The Power Of Ethnographic Market Research

As market researchers, we're keenly aware that sometimes there's a gap between what people say and what they do, between aspiration and behavior. That's not because people lie or deliberately mislead (although occasionally they do). Rather, it's often because everyday behaviors and assumptions are so routine and deep-seated they fade into the background of our lives. The implicit and taken-for-granted can be hard to notice, recall, and describe. And yet, some of the deepest insights into consumer attitudes and behaviors lie in those unconscious routines and tacit assumptions. So how do we see the invisible and hear the unspoken?

The business literature is peppered with articles about how major companies such as Xerox, Intel, Microsoft, and Amazon use ethnography to explore how people use products and services, inform strategy, and innovate and design. But the method has application across a broad range of industries, from retail and CPG to entertainment and healthcare. Of all the tools in our research toolkit, ethnography offers a particularly powerful way to understand not just what consumers do, but why they do it and what it means to them.

The Power of Being There

Ethnography comes from the social science discipline of anthropology, which uses long-term immersion ("participant-observation") in people's everyday lives to understand them, on their own terms and in their own context. In market research, ethnography is often shorthand for a host of qualitative methods that include in-depth on-site (e.g., home or office) interviews and observations, shop-alongs, video and written diaries, online bulletin boards, and design and usability studies, among others. Without delving into these methods, suffice it to say that ethnography takes us out of the backrooms of focus group facilities and into real people's real worlds. It lets us be with them as they eat, cook, shop, work, play, and socialize, and it lets us see the physical and social contexts in which they do so. It captures those moments when they interact with brands, products, and services, and it uncovers the connections, frictions, and frustrations that are the hunting grounds for insights into refining and developing products and services.

Consider breakfast, for example. Consumers can self-report whether they eat it, how often they eat it, what they eat, and even how they feel about it. But behavior often changes faster than the language consumers have to describe it. Without observing the harried morning routines of busy families, it might be easy to miss the fact that many consumers' actual mornings bear little resemblance to the "meal" we sometimes market to, create products for, and continue to call "breakfast."

The Power of Now

While we always enter the field with a clear set of objectives and research questions in mind, the reality of consumers' lives is complex, messy, and unpredictable. Ethnography allows us the flexibility to adapt to and take advantage of spontaneous moments in the field that other methods might miss. The child who suddenly wanders into the kitchen in the middle of an interview asking for a snack isn't an interruption; she's an opportunity to observe how a parent decides what foods are or aren't appropriate for a pre-dinner snack. The look of confusion or frustration as a shopper scans a shelf for a particular brand is a non-verbal cue that might mean a packaging redesign is in order. Casual interactions between employees at a company may speak volumes about where an organization's culture is missing the mark.

Consumers don't live in a vacuum, and neither do the products and services they use. Context is critical in shaping and limiting the meaning and relevance of brands. Ethnography illuminates the hidden details of consumers' experiences in their real-world context, and then it lets us ask "why" and "what does it mean?"

A Tool for Every Job

As with any research method, ethnography has its limitations and may not be right for every project. For example, it can require greater resources of time and budget to carry out and analyze, and accessing the right people and places can sometimes be challenging. But for the right project, ethnography's depth, flexibility, and attention to context can be a rich source of provocative insights for that competitive edge.

At Murphy Research, we always have the right tools for the job and are happy to consult with our clients on the best approach to answer their burning business questions.