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She knows what you want
Ilsa Schumacher has made it her business to reveal America's buying habits
By Mark Feeney, Globe Staff, 3/19/2002
WESTPORT, Conn. - Tom Stoppard once said of his fellow playwright Alan
Bennett, ''He's really a social anthropologist who prefers to report in
the form of plays.'' Ilsa Schumacher, who really is a social
anthropologist, prefers to report in the form of briefing books for
For more than a decade, her firm, Cultural Dynamics, has been practicing
anthropology not on some primitive tribe or distant ethnic group but on
the American buying public. In a culture where what we consume is who we
are, Schumacher makes her living observing the boundary between buying
''If you're not an anthropologist,'' she says, ''and you're a business
person, you think of it as marketing. We think of it as interpreting how
things fit into our lives.''
Schumacher studies consumers much as she did Shiite Muslims - her field
of anthropological study - a quarter century ago. She interviews people
in their homes, observes them in their daily rituals, shares meals with
them. After she assembles her findings, she writes lengthy analyses of
the symbolism of her subjects' actions and habits. The goal is the kind
of ''thick description'' that anthropologists strive for, a density of
interpretation that goes far beyond your basic marketing survey or focus
Schumacher, 42, is part of a small yet growing trend in her profession.
''Applied anthropology'' is the term Ghita Levine of the American
Anthropological Association applies to what Schumacher does. ''It's a
growing field,'' Levine says.
According to Susan Squires, chairwoman of the National Association for
the Practice of Anthropology, a section of the American Anthropological
Association, half of the doctorates awarded in anthropology over the past
decade have gone to people now working in business or government. Squires
puts her own doctorate in anthropology to work as the owner of a
California consulting firm (perhaps her best-known client is Yoplait, for
which she helped develop Go-Gurt, the squeezable yogurt snack for
children). She estimates there are 200 to 300 anthropologists who do what
she and Schumacher do: product development, marketing, organizational
Schumacher, for one, has found her niche doing consumer enthnography.
''Maybe I could never have been a real academic,'' she says, ''because
you just deal with that same two years of fieldwork you did when you were
21 years old. Instead, every time the phone rings it's forcing me to
think about something new - to think about fashion or sports warm-up
suits or alcohol, whatever it is.''
A tall, slender woman, Schumacher wears jeans and cowboy boots (no
professorial tweeds for her). Her slightly distracted manner and airy
voice give her a Diane Keatonish feel. Her husband, an Englishman, is an
advertising executive. They have three daughters, ages 14, 12, and 8.
They also have a golden retriever, who likes to nap next to Schumacher's
That desk is the most prominent feature in an office that manages to
combine the dorm-room clutter around her computer keyboard with a
Zen-like sparseness everywhere else. ''No material culture here,''
Schumacher chuckles, gesturing at the bare walls. The firm has one other
full-time employee, who works in an adjoining room, and 4 or 5
Schumacher grew up in Birmingham, Mich., a Detroit suburb. At the
University of Michigan, she majored in economics. ''Did I like it? Oh my
God, no! I was terrible, just the worst.'' She went to work for the
Agency for International Development in Washington, and that's when she
got the anthropology bug.
She picked up a book called ''Remembering the Dead: Tombs, Ancestral
Villages and Kinship Organization in Madagascar'' because of its striking
cover, a black-and-white photograph of people tossing human bones in the
air. After that, she knew her future lay with anthropology and went to
the London School of Economics to study the subject. She did her
fieldwork in Kuwait and Bahrain (''The Saudis come over [to Bahrain] on
Friday nights,'' she says, ''and they, well, they have fun'').
After getting her doctorate, Schumacher taught at the University of
Durham, near the Scottish border. She fell in love with England, but the
stock market dive of 1987 made jobs scarce. So, now married and with a
baby on the way, she returned to the States and got a teaching job at
Wayne State University, in Detroit.
Coming home led Schumacher to her new line of work. ''It was a sense of
being an outsider,'' she recalls. ''It was as if I had to learn how to be
an American all over again.'' At social gatherings, she realized
conversations ''always sounded like cultural questions to me.''
It was, in fact, just such a conversation that helped get Schumacher from
academe to business. One of her husband's clients was Volkswagen, and at
a party she entered a discussion about whether VW should bring back the
Beetle. ''Oh, that's a cultural question,'' she remembers saying. ''You
have to figure out if people are receptive to it or not. Who owned it,
what's the legacy, what would be that rebirth, is there a cultural fit
right now? I don't know the answers, so let's go talk to people and try
to find out.''
That was in 1989, and Schumacher had, however inadvertently, found her
calling. ''It was just word of mouth,'' she says with a shrug, describing
how she got more clients. ''One project just led to another.''
Those projects cost anywhere from $10,000 to upwards of $100,000. ''It
depends on the number of interviews,'' Schumacher says. Among her clients
have been Absolut vodka, Amway, Avon, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Foot Locker,
Lean Cuisine, Lipton, and Porsche.
''Ilsa has an original perspective on American values that you can apply
to any product or brand you're trying to develop,'' says Abigail
Hirschhorn, chief strategic officer of the advertising firm DDB
Worldwide. ''What she brings is an incredible amount of depth and
substance to what could otherwise be rote market research. What it allows
me to do as a marketer is develop new and interesting insights into my
Schumacher describes three Cultural Dynamics projects:
For ACDelco, the firm did an ethnographic study of auto repair. What they
found beneath the hood was a complex tangle of feelings about
masculinity. Maintaining the family car is ''how men act out their role
as providers, as protectors, as heads of households, as the stronger
sex,'' Schumacher says. The resultant ad campaign stressed the amateur
mechanic's role as guardian of the family.
A project for American Express found that people who purchased traveler's
checks were less concerned with money than security. ''People are so
afraid to leave home,'' Schumacher explains. ''They didn't want to talk
about traveler's checks. They wanted to talk about locking their doors
and all the precautions they took.''
A third example is a study Schumacher did for a shampoo manufacturer.
Citing Marcel Mauss's classic anthropology text ''A General Theory of
Magic,'' she told the company, ''We have to look at the transformation
that goes on with women once they go into the shower and then leave ...
for the day - just like the ritual men go through, shaving in the shower
or at the sink, a certain pattern that's gone through. That's a
transformative process. ...
''The problem for these shampoo people was they didn't know where to put
the emphasis. ... For this product, the magic did not happen in the
shower. The magic happened with the drying process. ... Not at any other
time. There's magic in heat - the hotter the better - and that's what
they had to emphasize if they wanted to be a success.''
Does such intense scrutiny of consumption make Schumacher self-conscious
about her own buying habits? She answers the question with one of her
own. ''Does the shrink practice on himself? Not really. ... I'm not a
typical consumer. I'm too idiosyncratic. It's not how I express myself.
This is how I express myself: talking to people, talking to clients.''
Clearly, Schumacher relishes her work. ''There are so many layers to
it,'' she says. ''I love talking with people. I love visiting them in
their homes. There's always the joke in anthropology, `Do you really hate
the natives, underneath it all?' Well, no, you don't.''
Mark Feeney can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
This story ran on page E1 of the Boston Globe on 3/19/2002. © Copyright
2002 Globe Newspaper Company.
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