Ethnographers Uncover the 'Unknown Unknowns' About Consumers

At AMA's MPlanet: Delivering Products Your Customer Doesn't Know They Need

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ORLANDO, Fla. ( -- So how is MPlanet populated? Let's put it this way, it is ruled by consumers and if you haven't hired an ethnographer to help you navigate their unwritten bylaws yet, start looking.

Someday, an ethnographer may help pitch an account or with a product during the 'fuzzy' part of development.

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As Dennis L. Dunlap, CEO, American Marketing Association, said in the first hour of the group's inaugural MPlanet conference this week, and echoed a hundred times throughout the two days: Get to know your consumer, intimately.

'Fuzzy front end'
Of course, Gerald Lombardi, Ph.D., and North American director of observational and ethnographic practice for pollsters GfK-NOP, would argue that everyone needs an ethnographer (he is one). But beyond the fact that good ethnographers are inherently good analytical thinkers, he believes they are essential to the marketing process, particularly at the "fuzzy front end" of product development.

During his "Ethnography & Its Impact on Marketing" session, Mr. Lombardi stressed how ethnographers can help uncover the "unknown unknowns" (to quote Donald Rumsfeld) about consumers and use those findings to directly shape more efficient and effective surveys.

Michael Treacy, co-founder and chief strategist at GEN3 Partners, a consulting firm that specializes in product innovation, agreed. In his "Reinventing Innovation in Consumer Products" presentation, he said, "Right now we're not very good at identifying what people need. Sometimes you can do focus group after focus group and [because of certain product limitations assumed by the consumers] often times the customer is the dumbest guy in the room."

Be the consumer
In Mr. Treacy's push for creating a scientific approach to innovation and producing the breakthrough product consumers didn't know they needed -- but fervently embrace -- the first step is to use ethnographic studies "to the point of being the consumer."

Even some of the more data-driven and accountability-focused sessions drove home the importance of understanding the consumer even better than they understand themselves. "Implementing the Customer Interaction Model of the Future," presented by research firm McKinsey and Co., was based on the belief that how a customer buys a product is becoming more important than what they buy. Sometimes, said associate partner Anupam Argawal, inundating consumers with multiple channels through which they can interact with products only leads to companies spending more and getting less consumer satisfaction.

Over the course of MPlanet's 48 hours, the role of marketing was defined as driving profitable growth by unlocking consumer insights. Dr. Lombardi thinks those insights will come from ethnographers -- something he says "lots and lots of advertising agencies and marketers" have already figured out.
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