How to use ethnography for in-depth consumer insight

Spending a weekend sitting in someone else’s house reporting when, why and how much they ate, drank, bathed, watched TV or used their mobile phone isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time, but for a marketer it is one of the best ways to gain deeper customer insight.

The process, often referred to as ethnography, can result in breakthroughs for brands, offering an insight into what people are really like, rather than what they want researchers to think they are like.

German household goods manufacturer Miele, for example, observed constant cleaning in homes where some family members were suffering from allergies. As a result it designed a vacuum cleaner with a traffic light indicator that shows when a surface is dust-free. Meanwhile, HTC’s ethnographic research with agency Firefish provided its design team a steer on some of the ways mobile phones could make people’s lives easier.

Both cases highlight the value in observing people and their actions, rather than asking them to self-report what they do. It can be a valuable process, as Miele, HTC and others will attest, but it can also be expensive and time-consuming.

In the past this has put marketers off, with many relying on the cheaper, mainstream techniques of surveys and focus groups. But could social media and mobile technology open up ethnographical studies to more companies and, if so, what can they expect from this kind of research?

Ethnographic market research has its roots in the social science discipline of anthropology, where it has long been used to gather information on human societies and cultures. Its use in 21st century marketing is less clear-cut, with brands sometimes keen to get quick results.

Consumers natural habitats
Social media and smartphones have led to consumers ‘lifelogging’ events as they happen

One agency sounds a warning to those tempted to deploy ‘quick and dirty’ tactics, suggesting that marketers consider whether they have lost what is great about ethnography in order to make it fit into the corporate world. Real ethnography takes time and only needs small base sizes, it adds

Keith Goffin is professor of innovation and new product development (NPD) at Cranfield School of Management. He worked for 14 years in marketing and NPD at Hewlett-Packard and has published extensively on the subject of ethnographic market research. He says it is made up of a range of techniques but a key characteristic is the need to talk to customers in their own environment – often in their home or at work. This is where they “tend to be more open and honest in their answers” and where marketers can “directly observe them using products rather than relying on explanations of how they use products”.

“Ethnography isn’t just about filming an interview with your customers,” he explains, “You’re looking for contradictions between what people say they do and what they actually do.”

Goffin describes a project in which he observed surgeons. They had been asked whether conditions were light enough and many pointed to the lights above the operating tables as proof that they were. However, observing them at work, he found that many were often moving their heads, struggling for good visibility. The result? The company that commissioned the research designed a throw-away ‘light stick’ to overcome the problem.

Market researcher Ipsos MORI says ethnography allows “deep insight into the contradictory nature of much of human behaviour: the focus is on what people really do versus what they say they do”. In other words, it is about identifying hidden needs – and this is where the real breakthroughs can occur.

Miele, through its ethnographic market research, not only recognised the gap in the market for a hygiene sensor on vacuum cleaners, it also observed how careful people with allergies were with their laundry and so introduced a washing machine with a programme for washing pillows and a rinse process that removes detergent residues.

Referring to the project, Olaf Dietrich, a director at Miele, explained in a research paper with Cranfield the firm’s “listen and watch” philosophy: “By this we mean that we realise that it is essential for not only marketing but also engineers to see the issues first-hand. Only if you are present do you really understand the issues.”

As a result of its ethnographic research, Miele introduced new programmes on its washing machines to cater for people with allergies

Fiona Naughton, HTC’s vice-president for global marketing agrees. “The value in ethnography is that you can immerse your designers in the world of your customers and identify their unmet needs.” HTC’s ethnography work has led to some of the new functions on its HTC One (M8) phone: the ‘motion launch’ function – the ability to lock and unlock the device with a double-tap on the screen, and the auto-answer, by which calls are answered when the phone is lifted to the ear.

While some in the technology sector adhere to the Steve Jobs view that you can’t ask customers about products because they can’t tell you what they want, Naughton believes that “you can witness their pain points and the opportunities they provide”.

That NPD logic is fairly simple, as Dr Bob Cook, innovation and inspiration director at Firefish and who worked with HTC on the project, explains.

“The more brands know about people and how the world around them shapes their behaviour, the more we can empathise with them,” he says.

That is why some experts encourage more brand-side marketers to use and embrace ethnography and get involved at the coalface of the research.

Our designers don’t want to know the answer, they want to understand the stimulation for customers

Cranfield’s Goffin admits he is “worried” that some companies outsource all the work due to time constraints. “It’s not a big investment to make, given that the result could be a better product or service,” he says.

