How Do You Like Your Beef?

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Ethnographic research delves into the everyday lives of consumers to go beyond what they say - and record what they do.

A woman in suburban Baltimore is shopping for her family's meals for the week. She cruises past the poultry section, stopping only momentarily to drop a couple of packages of boneless chicken breasts into her cart. Then, the dreaded sea of red looms before her. Tentatively, she picks up a package of beef. "This cut looks good, not too fatty," she says, juggling her two-year-old on her hip. "But I don't know what it is. I don't know how to cook it," she confesses, and trades it for a small package of sirloin and her regular order of ground beef.

Scenes like these are replayed daily in supermarkets across the country. But this time, it's being captured on videotape by New York City-based PortiCo Research, part of a recent ethnographic study of beef consumers for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) and major grocery retailers. And, due in part to the trepidation of this one mother in Baltimore, many grocers' meat cases are now being rearranged to display beef by cooking method, rather than by cuts of meat. Simple, three-step cooking instructions will soon be printed on the packages.

Ethnographic research, which combines intense observation with customer interviews, shows companies how people live with products - how they purchase and use them in their everyday lives. Although far from new, the methodology is becoming increasingly popular as a market research tool and is on the agenda of this month's American Marketing Association's Attitude and Behavioral Marketing Research Conference in Phoenix. It was also discussed at the Advertising Research Foundation's Week of Workshops last October in New York. "Prior to the emergence of focus groups, qualitative research really started in people's homes and at on-site locations" such as stores, bars, or homes, says Tom McGee, vice president of Chicago-based Doyle Research Associates Inc., a market research firm. Today, observational research has come full circle, fleshing out information gleaned from quantitative studies and sparking new ideas to be explored in focus groups.

Christopher Ireland, principal and CEO of Cheskin Research in Redwood Shores, California, points to America's increasing diversity - in terms of both age and ethnicity - as well as the growing demand for customization as major factors that are driving interest in ethnographic studies. "I think marketers are feeling a little out of touch," she says.

Intensified competition in the marketplace has put even more pressure on companies to better understand who their customers are - and how to keep them. "You can run a marketing campaign that might make people pick up your product the first time, but if they live with it under different conditions than the advertised benefits, it's not likely that they're going to pick it up a second time," says Bill Abrams, president of New York City-based Housecalls, Inc., an observational research firm. "Adjusting the product, the package, and the marketing efforts to the reality of the way consumers use a product can be very valuable for many companies."

Knowing what consumers do with beef is vital to the NCBA. As the consumer marketing division of the beef industry, it has collected behavioral and attitudinal information on consumers for years through studies such as its meat-purchase diary, conducted in cooperation with The NPD Group. But even though sales of ground beef and steaks rose between 1992 and 1996, two-thirds of the beef industry's product line lost ground with shoppers; sales of round cuts dropped by 20 percent in that same period, for example, and chuck sales fell 23 percent, says Kevin Yost, NCBA's executive director of c onsumer marketing and brand development.

To better understand what was going on in the minds of consumers as they shopped the meat case, the NCBA turned to ethnographic research in June 1996. It was a costly endeavor, running roughly $60,000. Ethnographic studies can cost anywhere from $5,000 to as much as $800,000, depending on how deep a company wants to dig into its customers' lives.

PortiCo videotaped consumers' purchasing behavior as well as their preparation habits at home. The researchers interviewed them each step of the way: what they thought about beef, why they did (or didn't) select particular cuts, and how they prepared the family meal - whether it was cooked in the kitchen or on the backyard grill, says PortiCo president Caroline Gibbons Barry.

In addition to these in-depth interviews, random shoppers at the meat case were asked for their thoughts on beef, the meat department's layout, and the availability of recipes and cooking information. The conclusion? Confusion. Though the typical shopper (usually a woman) would initially state that she wasn't confused about buying beef, "when we went deeper, we found that she wasn't confused because she always buys the same cuts - ground beef, boneless chicken breast, maybe one steak," says NCBA's Yost. "When you start to broaden the range [of meat selections], she has no idea what you're talking about."

Such information was a revelation to the beef industry. "The first time I showed [the PortiCo tape] to a group of major-league retailers in Chicago, they started laughing," Yost says. The retailers couldn't believe how little consumers knew about something that seemed as familiar to them as sliced bread or soft drinks.

In fact, even the researchers at Pepsi-Cola Co. have been surprised by insights gained from the ethnographic research conducted for various projects. In order to understand soft drinkers' needs and behavior, the company has gone to some of the places where its products are consumed - homes, stores, cars, movie theaters, at the beach, and sporting events, says Al Klein, Pepsi's director of consumer insights. "We learned that there's a surprising amount of loyalty and passion for Pepsi's products. One fellow had four or five cases of Pepsi in his basement - and he felt he was low on Pepsi and had to go replenish." Another soft-drink lover (though not necessarily a Pepsi-lover) had two desk drawers full of cans at his office and another case in his car. "He had it so that a soft drink would always be available to him, no matter where he was," Klein says.

Ethnographic research informs everything the company does, from advertising to promotions to merchandising, Klein says. But another marketing giant, Procter & Gamble Co., has used the application more selectively. In 1998, for example, P&G was developing and testing a disposable baby bib, Bibsters, in Peoria, Illinois. Since some focus group attendees can't articulate their feelings about a product and often are reluctant to talk about how they use it (especially if it involves their child), P&G decided to observe how consumers would use this product in daily life.

By watching people from the moment of purchase to when they threw Bibsters into the trash, P&G learned that there was no such thing as the average consumer, says Jan-Patrick Kuehlwein, manager of global strategic planning. For instance, busy working mothers were quick to embrace Bibsters. Since these women valued the time they spent with their child, they didn't want to waste time on lower-value activities such as clean-up. "It was a no-brainer [for them] to go to a disposable bib," Kuehlwein says. Although the convenience of Bibsters appealed to stay-at-home moms, they couldn't justify the higher cost, he adds.

On a less emotional level, P&G found that cloth bibs were often scattered all over the house - and usually ended up in places where they weren't needed, such as an upstairs bedroom. "People had about a 20-minute window to feed their child, and they either had to roam around to find a bib, or wash one because they were all dirty," Kuehlwein notes. The company has yet to roll out Bibsters (Kuehlwein would not say when the product might hit the shelves), but some of the insights gleaned from the study have already been applied to their marketing of disposable diapers.

Global observational studies are the next step for many large companies, but the Colgate-Palmolive Co. has been doing such research, known as "probes," on a country-by-country basis for years, says vice president of consumer research and insights Jim Figura. Teams of managers simply go out and talk to consumers in their homes, whether they're in Boise or in Bogota. In the mid-1980s, a team in Colombia discovered that women were putting old soap bars into tin cans to make a dish-washing paste. In response, the company developed Axion, which has become the top dishwashing product in developing markets, notes Figura.

Back home, in a study with New York's Housecalls, Colgate-Palmolive videotaped consumers as they shopped for toothbrushes in supermarket aisles. The result: the company redesigned their packaging to make it easier to read and show off more of the toothbrush inside. Why the changes? On the videotapes, consumers seemed to want to learn more about new features, and spent time reading the packages. Says Figura, "I think people spend more time buying a toothbrush than any other category in the grocery store." After spending time around the meat case, though, the NCBA might disagree.

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