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Ethnographic research claims to offer companies two primary benefits: a more in-depth and honest look at consumers, and a behind-the-scenes peek into consumers' lives — supposed “nuggets� of data that yield rich insights that other forms of research cannot.

But are these nuggets really the key to marketing magic or just fool's gold? Can ethnographic research really reveal details about a market segment? And can ethnographic methodologies actually uncover information that would raise the eyebrows of marketing execs swimming in a sea of quantitative and qualitative data?

Because the technique isn't cheap — depending on the size and scope of a project, costs are typically in the $20,000 to $300,000 ballpark — and the results are highly proprietary, it's difficult to answer these questions, and to know exactly what to expect from an ethnographic study. That's why American Demographics decided to take ethnographic techniques out for a test drive of our own. We asked three firms that specialize in this type of research to explore one product: lipstick. The rationale for this choice of subject: Lipstick is a product that nearly everyone has had experience with in some way; it's a product in a mature industry and it's a product that's easily found in a female consumer's everyday routine.

We charged each research firm with the same broad but simple task: Tell us how women really feel about lipstick and how they use it, and uncover for us untapped business opportunities in the women's lipstick market. Our goal was to see how different companies would approach this task and to discover whether they'd come up with similar results.

Of course, since this was just a test run, and American Demographics isn't actually in the lipstick business, we proved to be a difficult client. We didn't provide qualitative or quantitative research on our product and we weren't able to discuss our position in the market, our current target market or even our business goals — all standard fare for a typical ethnographic research project. Without specific research objectives, each company took its own approach to the “lipstick� question.

The outcome: Each firm came up with markedly similar results even though the ethnographies were conducted across a fairly small sample of women in different parts of the country. Considering that a major concern in the use of the ethnographic method with a small sample size — it's possible to get in-depth information from the 10 weirdest women in America, which would be useless to a company interested in a mass market — the similarities are striking. Also, the findings passed the “smell test� from an industry expert.

“The research is completely valid,� says Sharon Garment, a veteran of the cosmetics industry, now a consultant, and most recently vice president of global product development at Estée Lauder.

To Garment, the findings weren't all that different from what she has heard from other focus groups and quantitative surveys. However, each report did reveal at least one small idea that piqued her interest — ideas that if brought to market, might have the potential to become “seminal� in the makeup arena. (Three such example are noted with an asterisk in the text that follows.)

The main finding from our test drive: Ethnographic research can indeed reveal a few golden nuggets of insight — but you still may have to pan through a lot of fool's gold to get to them.


Radar Communications, a Boulder, Colo.-based firm specializing in ethnographic research, decided to explore the emotional drivers behind lipstick use. The results could then be used to create new products or to inform marketing communications.

Radar completed a study of 40 women who live throughout the U.S., ranging in age from 19 to 55. Ethnographers were in the field for one-and-a-half months, spending 12 to 15 hours with each subject.

“We set out to discover what's working about their lives, what isn't, where they want to be, what they want to do and what they might want or need in order to live a full life,� according to the report. This study was the foundation for American Demographics' lipstick project, for which Radar culled a sample of 10 from the original group and interviewed them thoroughly on their usage of the product.


  • There's a deep connection between looking good and feeling good. Lipstick manufacturers should focus on this connection, both in marketing and product design.

  • Feeling good and looking good are about feeling capable and confident, alive and energized, and wanting to get attention and to get complimented. Women are less likely to equate feeling good and looking good with feeling sexy or good about their bodies, feeling creative, feeling content or feeling respected.

  • There's interest in lipstick that's good for you. Ideas include taking properties from other lip and skin products, such as lip balm, sunscreen, moisturizers and vitamin E sources.

  • There's also interest in aromatherapy and colored lip balm. The idea of color and the therapeutic effects of color indicate the interest in chromatherapy.*

  • There's interest in appealing and simply designed applicators that fit well in a purse. There's also interest in a palette of lipstick colors that accentuate one's natural color.


Design Continuum, based in West Newton, Mass., conducts ethnographic research to guide product design and development. The research firm decided to use the method to create a strategy for a new company's entry into the lipstick market.

To start out, researchers conducted interviews with experts and two “jam sessions� with consumers in a focus-group-style format — one for men and one for women — both with a cross section of age groups, marital status and opinions about makeup.

