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SpirE-Journal 2013 Q3

Ethnography – Using anthropology to help brands

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Ethnography – Using anthropology to help brands

Ethnography has emerged as a market research technique used by businesses across the globe to identify customers’ unmet needs. Ethnography’s roots lie in anthropology – the immersive and observational study of human behavior and human societies. In the marketing arena, ethnography is being used to plug the gaps in market research techniques that rely on self-reporting. What explains the rise of ethnographic research and how can it help brands?

The insights it derived from studying consumers in their natural environment led to the first plastic squeezable bottled ketchup. This resulted in 17.2% net income growth within three months, and a new iconic look for Heinz ketchup. This concluded one of the earliest big successes of ethnography in market research.

What is ethnography?

Ethnography is a qualitative research technique where researchers seek to observe and/or interact with people in their natural environment. It is widely used in the social sciences as a data collection method for academic research. The earliest forms of ethnography were practiced by anthropologists, who would travel to a particular society and spend a year or two living within or close to that society, studying the inhabitants and their culture.

Today, ethnography is an established market research technique adopted by companies all over the world. Over the past few decades, companies have come to recognize the commercial value of using ethnography to identify unmet needs among their customers.

For instance, an ethnographic field study conducted by personal care conglomerate Kimberly-Clark revealed that parents were embarrassed when their two-year-old children were still wearing diapers. This led them to develop Huggies pull-up diapers in the shape of underpants in 1989, which subsequently increased its market share from 32.6% in 1985 to 39.7% in 1996.

Aside from being a source of innovation, companies can tap on ethnography to identify new market opportunities. Before 1995, semiconductor chip manufacturer Intel only offered their products to businesses for commercial use. The company subsequently discovered the market potential of home users through ethnographic study. After realizing how ethnography can benefit its business, Intel went on to develop an internal ethnographic research capability by hiring in-house anthropologists.

Does ethnography differ from conventional market research?

Unlike conventional market research which usually relies on surveys and focus groups, ethnographic study is complex in its execution and is different from market research in three key aspects:

Outcome of research

The outcome of an ethnographic research is usually more qualitative compared to that of conventional market research. The scope of a traditional market research project is generally more narrowly defined. Clients can have a clear understanding of what data they are seeking and what it should look like.

However, this may not be the case for ethnographic research. An ethnographic study is centered on an area which is specific to clients’ requirements. In this case, the client may not know in advance what kinds of insights will be gathered from the study. As such, the nature of the information collected is usually very qualitative in nature, and could be unpredictable.

Design of research

Ethnographic studies are less structured than traditional market research studies in terms of research design. Most market research projects require specific deliverables, which result in more or less structured questionnaires. However, ethnographic research usually does not have a narrowly defined scope and deliverable. The structure of the research design and the quality of the insights garnered are usually dependent on the researchers’ experience and expertise.

In addition, the methodologies used in an ethnographic study are usually very flexible. The researcher may use a combined methodology that includes observing the participants, conducting informal interviews, engaging in casual conversations, discreetly executing videography of respondents behaving naturally, as well as collecting information from participants in their natural environment. Hence, the researchers can mix-and-match the appropriate methodology to obtain the desired insights for the research project.

Ethnographic research includes observing respondents, conducting informal interviews and casual conversations as well as discreetly filming respondents behaving naturally.

Depth of research

Ethnographic research allows clients to discover valuable insights that cannot be obtained through conventional market research methods, like surveys and focus groups. A common problem for surveys and focus groups is that respondents may not always say what they truly think or feel. Respondents may also be unaware of, or incapable of articulating, their own subconscious drives, reflexes and habits. This is especially apparent in focus groups when participants may feel pressured to suppress their own opinions and “go with the flow”, or express different views so as not to seem repetitive. This problem is minimized in ethnographic studies, as researchers can observe participants in their everyday environment and identify the discrepancies between what they say or do.

