Why does a world-class chef eat Spam? Why does a man in his late twenties, making over half a million dollars a year, choose to be “poor” on the weekends? And most important, why does it matter to a business? It is important, quite simply, because understanding the deep, resounding issues, practices, and beliefs of people provides an advantage in an increasingly complex and competitive markets. Gone are the days of shouting a product’s benefits. Gone are the days when is was good enough to be clever in an advertising strategy. Understanding the complexities of behavior and meaning change the way a company talks to its customers. It isn’t enough to know what people do (or say they do), you need to know why.
Ethnography is the buzz in market research these days, but fieldwork isn’t as simple as it might seem. Although ethnographic research is a remarkably powerful tool for marketing if conducted properly, the challenge is in how to uncovering deep, often latent mode practice and meaning, then convert findings that go well beyond surface-level observations or sensational statements into something that can be used to innovate and sell products and services. In other words, it isn’t enough to go out and conduct a good interview. An ethnographer worth his or her weight in salt is one who learns to see beyond the surface and find information and patterns that the untrained eye might overlook. This isn’t to say that legitimate ethnographers hold the key to some special knowledge or map of the human psyche. It is to say that legitimate ethnographers have learned through training and experience to see everything as data. And legitimate business ethnographers have learned to translate that information into something more than interesting information; they’ve learned to translate that information into something useful and applicable to their clients.
In the last few years, ethnography has shifted from a novel and often misunderstood methodology to a do-it-or-die necessity in many marketers’ and product designers’ tool kits. Ethnography has a logical appeal for business clients; market intelligence born from the homes and hearts of customers. It’s an ethnographer’s job to talk to and observe people, as they go about their daily routines, using sociology and anthropology methods for data collection and analysis – giving clients true-to-life, informed insights and a firsthand understanding of their customers. But insights come from more than simply recounting what was seen and heard, they come from having the analytical tools to make sense of the seen/heard and unseen/unheard. In other words, anyone can conduct an interview or note where people store excess toilet paper in their homes, but not everyone can dissect the encounter and identify symbolic, functional and culturally mitigated actions. And this leads back to the first point.
Relying on surface-level impressions leads to short-sighted solutions to marketing problems. If “hipsters” are drinking PBR, it isn’t enough to say the beer is a brand badge – that’s stating the obvious. No, what matters is uncovering the contexts that define “cool,” how the beer fits into general drinking rituals, what it means to be part of a special group, how objects become visual markers for subcultures, and similar deeper issues. If you understand those sorts of things, which emerge from having a solid grounding in the theoretical models of trained social scientists, you have insights that your competitors do not. If you don’t understand those sorts of things, all you have is a collection of anecdotes.