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March 28th, 2017

Ethnography: Connecting Tribes

Ethnography has long been used as a valuable tool in product development, but insights from this in-depth involvement with customers and the market at large can provide strategic direction to many aspects of corporate planning.

Ethnography is the study of groups: cultures, tribes, demographic segments. Ethnography tries to observe and understand how people live their lives or do their jobs, and make decisions on their terms, from their perspectives, not ours.

Ethnography may be perceived as time-consuming and inefficient in the world of big data. However, the time spent in understanding the context for consumer decision-making can help companies address needs that the consumer has, but is not fully aware of or cannot articulate. These are important opportunities for product innovation.

Most are familiar with the concept of ethnographers spending time in peoples’ homes watching how they address the needs that products are designed to meet. We can observe their current behaviors and gain insight into behaviors they may be willing to change or adapt to better meet these needs, and this includes acceptance of new product innovations.

Beyond product innovation, ethnographic research can also inform other strategic planning, such as channel strategy. A few days spent on a construction site observing the construction cycles, interactions among the subcontractors, scheduling requirements, and materials deliveries can provide an equipment manufacturer valuable insights into how to manage its distribution to cut costs and increase customer satisfaction. Following a subcontractor on his shopping trip to his distributor or a home center, or watching him use his smartphone to shop online for the parts or equipment he plans to install, enables the manufacturer to make sure his product is the one that is available to meet the need quickly so the subcontractor can get back on the job.

In a consumer “shop-along,” ethnographers observe how consumers choose websites to look for a product, what reviews they read, or how they engage with retail packaging and POS materials. This can reveal both challenges and opportunities for brand strategy. A company can see, through the consumer’s eyes, where its brand’s positioning is clear and aligned in the channels the consumer is using, and where the brand needs attention to get back in alignment.  It may reveal opportunities for leadership in a channel where selection is lacking or some well-executed consumer education about the category would make the brand stand out.

Ethnography helps us understand how to connect the consumer culture to our corporate culture. While ethnography is not the answer for every information need, it may be the way to inform many strategic decisions for which it’s never been considered. The payoff can be big, now and in the future.

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