In addition, consumers may be unsure of what they truly want in certain situations and may not be able to provide information on behavior and activities which they unconsciously perform. For instance, an ethnographic study conducted through home visits revealed that consumers tend to lay their shampoo bottles upside down to reach the remaining product. Such information may not be mentioned during focus group discussions and interviews, as consumers may not be aware of such unconscious behaviors themselves. Hence, ethnographic research can be used to unveil important insights which cannot be detected through conventional research methods.

An ethnographic study conducted through home visits revealed that consumers tend to lay their shampoo bottles upside down to reach the remaining product.
How does ethnography benefit brands?

Some success stories of the use of ethnography to gain consumer insights are provided below.

Icon Health and Fitness Treadmill

Icon Health and Fitness, an American company based in Utah, is the world’s largest manufacturer of exercise equipment. Icon Health and Fitness wanted to improve its market share in the highly competitive treadmills market, and had conducted an ethnographic research study to understand its consumers.

The ethnographic research was conducted at home and fitness centers. Researchers observed that most users tend to bring many different personal items to the treadmill, such as their water bottles, towels, keys, mobile phones and books. They had to look for a magazine rack, and fix it on their treadmills to hold their magazine. Then, they had to adjust the rack multiple times during their workout to program the machine, which may be blocked by the magazine rack.

This keen observance led to the proposal of a console with a built-in magazine rack in the middle, with the controls and displays at the side. This simple design was, at that time, not available in any exercise equipment. It is now a standard design, and is extremely popular with consumers who use the exercise equipment. By grasping this behavior only noticed by researchers, an innovation in product design was achieved.

Fisher-Price Children’s Electronic Learning Aids

Fisher-Price is an American company that manufactures toys for infants and children. It decided to conduct ethnographic research with the children at a local preschool, through observing and filming how they played with toys to aid the development of its electronic learning aids.

With insights gained through ethnographic research, Fisher-Price designed an electronic learning aid called Jitterbug, which gave the children a series of outdoor tasks to do, such as running, jumping and hopping on one foot. It also taught them alphabets, numbers and colors. This proved to be very popular with children, as they could bring this learning aid along for outdoor play, just the way they liked to.

This demonstrates how insights can be cleverly extracted from children, who may be impervious to conventional research techniques. Similarly, ethnographic studies would be useful in obtaining insights from the elderly, people with health problems, and anyone who may not otherwise be able to provide sufficient information through surveys and focus groups.

Can ethnography help Business-to-Business (B2B) Companies?

There is a common misconception that ethnographic research is only applicable to consumer marketing, which tends to be more driven by subconscious drives and habits. However, B2B companies can also benefit from ethnographic research to better understand the needs of their business customers.

For example, companies selling machinery to other companies can use ethnographic studies to determine how its business customers use its products, and where the unmet needs are. Companies offering IT services or software can also assign ethnographic researchers to observe how its business clients use the software, and continually seek improvement to service its clients better.

For instance, Underwriters Laboratories, an American Safety Consulting and Certification Company, conducted an ethnographic study to better understand their global customers, which consisted mostly of engineering companies. Through the study, they saw a need to simplify their website content and conceptual structure. At the end of the study, the website was universally appealing and aligned with how engineers around the world used the website; uncovering new business opportunities in the process.

As long as there are unmet needs from the customers, ethnography can play an integral role in improving business.

Future outlook

The goal of any research study is to obtain valuable insights that can lead to successful strategic decisions.

While conventional research methods such as surveys and focus groups are useful in gathering information about past decisions and present opinions, they may not be the most effective way to predict the future, or to change it.

Unlike traditional research, where researchers ask highly structured and defined questions in a controlled environment, ethnographic researchers observe all senses, actions and behaviors of the participants in their natural environment, and derive insights from them. Through this flexible and fluid methodology, researchers are able to obtain a multitude of important insights, and paint a more complete picture of how the participants use particular products or services in their daily lives.

In a highly competitive marketplace, where competitive differentiation and innovation are at a premium like never before, ethnography offers those vital answers to the questions nobody ever bothered to ask.

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