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The Value of Ethnography in Market Research

The Value of Ethnography in Market Research

6:30 a.m. Mom is rushing to cook the family breakfast. One child is mesmerized by morning cartoons. The other child sneakily pours a bowl of colorful, sugary cereal. Dad is busy getting ready for work.

This a brief summary of the observations made by anthropologist Susan Squires – who helped develop Go-Gurt, a brand of low-fat yogurt available in Canada.

General Mills hired Squires to study the morning routines of California families through ethnographic fieldwork. From her extensive research, Squires concluded that an ideal breakfast would be healthy, fun, and most of all, readily available. And voila, Go-Gurt was born! Okay, it was not that easy but the point is made.

Ethnography, defined, is a part of anthropology that looks beyond words and numbers, and focuses on getting a deep understanding of how people actually go through life. Ethnographic research has been the secret ingredient behind innovation and change from top brands for decades.

This illustration from Susan Squires is perhaps one of the most famous examples of how ethnographic research can be used to better understand (and better meet) the needs of consumers and capture new target audiences.

As helpful as ethnographic market research is, it is not as widely used as it should be; perhaps because it can be time-consuming or costly. However, the business intelligence that ethnographic market research affords businesses helps them become a more agile, adaptable brand that offers more valuable solutions to consumers, making it more likely that consumers will return.

About Ethnographic Market Research

Ethnographic market research is a method used by marketing strategists to collect data beyond surveys and interviews. It is a qualitative approach that relies on what anthropologist’s call “participant-observation” meaning that the individual conducting the ethnography is immersed in the context they are observing.

The data collection involves a mix of strategic observations combined with detailed, thought-provoking conversations.

The concept of participant-observation relies on one of two opposing frameworks:

  • Emic approach: Studying a cultural context from an insider’s perspective that relies on generating understanding from the ground up through observations and other measurable data.
  • Etic approach: Studying a cultural context from an outsider’s perspective that relies on supporting an existing theory through observations and other measurable data.

Why Businesses Need to Conduct Ethnographic Market Research

Though the Go-Gurt case study is one of the most famous, there are countless examples of how ethnography market research adds value to businesses. If properly conducted, ethnographies can attribute value in the following ways:

  • They fill in the gaps that numbers and brief open-ended responses leave.
  • They observe behavior in-situ, as is, and in real time.
  • They eliminate “participant-bias” or the filter that participants use to answer surveys or behave during an interview.
  • They are exploratory meaning that they are open to adapt in light of new evidence.

Properly conducted ethnographic market research forms the foundation of great business strategies. It helps business leaders gain a deeper understanding of what’s needed to have greater impact on society. What people say they do, and what people actually do is often vastly different.

Keith Goffins, a professor of innovation and new product development at Cranfield University was interviewed by Marketing Week on the topic of ethnographic market research and can be quoted as saying:

“Many brands are reluctant to discuss their ethnographic research, let alone the findings and the payback. Perhaps it is because they don’t want others to understand just how successful it can be.”

If you are looking to employ ethnographic marketing research as a component of your business strategy? We are happy to help.

We have anthropology and ethnography experts on-staff ready to help you better experience your customers needs and wants. Contact us today!