Indeed, the most effective studies are those that involve the least disruption. Researchers might interject to ask why somebody did something, but generally the idea is to observe real life. This is where technology can help.

Thanks to Facebook, Twitter and smartphones, consumers have got used to reporting what they do, when they do it and why. Mobile ethnography is an increasingly popular tool, sometimes known as ‘lifelogging’, with subjects carrying cameras to record events as they happen.

This means the assessment period can be a few days and not just a couple of hours, providing a much richer bank of information. Another benefit is that marketers can “rewind and hypothesise”, as well as bring in other teams to watch and analyse.

Charlie Gower, group head of insight and research at insurance company Hiscox, has long espoused the benefits of ethnography and has used it in previous roles. However, she admits that it can be “hellishly time-consuming” and thus expensive. “With mobile technology and people more willing to share their thoughts, you don’t have to traipse around after someone all day – they can send you an email, photos or a video diary,” she says.

Rimmel owner Coty is using mobile ethnographic research for its make-up ranges

Marco Madrisotti, vice-president for product development at beauty company Coty says mobile ethnography is an attractive option in this respect.

He says: “The absence of an observer in the living room makes things even more natural. It’s also between three and five times cheaper than traditional ethnography, which means we can do it more frequently and cover more markets.”

Coty, which owns make-up brands including Rimmel and New York Colour, is planning to do just that. Following a successful project involving eye make-up products, with mobile ethnographic research agency EthOS, the company is rolling out further studies across its make-up ranges.

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.

As Goffin concludes: “Marketing has traditionally been the home of customer understanding, but through ethnography it can be the driving force behind major breakthroughs.”

For this reason marketers have a vested interest in knowing what goes on behind their customers’ front doors, and keeping what they discover under lock and key.

The big three challenges

1. Resources 

Not all marketers have the time or budget to carry out in-depth ethnographic market research, which has led to many relying on focus groups. True, ethnography can be expensive, but the combination of mobile technology and the willingness of customers to share their experiences will make it more accessible to many.

2. Data overload 


Fiona Naughton, vice-president for global marketing at HTC, calls ethnographic market research “the gift that keeps on giving”. Those looking to embark on projects need to be aware that systematically analysing between 30 to 60 hours of video is not easy (generally, a base of 20 to 30 customers is used). That is why many brands look to specialist agencies to help out.

3. Access all areas 

Bringing experts on board is useful, but agencies are beginning to find that clients are keen to come along to the home visits. Too many people can be an issue, but academics such as Keith Goffin at Cranfield believe that involving staff in some of the visits and analysis generates deeper commitment on the part of the NPD teams.

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John Storey, Research director, Radius EMEA

Radius Global Market Research

Ethnography has its roots in anthropology, where it is used to study cultures and societies. The idea is to observe rather than interact. For this reason it is a useful research tool for marketers who want to get to know their customers and their culture, and the role certain products and services play in their lives. Ethnography allows brands to see what people do in real life, rather than what they claim to do.

Critically, the research takes place in the subject’s natural environment – usually their home. I think this is why there is some confusion about what constitutes ethnography: it is not an in-depth interview.

The emphasis must be on observation rather than participation. Of course, it is acceptable to intercept with the odd question: why did you do that or how are you feeling about what just happened? However, the most interesting insights will come from just watching.

Given that you are in people’s homes, there is nowhere for them to hide and you’ll get a much more realistic picture of what makes them tick – and what annoys them. Frustrations are a great place to find new product innovations.

That’s different from a focus group or one-to-one – you can do a lot of that kind of research and glean nothing. Ethnography, on the other hand, can offer incredibly valuable insight as it leads to practical solutions and innovation that customers really need, rather than what your design team thinks they need.

It does take time, but this is really important – you have to be there for at least three hours. After a while, people tend to forget you are there and that’s when the interesting stuff can happen.

Choosing the right ethnographer is key. I tend to ensure that they can empathise with the shopper, so if it’s a young mum, I’ll choose someone who has had a baby so that both the researcher and the consumer feel relaxed.

Creating a normal environment isn’t always easy because people aren’t used to being watched in their own home. More clients are asking to come along to people’s homes, but you have to be careful because it can become a bit like a zoo. I think technology will help in this respect, with more of the recording done by customers themselves. They can wear cameras around their necks, send video clips via their smartphones and provide instant responses and updates via apps.

Ethnography, by its very nature, involves great detail and some marketers might be put off. But I believe that it needs to be embraced. After all, you are studying real life and understanding that it can make a real difference to everything from new products to how you communicate with your customers.