Interview with Sakari Tamminen

Sakari Tamminen, co-founder, Gemic – a human-centric strategy and innovation consultancy based in Helsinki.

Ville Tikka: You have been advocating Innovation Anthropology as an important methodological framework for value creation and recently co-authored the book Unohda Innovointi, Keskity Arvonluontiin (Forget Innovation, Focus on Value Creation). How do you define and explain ‘value’? 

Sakari Tamminen: Innovation Anthropology comes actually from David Graeber, an anthropologist and anarchist who was let go from Yale because of his too radical views (he currently resides in London School of Economics). Graeber defines value as a system, where value can be seen as economic value that is created in exchange economy, as a model for “meaning-making” and symbolic differentiation, and as socially constructed and culturally specific values and attitudes that are shared by people. The first definition is the most common, but I find the latter two more interesting. 

Ville: Can you explain a bit more how symbolic differentiation works? 

Sakari: "Meaning-making" and symbolic differentiation are the arenas of marketing, branding and positioning, in which the focus is usually on identifying better ways to find and produce differences and try to influence people in the hope they’d prefer the differences you posses. 

The theories of marketing and branding emphasize the importance of the core brand message that a company has built through time and that is now explicated through its offering and activities. But companies are increasingly in trouble because their messages don’t resonate anymore with their audience and no one is listening to what they say. 

Ville: What would be the way forward for better and more valuable differentiation?

Sakari: It’s evident that there’s a need for a fresh approach for differentiation, as just being different is not enough. One has to be more sensitive to qualitative and subtle contrasts of difference and become better at creating emotionally touching differences that tickle the customers. Ultimately, the aim is to better connect the stories that people live and that the brand wants to told.

Creating new value on the symbolic level means enabling people to experience that value, perhaps in relation to self-actualization or personal transformation. For example, when a person eats gourmet food, she becomes – at least for a while – a little finer person, or in a way, she becomes the food she has consumed. Being different and becoming different are always acts of separating oneself from something, but they are also always acts of connecting oneself to something and creating new associations, often through social relationships. 

Ville: What about social value, how is that different from economic value and systems of differentiation in your view?  

Sakari: The value that originates from social relationships and within cultural contexts doesn’t necessarily revert back to economic value or symbolic differences in meaning. This is the area where people construct their identities through everyday actions in social interaction.

I believe value creation happens in practice in the context of social relationships. These relationships don’t have to be only between people, but they can be relationships between people and things, technologies and devices, or relationships between people and institutions. Sometimes the relationships can be only between connected things too. 

The main idea is to be able to create better and more meaningful relationships. In practice, if you are able to create a good ecosystem where the relationships are meaningful and charged with value, your business is likely to thrive too. 

Ville: The idea of objects facilitating the social relationship is something that we have seen debated a lot lately. What’s your view on objects and their role in creating social value?

Sakari: Generally, I think most relationships are facilitated by social objects. Daniel Miller has been writing a lot about the topic in his book The Comfort of Things. In his view we are searching meaning from objects we have a relationship with. The role of all objects in our culture and our lives, to an extent, is to mediate different relationships on the levels of economic, social and symbolic value. Through objects we become part of the community and we dissociate ourselves from others. 

Ville: Can the objects be intangible, too?

Sakari: Yeah, I think objects can definitely be intangible too. If we think Bourdieu’s habitus theory, value could be seen as education, habit or style, an abstract object with defined  boundaries. It all comes back to the skillful synthesis of cultural symbols. Similarly, a brand can be seen as an intangible object facilitating social relationships. After all, it is a collection of images, things and actions with a message and a mission.

Ville: To conclude, could you share us any best practices for better value creation? 

Sakari: Well, what we do daily is that we try to help our clients to bring together all these three aspects of value – the economical, the symbolic and the social. We do this by bringing the customer back to the center and by reminding companies how they ultimately exist for creating new customer value – as this is the only way the business can create economic value and succeed in the changing marketplace.   

Ville: Thanks!

Originally published in Wevolves site