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For managers at Cambridge SoundWorks, it was a perplexing problem: In retail outlets across the country, men stood wide-eyed when sales reps showed off the company's hi-fi, “blow-your-hair-back� stereo speakers. So why didn't such unabashed enthusiasm for the product translate into larger — and bigger ticket — sales?

To find out, the Andover, Mass., manufacturer and retailer of stereo equipment hired research firm Design Continuum, in West Newton, Mass., to follow a dozen prospective customers over the course of two weeks. The researchers' conclusion: The high-end speaker market suffered from something referred to as “The Spouse Acceptance Factor.� While men adored the big black boxes, women hated their unsightly appearance. Concerned about the way the speakers would “look� in the living room, women would talk their husbands out of buying a cool but hideous and expensive piece of stereo equipment. Even those who had purchased the product had trouble showing it off: Men would attempt to display the loudspeakers as trophies in living room, while women would hide them behind plants, vases and chairs. “Women would come into the store, look at the speakers and say, ‘that thing is ugly,’� says Ellen Di Resta, principal at Design Continuum. “The men would lose the argument and leave the store without a stereo. The solution was to give the target market what men and women both wanted: a great sound system that looks like furniture so you don't have to hide it.�

Armed with this knowledge, Cambridge SoundWorks unveiled a new line. Launched in 2001, the furniture-like Newton Series of speakers and home theater systems comes in an array of colors and finishes. The result: The Newton Series is the fastest growing and best-selling product line in the firm's 14-year history.

Design Continuum employed a technique called ethnography to solve Cambridge SoundWorks' problem. Rather than ask consumers why they didn't make a purchase, Design Continuum's research team watched customers as they made the decision to buy or not buy the product. Researchers then followed consumers into their homes to observe how they made use of their loudspeakers — and even questioned speaker owners and their significant others about how they felt about their stereo accoutrements.

Ethnographic research — an observation technique developed by anthropologists that involves the systematic study of people as they go about their daily lives — is gaining traction among businesses looking for a discernible edge in predicting consumer behavior. Today, corporations such as Eastman Kodak and Microsoft have in-house ethnographers, while advertising agencies such as The Richards Group and Arnold Worldwide use ethnographic techniques in developing brand strategies for marketers including Home Depot and Talbots.

Indeed, ethnographic research is generating the equivalent buzz in the qualitative research community that online research created on the quantitative side a few years ago. With typical projects falling in the $20,000 to $300,000 price range, ethnographic research now represents about 5 percent to 10 percent of the $1.1 billion that businesses spend on qualitative research. While that may seem like a paltry percentage, it reveals formidable growth. Just five years ago, ethnographic research registered a negligible share of the total market, says Larry Gold, editor and publisher of the Barrington, Ill.-based Inside Research, which tracks the market research industry. Over the next five years, Gold expects ethnographic study to capture 10 percent to 15 percent of total qualitative research dollars. “Ethnographic research will continue to grow until it takes its place as a standard part of the market research tool kit,� he says.

In many ways, the success of ethnography lies in its ability to allow businesses to be the proverbial “fly on the wall.� Shari Schneider, Microsoft's in-house ethnographer who studies the use of mobile computing devices, typically arrives at her subject's home when he or she first wakes up in the morning. Schneider observes as the person gets ready for work — keeping an eagle eye out for anything that relates to mobile computing devices. Occasionally she will ask a question, such as, “Why did you write that appointment down on a piece of a paper instead of in your PDA?� But for the most part, she's just observing.

“When you're only there for a couple of hours, you tend to get the grand tour setup,� Schneider says. “The more time you spend with people, the more they get to know and just accept you.� And that's the true value of the technique, she believes. “Ethnographic research gives you a deeper picture of who your customers really are. It [helps a company] to see where people live, and how they work, and how your product works into their lives,� says Schneider.

Ethnographic research is also helpful with what's called “the fuzzy front-end,� when businesses are in the early stages of developing a product or marketing campaign — or even when they're not sure what they're trying to find out. Take, for example, the Sunbeam Corporation and its Coleman division. Four years ago, the household products giant acquired Coleman, one of the nation's oldest and most venerable names in camping and outdoor products. Sunbeam wanted to extend the Coleman brand — known for its distinctive forest green encased lanterns and its red coolers — into gas barbecue grills. But company execs couldn't decide how to design, position and launch the new line.

Even after hours of focus groups and reams of quantitative data, the outdoor cooking team felt like it had a whole lot of information but little insight, says Danene Jaffe, formerly in the outdoor cooking division, currently senior director of strategic planning at Sunbeam. “We didn't feel like we really understood what drove consumer behavior,� she says. “We weren't really sure what we were hearing.� For instance, in focus groups, “we were hearing a lot of passion about grilling, particularly among men, but [the respondents] couldn't really describe why they had that passion,� Jaffe says. The team had the sense that if it could understand that passion, it would be able to create a product and a brand strategy that would resonate all the way to the bottom line.