The ethnographic portion of the project consisted of four visits, two to four hours in duration. Each visit included observation, and interviews with one or two people (a woman and her fiancé; a mother and a daughter; two best friends). According to the report, such groupings “often reveal misreporting or hidden issues. Subjects keep each other honest and bring up issues each might have forgotten on their own.� All of the women studied live in the Boston area and are between the ages of 25 and 45.


  • Women wear lipstick with different goals that can change by the hour, the day or the year, and these goals can require different products.

  • Women revisit their lipstick product or brand choices at life stage transitions (i.e. going to college; starting a new career; becoming a parent for the first time).

  • Many women learn about makeup through friends or by experimenting with it on their own.

  • Cosmetics are often worn to the workplace to make a woman look older, gain respect and fit in.

  • Lipstick needs to be changeable, leaving no stains, yet lasting as long as it's needed, without requiring maintenance.

  • Lipstick tubes are easily ruined and have the potential to be messy.

  • When women graduate to their first “adultâ€? makeup, they often go to a department store for a complete makeover and then buy a whole set of cosmetic products.


Women who are in transition between college and a career are looking for ways to update their makeup and to look professional in their new jobs. These women have increased income and cash flow. Women in this target market need multiple lip products to address the different facets of their lives. Many lipstick brands are trying to capture this market. However, most brands focus on a single aspect in their marketing, or they do not address women's different needs through product design.

To meet this marketing opportunity, Design Continuum proposed a new brand of lipstick that it dubbed “YOU,� which includes three product lines:


Sheer, natural and berry color washes. It's in a Chap Stick-like tube to reinforce its health benefit and carefree attitude. It could include a product that enhances lip size with a swelling stimulant or could come with a lipstick holster for quick draw at the sink.


Professional matte and gloss colors. The slick matte silver tube features a roll-on top for easy application, tip protection during recapping and overall protection in the bag or purse. A small mirror provides peace of mind in an environment where looking polished and professional is key.


Dark berries to bold, trendy, experimental shades. The brushed aluminum package alludes to a gritty, hip, urban, “industry� environment. The compact shape fits into any pocket, even your tiniest skirt, without a bulge. This line includes a “kiss� applicator that is like an ink pad and has a molded plastic applicator that conforms to the shape of a woman's lips.*


Innovation Focus, a Lancaster, Pa.-based firm, uses ethnographic research in its idea and product development work. The company's objective was to determine how, when and where women use lipstick to better understand the needs and drivers of women who use the product.

There were three separate ethnographic observations. Researchers observed a Mary Kay makeup party in Lancaster. Nine women, ages 20 to 55, participated in an in-home makeup party with a makeup consultant. The team also observed a “girl's night out� — nine women, ranging in age from under 20 to over 65, gathered at a consumer's home in Canton, Maine, for two hours to try on lipstick and other beauty products.

In-home observations took place in 10 one-on-one visits in the Lancaster area, consisting of a one-and-a-half hour scrutiny of makeup application, storage location and interview, and a shopping excursion to buy the consumer's favorite lipstick or other lip product. Five interviews were with women between the ages of 20 and 34, four with women 35 to 44 and one with a woman in the 46 to 55 age category. Prior to the visits, the women were asked to keep a diary tracking 48 hours of lipstick application.


Among the market opportunities, there is a need for:

  • Products that can aid in the application of lipstick and with lip care.

  • Products that can be customized.

  • Products to care for lips and that will keep them soft, smooth, healthy and moist.

  • Products that offer a satisfying sensation for the mouth when applied.

  • Products that relieve that dry and cakey feeling.


“Color Evolution�

Lip products that change color in the presence of light and liquid. This would include the lipstick rejuvenator, a product designed to revert to its original color when it comes in contact with water* and a lip color that would change its shade depending on the amount/type of light reflected on it.

“Tailored fit�

Products that combine two or three different elements for a complete lip system. This would include those that offer two colors in one for blending, a lipstick with a matte finish on one side and a glossy finish on the other, and a product that offers a moisturizer on one side and a lipstick on the other.

“Lip Care with Color�

Stylish lipstick as a delivery system for intensive care or medication for lips and lip indulgence. This includes products such as The Lip Spa, which would incorporate exfoliator, buffer, toner, moisturizer and shine; Lip Night Care, an overnight moisturizer; and Lip Doctor, a medicated lipstick for healing cold sores and other lip problems, available in many colors.

“Timeless Woman�

Lipstick products designed for the changing needs of the mature woman. This includes lipstick that fills in lines on the lip, and a moisturizer specially formulated to keep lips and skin around the mouth feeling soft, supple and kissable.

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