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Ethnographies: The Classic Research Tool Your Brand May Be Missing

Ethnographies: The Classic Research Tool Your Brand May Be Missing

6 Practices to Help Brands Get to Know Consumers in the Real World

Insight to Action has been surprised lately by client interest in ethnographies. Since late 2022, we have conducted several market research ethnographies. Our team believes that the experience of seeing consumers’ broader lives merits the investment, and we want to introduce this classic concept to new brands.  

To be sure, the ethnographic approach is time consuming and costly, with a typical interview and shopping exercise taking 60-90 minutes.

Benefits include seeing and experiencing consumers’ lives in high definition, so the team is more likely to remember, empathize and uncover the unexpected.

Ethnographies are rich in insights and are used to see the product in the context of the consumer’s broader life.

A working definition of ethnography is:

Ethnography is a qualitative market research method in which a moderator and a small research team will interview a respondent in their home or office to gain observational insight about their lifestyle and everyday behavior.”

Ethnography Example in Major US Cities

In this example, our client’s goal with the ethnographies was to:

 “Move beyond an armchair understanding of the consumers.” 

This client defined the consumer segments of interest from a category segmentation study, with interest on developing deeper insights for each group. 

Since October 2022, our team has visited with 30 consumers in their homes in Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco, with plans to go to Denver and Phoenix in the next few weeks. 

Jo Thorogood comments:

“With ethnographies, we’re able to go beyond the what’s to the why’s.  And to get emotional reactions to the products. How does the consumer react with their body language? Do they lean back or pull in?  How delighted (or not) do they look? Why did they raise that eyebrow or scrunch that nose?  What is the tonality in their voice evoking? Is your product gathering dust on the top shelf or on the counter-top in regular use?  Human behavior is affected by many things, such as the environment around us, our circumstances and our values. The more we understand about this, the better we can empathize with our consumers and understand what affects their choices.”

Ethnographies: The Classic Research Tool Your Brand May Be Missing

What We Learned from Consumers

These ethnographies provided the opportunity to see how consumers live, the products that they have at home and use regularly, including both the studied category and the competitive set.  In this case, we explored daily routines, daily priorities and longer-term goals, with specific emphasis on self-care.

One example was a 40-year-old female entrepreneur who removes the labels from the product she is using, because she does not want her neighbors to see her publicly consuming the product, as she is embarrassed by the brand’s image. Her patio had an entire garbage can of discarded product labels and packages.

Given the workplace transitions in 2020, 2021, 2022 and continuing in 2023 from in person, to fully remote, to hybrid, we were also curious how these working adults adapted their behaviors for days when they go into the workplace compared with days when they work remotely.

For instance, we spoke with a 32-year-old professional who works “35 to 40 hours per week.”  As he took us through his daily schedule, it was clear that the total hours he works are closer to 30.  He is a full-time employee and gets all his work done work remotely, leaving plenty of time for exercising, videogaming and going to concerts.  He was highly focused on work-life balance and not working on nights and weekends. He is comfortable with any reduction in promotion potential that might result from his choices.

Other insights explored include where the product is stored in home, and the use of other related categories, in this case, home exercise equipment. 

We observed and asked about home exercise equipment, such as Peloton bicycles and Mirror exercise mirrors purchased during the pandemic. While some consumers continue to use the equipment, we saw more equipment that is now gathering dust.  

After the first part of the ethnography was complete, we went on a simulated shopping trip (aka, shop along) with the consumer, either online or in store.  The shopping trips facilitated comparisons between products and provided a broader sense of the category than was possible in home.

Ethnographies After the COVID Era

The first question we encountered from our teammates was whether it would be possible to do ethnographic interviews, given COVID concerns, and the need to enter consumers’ homes.   

Our qualitative research manager, Jean Moore, took on this challenge and recommended working with Fieldwork NRC.  For this team, these were among the first ethnographies conducted since COVID shut down in-person research in March 2020, and there were many questions.

Moderators Jo Thorogood and Katie Sweeney are both long term colleagues, with excellent perspectives and suggestions on the best approach.  Each shared that for the past few years (2020, 2021 and most of 2022), the focus for the work they’ve led has been online qualitative.

In this case, we recognized that doing these interviews digitally would not meet the client’s goal of leaving the comfort of the digital armchair to go “into the field.”  An important aspect of this work was for the client research team to have the synchronous, in-person experience, not just view an interview or read a report. 

Ethnographies: The Classic Research Tool Your Brand May Be Missing

6 Practices For Ethnographies in 2023

Building upon the solid foundation of the team’s collective experience, we adapted six practices for these ethnographies. We recognize that these practices are not “new to the world” ideas, but they have proven useful in 2022 and 2023.

  • Practice #1: Ask the consumer to take a photo of themselves in their home with the product in question.  This photo was then viewed confidentially to ensure that the answers from the screening question and the photo align. For instance, if the product(s) shown in the photo did not align with the products mentioned that they use regularly in the screener, that consumer was disqualified.
  • Practice #2: Require the consumer to describe a recent occasion when they used the product. This open-ended question was added beyond the normal articulateness question to ensure the consumer has actually used the product recently enough to have the ability to describe the situation. If they are not able to do so, again that consumer was disqualified.  This practice works best for a relatively frequently-used category, such as a consumer packaged goods item.    
  • Practice #3: Overcommunicate to the consumer that we will be coming to visit their home, and this is not an online interview.  Since we are visiting the home, it’s important to have clear guidelines outlined in advance for others in the home such as pets, partners and young children.   Our moderator also called each consumer the day before the interview to confirm the address, entry access, any parking suggestions and if there are pets present, to be able to alert the team for allergies.
  • Practice #4: Ensure an alternate, backup consumer is recruited and available in the event that the consumer needs to cancel for any reason. In several cases, we needed to interview the alternate because of a same-day cancellation.
  • Practice #5: Ensure the consumer and the research team can conduct the interviews with minimal risk of spreading illness. To do so, we ask that the consumer alert us if they or someone they live with becomes ill and cancel the interview in that circumstance. Similarly, any member of the research team who becomes ill will not participate.   
  • Practice #6: Prioritize the questions in the discussion guide, and don’t fill every minute. Leave time to explore deeply and move in new directions as needed in the interview.  If possible, ask for a demonstration for product usage.  Consider using projective techniques.

For many reasons, the movement to online, digital qualitative research was already in place long before COVID. For many brands, when COVID hit, it was natural for studies to be conducted exclusively online.   It makes a lot of sense to continue doing research online.

We believe, however, that it’s worth challenging the assumption for online-only, depending on the learning objective. Is 2023 a time for your brand to move beyond an armchair understanding of its consumers?

Contact us to learn more about what opportunities ethnographies might open up for your brand. Check out our Market Trends resource page for more insights.