Pickup Trucks and Fashion: Why It Pays to do Fieldwork

The pickup truck has become an essential part of Western culture.  Even though trucks are needed and valued for their usefulness in farming, ranching and blue collar occupations, decorative additions are often made to trucks and these additions don’t always follow utilitarian functions.  Indeed, many truck owners do precious little in the way of physical labor – spend a few hours driving through the pricier suburbs of Houston and it become quickly clear that the truck is as much a fashion statement as it is a tool.  Perhaps more so.  Rather, pickups help negotiate and present group membership, notions of masculinity and femininity, and associations with class structure.  However, trucks don’t always present a seamless image, nor are the images always interpreted monolithically by those who own and decorate pickup trucks. There are a range of meanings associated with trucks and subcultures within the larger cultural framework.  But what is most important to this discussion is that trucks are far more than they seem.

Truck owners spend a considerable amount of money on customizing their trucks, with 45 percent spending at least $1,000 and 17 percent spending at least $3,000. The most common components customized are wheels and tires (36 percent), audio and video (29 percent), exterior trim (29 percent) and exhaust systems (19 percent). The high value that pickup truck owners place on their trucks and the amount of money that they spend in aftermarket products makes sense when you consider the fact that 64 percent consider their truck as an extension of their personalities.

As an example, when I was doing fieldwork with women who owned trucks, only one of them owned a truck as a function of her occupation.  Some used it as a means of establishing a sense of identity that said to the world, “I’m not a girlie girl.” Some used it as a way of asserting a sense of strength on the highway.  Some used it as a way of maintaining a connection with their past rural (or semi-rural) lives.  The point is that the truck became a symbol, an extension of themselves and utility played a minor role in the underlying reasons they chose it over a car or an SUV.

So why does it matter? It matters because it speaks to the fact that the products we own and use, whether they are thought of by their manufacturers and retailers as utilitarian or extravagances, are reinterpreted and redefined by their owners and that is a huge opportunity for marketers and designers. The truck is a fashion piece. It is a mobile living room.  It is a toy.  It is many things, and those things become apparent from doing deep fieldwork, not through surveys and interviews.  And just as trucks have a range of unexpected meanings, so to do laptops, beer brands, eye glasses, etc.  Regardless of your product or service, understanding people on a deeper level gives you a significant advantage over your competitors. That means getting out there and doing the kind of rich, immersive research that uncovers real insights, not just the low-hanging fruit.

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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  1. Agree with your last sentence. That’s one reason I like conducting one-on-one interviews – you often get to understand people on a deeper level, because after talking to them for a few minutes they often open up more than they would in a group setting. On a current project we are exploring what ‘ownership’ of an IT solution means – and it means a lot of different things to different people. Our original topline insight was it means more security and control over the data; now we know it has a broader meaning and that depends on what a person’s role is in buying the product, or at what level or what function they are in the organization.

  2. Gavin… thanks for posting this great article. Bruce… could not agree more! We are big believers in intimate chats when the topics are right. Clients accustomed to Focus Groups are often amazed at the subtle but important discoveries that come from respondents who feel free to unload because it’s essentially “just us” chatting. Even the presence of a video camera and cameraman, does not seem to violate personal space these days, given that we all have camera-phones. Focus Groups by their nature produce considered responses, with content as well as ego factoring into them. The unfiltered, natural, casual responses you get in a one-on-one ( or even better, an interview with a married couples ) can be far more realistic.

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