Jaffe and the Sunbeam execs turned to ethnography for help. Researchers hoisted video cameras onto shoulders and headed to their consumers' native habitat: the backyard. By hanging out with the guys around the grill and listening in on the gab, the team eventually gathered a key insight that other forms of research had failed to deliver: A gas grill isn't really a tool that cooks the hamburgers and the hot dogs. Rather, it's the centerpiece of warm family moments worthy of a summer highlights reel. So, rather than create and promote the new Coleman Grill in terms of BTUs, rotisserie options and cooking square inches, Sunbeam designed the grill to evoke nostalgia for the camping experience with friends and family. The company also developed a marketing strategy to reflect this understanding of grilling as “a relaxing ritual where the grilling area is the stage,� an event that takes place in a “backyard oasis.�

The result: The Coleman Grill did a scorching $50 million in sales in its first year, making the product line one of most successful launches in Sunbeam's history. The success was enough to make Jaffe a believer: “Ethnographic research has started to replace focus groups for us,� she says.

Ethnographic research can add heft to the hunch and provide the context to develop smart questions, says Karen Dougherty, account planning director at The Richards Group in Dallas, which works with clients such as Home Depot, Hyundai and Nokia. “Other forms of research work well when you have something to show consumers [i.e. a new product or a specific piece of advertising copy for a reaction]. Ethnographic research works well when it's the reverse,� she says. In these cases, the results of ethnographic exploration are used for inspiration, or to develop hypotheses that can then be used in more rigorous qualitative methods, like focus groups, or quantitative methods. (See “The Test Drive,� page S5 for an example.)

This is why some advertising agencies turn to ethnographic research at the beginning of a new advertising effort. For instance, when Boston-based agency Arnold Worldwide was developing a new campaign for Talbots Kids, the classic clothes line interpreted in children's' sizes, Kate Van Dam, associate director of brand planning, conducted an ethnographic study that included hours spent rustling around inside kids' closets. “I knew that the Talbots market was more upscale, but I didn't expect to see what I would call a complete wardrobe for their children. There were complete outfits on hangers, very well organized,� she says.

After her closet expedition and in-house interviews with moms and kids, Van Dam learned that “it was more important to Talbots' moms that their children are complimented than that they themselves are complimented,� she says — a feeling that emerged in the print ads that followed.

Van Dam also conducted ethnographic research for Marshall Field's, the clothes retailer. In this case, in addition to conducting in-home interviews, researchers also trailed women in the stores. “We asked them to shop through the store and show us some of their favorite nooks and crannies. We found that many of the women view a visit to Marshall Field's as an experience. They likened it almost to a museum. They were there to observe and take in displays visually. They reacted to mannequins almost like they were reacting to an art exhibit,� she says. Based on this information, the tag line for the campaign is: “The sheer joy of shopping.� One print ad, dubbed “Heaven,� shows a woman boarding an escalator, with a bright light shining from above.

In most forms of market research, researchers have to take consumers at their word. If they say they grind fresh beans for their coffee every morning, a box is checked off on a survey form, and follow up questions are asked in a focus group. In an ethnographic study, the researcher gets to go into the kitchen. If there's no grinder in sight, the researcher knows that she's hearing about something other than actual behavior — aspirations, perhaps.

It's not that respondents are intentionally lying, says Stephanie Husk, president and founder of Deep Blue Insight, an Atlanta-based ethnographic research firm. It's more often the case that they simply don't remember their behavior in detail. Husk's firm recently did a project for Johnson & Johnson's Acuvue contact lenses, which involved camping out in consumers' bathrooms, watching them go through their routine of poking around their eyeballs, cleaning their contact lenses and storing them.

“We learned more about how people feel about the product than we would have ever learned in a traditional setting,� Husk says. “It's not that people don't want to tell you; it's that they don't know. They don't know exactly what they do when they put that contact lens in. They don't know that they open their mouth wide and squint their eyes,� she says.

Still, for all its benefits, ethnography is far from being a magic elixir. It takes time to perform ethnographic research correctly and to build the level of intimacy that takes researchers beyond what they could learn in a focus group setting. In academic anthropology, fieldwork for an ethnographic project can last a minimum of 18 months, says Alisse Waterston, an anthropologist and president of Surveys Unlimited, a research firm in Larchmont, N.Y. Afterward, anthropologists “code� their observations, seeking patterns and developing hypotheses than can later be verified and tested, a process which can take months, if not years, to complete.

It's unrealistic to expect any company to wait that long for the results of a study — and so in a business setting, the time spent in the field observing consumers is radically compressed. For example, the average project length for Context Based Research Group, a Baltimore-based firm that conducts projects for companies including Procter & Gamble and Bristol Meyers, is 12 weeks, says Robbie Blinkoff, principal anthropologist and cofounder. Eastman Kodak, which employs in-house ethnographers, uses a two- to three-hour in-home interview as its basic framework, and adds “hang out� time with consumers outside the home as needed, says Mark Rogers, a design anthropologist at the Rochester, N.Y.-based company. For a recent project to explore new products for teenagers, Kodak conducted a dozen three-hour in-home interviews and then followed the teens around during out-of-house activities, such as a trip to the mall or a soccer game.

