Michelle Barry—Anthropology Meets Experience Design

Michelle Barry
Michelle Barry

As President and CEO of Centric Brand Anthropology, Michelle Barry (PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology, 2004) uses her anthropology training to lead projects aimed at better understanding how people relate to companies, products and experiences, and what they value. The Seattle-based strategy and design studio translates those findings into concepts that companies, like regional grocery store chains, restaurants or global manufacturers, can put into practice, such as new food experiences, retail design or product innovation.

Michelle had started her career in design but had always been interested in health and wellness. For years she thought she might become a doctor. After college, she worked as an assistant manager at a surgical clinic and later as an assistant at a naturopathic chiropractic clinic, where she did patient care and counseling for the doctors.

After several years in those roles, however, she realized that as much as she liked patient care, she was much more interested in how people thought and behaved rather than administering treatment plans.

The UW’s strong medical anthropology focus—and, in particular, the work of “best in class” professors Lorna Rhodes, James Green and Janelle Taylor, who became her dissertation committee—attracted Michelle to the doctoral program. “My committee was incredibly supportive and enthusiastic and willing to go outside of the norms to encourage and support me,” she said.

Michelle knew already when she started graduate school that her goal was not to become a professor or pursue an academic path. She wanted to apply her work to healthcare or business, or some other field, although she was not quite sure what that would look like.

When Michelle started out as an anthropologist in the business world in 1998, she was only aware of a handful of others like herself. Over the past 15 years, the landscape has changed dramatically. Not only has Michelle hired at least 25 anthropologists in that time but there are also now many anthropologists (and some who claim they are!) working in the business world in general. As she says, “Being an applied anthropologist in business is gradually becoming more common and understood.”

Michelle spent 12 years as a senior executive of a leading national consumer market research firm with clients who were in the food and beverage industry or who were interested in health, wellness and sustainability. She has also started six companies (ranging from research design to non-profit to food manufacturing to retail), co-authored two books about branding and marketing, and has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, Oxygen and in national and industry publications as a leading thinker on human behavior and cultural trends.

“I like the continuous challenge of trying to bridge anthropology and business. It’s not necessarily intuitive nor is it pure but the discipline is a beautiful foundation for learning to think differently. Challenging cultural norms, translating worldviews, expanding field techniques, and developing new contexts learned in my experience at the UW have allowed our company to deliver completely unique visions to our clients.”

1. Photo of Michelle Barry.
2. Michelle Barry and Mark Jacobsen of Centric Brand Anthropology converting analytics into tactics for a regional grocery chain.

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