of years ago, Coca-Cola, the mighty US beverage group, decided to sell bottled tea products in China. It set about marketing its fruit-flavoured, sugary teas, which were already popular in the US.

The venture was an unexpected flop. In desperation, the company then asked social scientists to conduct so-called “ethnographic” research (on-the-ground cultural analysis) into what had gone wrong. This produced a fascinating explanation: in America the word “tea” is associated with indulgence and pleasure, so adding fruit flavours makes cultural sense; in China, by contrast, “tea” has different associations and significance.

“Tea — like meditation — is a tool in Chinese culture for revealing the true self,” writes Christian Madsbjerg, a consultant with knowledge of the Coca-Cola project, in a new book, Sensemaking. “The experience should take away irritants and distractions like noise, pollution and stress.” So Coca-Cola removed the sugar and flavours from its Chinese products — to great success. As Madsbjerg explains: “It wasn’t until Coke incorporated this fundamentally different understanding of the ‘tea experience’ that their bottled products gained significant market share.”

On one level, this is just a trivial tale. On another, it is highly revealing. It is often tempting to think that the 21st-century world is so closely integrated and digitised that the issue of culture is becoming irrelevant. But behind the scenes, a growing number of companies appear to be quietly realising that the reverse is true: as the world becomes more globalised, there is actually more — not less — need to understand cultural difference. 

The consultancy that Madsbjerg co-founded, called Red, is now doing ethnographic work with companies in the pharmaceutical, engineering and finance fields. Ford, for example, is using its social scientists to study how self-driving car technology might be received. Separately, corporations such as…

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