Still, there's no doubt that even this compressed schedule for ethnographic research is sluggish to an exec with a deadline of yesterday. “It's more time consuming, that's the bottom line,� says Van Dam, of Arnold Worldwide. She points out that with a focus group, it takes two hours to speak to eight people. With ethnographic research, it can take 24 hours of total research time to speak to the same number of people. (Eight in-home interviews, each three hours long.)

In response to the time crunch, a host of ethnographic-style techniques have emerged. Heading to the mall with a video camera to interview consumers for 15 minutes? That's considered ethnographic research these days. Ask consumers to keep a product usage diary, or simply move a one-on-one interview out of a focus group facility and into the consumer's home or office — that's ethnography today. “When someone says ethnographic research, the bottom line is they mean you go out in the field,� says Barbara Perry, an anthropologist with Radar Communications, a Boulder, Colo.-based research firm. Karen Dougherty, of The Richards Group, calls this phenomenon “ethno-dunking.�

The problem with ethno-dunking is that while it can be helpful in rooting out lies, it will not serve as the “express train to insight� that ethnography promises. “Ethnographic research is substantially more than just adding some observation to an interview,� says Carol Brandon, vice president of qualitative services for Burke, Inc., in Cincinnati. Immersion in a consumer's world, taking a wide-ranging look at everything in that consumer's life and building trust lead to the fruit of ethnographic research — the rich insights. Without such immersion, many of the advantages that the technique brings over other forms of qualitative research evaporate.

“The chance to observe people and to pick up on things, especially things they might have forgotten about, that's extremely useful,� says Judy Langer, senior vice president at RoperASW, and director of the Roper/Langer qualitative research division. But, when a one-on-one or focus group style interview is simply taking place in someone's home or in some other environment, she sees little advantage over a traditional focus group. (In fact, without the group dynamic, she sees a potential disadvantage.)

“A natural environment does not make a better interview per se,� she says. Schneider, of Microsoft, agrees. “If poor ethnography is being done, it's not going to help a company succeed,� she says.

Ethnographic research is also not a one-size-fits-all tool. It can't provide businesses with a demographic profile of a typical consumer or with information that can be projected to the entire U.S. population. “If your objective is to quantify something, or if your objective is to determine something, like which product generates the most interest within a target audience, you probably don't want to do ethnographic research,� says Van Dam.

Finally, the results of ethnographic research should be taken with a grain of salt — no matter how in-depth the ethnographer gets into a respondent's life, it's still an infinitesimally small-scale study, with a goal of generating questions, not answers. There's always the chance, in other words, that the people that a company chooses to research in an ethnographic study could end up being the weirdest people in America — the Osbournes — when the target market is really more like Ozzie and Harriet.

Although all forms of qualitative research are vulnerable to this risk to some degree, well-designed focus group projects attempt to build in geographic and demographic diversity, something that's often not possible in an ethnographic study. “I'm always saying, ‘remember, this is just a small sample of people,’� says Schneider. “[Ethnographic research] is the first step — no one should just stop there, no one should stop with just an initial theory,� she says.

In fact, it's best to think of ethnographic research not as a replacement for other forms of investigation but as a first step to take before launching into other qualitative or quantitative techniques. Ethnographic research may dive deep into a consumer's psyche, but smart companies will remember to come up for air eventually.


Ethnographic research certainly didn't start out as a way to help companies sell more stereo equipment. Ethnography developed at the turn of the last century as a working tool for anthropologists, says Alisse Waterston, an anthropologist and president of Surveys Unlimited, a research firm based in Larchmont, N.Y. The procedure is defined as the systematic study of people, or groups of people, as they go about their lives. Unlike other forms of academic-based research, ethnographers shatter any notion of clinical distance and dive right into the population they're studying. As “participant observers,� ethnographers can use their intimacy with the people they're studying to gain richer, deeper insights into culture and behavior — in short, into what makes their subjects tick.

Historically, anthropologists have used ethnography to gain perspective on foreign, exotic cultures. For example, Margaret Mead's seminal Coming of Age in Samoa and Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and The Sword, about Japanese culture, primarily report the results of ethnographic fieldwork.

Today, businesses are attempting to use these ethnographic research methods to help corporate America gain perspective on a slightly less exotic and mysterious population — regular, everyday consumers. The process has changed in the translation from the ivory tower to corporate America, however, primarily because anthropologists have far less time to make their observations in the field and analyze them when they get back to their offices. “The number of compromises you have to make is just mind boggling,� says Mark Rogers an ethnographer and design anthropologist at Rochester, N.Y.-based Eastman Kodak. “It's a strange bastardization of what you're used to in the training.�


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