Technicolor Malt Liquor and All-Night Fieldwork

In its original formulation, Sparks was one of the first alcoholic beverages to contain caffeine. Its other original active ingredients included taurine, ginseng, and guarana, the backbone ingredients of traditional energy drinks. It also contained 6% alcohol. Packaged in a can that looked like a AAA battery, its labeling boldly and loudly stated all of its ingredients and its 6% alcoholic content by volume.  Its flavor was similar to other energy drinks mixed with malt liquor, having a tart, sugary, synthetic taste. Its color was a vibrant day-glow orange. All of this added up to a drink that catches the eye. Sparks was a catalyst for exploring a wilder side. It was what you took to a party, a kickball game, a rave or an outdoor concert.

Ethnography involves significantly more than one-on-one interviewing. The whole humankind is riven with contrasting practices, cultures, tongues, traditions and world views. A cultural context may exist on levels as diverse as a workplace, a family, a building, a city, a county, a state, a nation, a continent, a hemisphere etc. A cultural context provides a shared understanding of meaning provides a framework for what “works” in the world. It is what helps you recognize “your kind” in all senses of the word. Getting at this sort of knowledge can’t be uncovered exclusively through the interview process. So in the case of Sparks, this meant meeting with our key informants and their friends. It meant going out on the town and being part of the activities, not just asking about them. Inevitably, this led us to bars, parties, etc. Being in the moment, taking advantage of unexpected fieldwork situations to gather information, became the unspoken mantra of the research.

And it is out of these moments that good insights, not just data points, begin to emerge. In one case we found ourselves at the apartment of a 28-year-old male living on the Upper East Side. He had gotten into the recruitment mix because he was making under $50,000 a year (the majority of Sparks drinkers were not affluent and so the client had asked that we cap the incomes). However, the participant, Marco, was taking time off from his job as the head of social media for a major clothing brand. At the time he left he was making upwards of $300,000. So Marco had gotten into the mix on a technicality. He clearly fell outside the segmentation scheme, but as it turned out, our day with Marco was instrumental to the success of the project. As it turned out, while he stocked his pantry with high-quality wines and liquor, he was also an avid Sparks fan. Not so much for its energy properties, and certainly not the flavors, but because it allowed him to reconnect with what he saw as his rebel past. Marco recounted his early years in New York, struggling to get by and living a romanticized quasi-punk existence. Every Sunday, Marco would spend the day in Brooklyn with his pre-affluence friends building and riding mutant bikes and the searching out the “worst” or “most ridiculous” drink possible. For Marco, and for almost all the Sparks fans we met, Sparks became something that not only gave them symbolic license to act in ways they normally wouldn’t, but also provided them with a sense of connection to their youth.

While each individual and situation in the fieldwork was unique, patterns did emerge. And when things started to click, it was precisely because we’d found ourselves engaged in the absurd. The questions that needed to be asked and the observations that need to take place could have only happened by breaking away from traditional methods.

Sparks isn’t as simple as the obvious functional benefits or flavor. It’s property that is guarded, like someone’s stash. It’s a mechanism for rekindling friendships. It’s an excuse to treat life as performance art. And most importantly, it’s a symbol that tells everyone the drinker has license to break the rules and to turn the night into something absurd. Inevitably, when you’re drinking Sparks, the expectation is that you’ll be out late engaging in the unexpected. In one case it meant heading to a rave in in the Bronx, followed by a sunrise trip to Hoboken to find a place that served legendary waffles. In another, it set the stage for semi-nude wrestling on the front lawn in the cold and damp of a Portland winter. The important thing to take away from this is that a pattern of behavior emerged that we wouldn’t have gotten had had we simple conducted an interview or run a survey. We had to be in the moment. That’s how you change the game.

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Beer, Brands, and Identity

Drinking alcohol seems to be one of the few things humans nearly everywhere do. Beer in particular has long been a part of human history and people have enjoyed raising a pint with friends since well before, well, pints were a thing. By 4000 BC the Sumerians were fermenting a form of bread to make a fermented pulp which had a “divine drink” By 3000 BC the Babylonians had up to 20 different types of beer. Beer is the foundation of civilization. But how do we go about choosing what to drink and where? What senses are drawn on to decipher what flows from that stein of beer? And does it matter if that beer is delivered in bottles, cans, or some other vessel?

While not actually being the easiest alcoholic beverage to produce (that distinction most likely goes to wine or mead), beer is considered to be a staple of many a diet. Over the course of human history the choices were largely dictated by the means of production – you drank the local brew because of availability, or, once mass production had nearly crush the independent brewery you drank what you were told to drink between episodes of Gun Smoke and the ball game. But today people have an incredibly wide range of choices available to them. Particularly, there has been an explosion in the number of “craft beers.” Within the U.S., the craft beer industry has grown considerably over the last decade, accounting for over 24% of all beers sales in 2017. So what’s the driving our choices and how can we apply those same principles to other food products?

Physicality

A central element in driving beer choice is “sensorial’, meaning it has qualities, whether the product itself or its packaging, that provokes our tastes and catches our eye. In other words, it stands out from the rest of the pack because it tantalizes our senses. Craft beer does this, in part, with considerably higher quality ingredients being used in the brewing process. Recipes are more elaborate and produce distinct flavors. Craft drinkers know they’re looking for something identifiable rather than something that appeals to the masses. Domestic beers is “watered down”, “flavorless”, “bland”. Craft beer, on the other hand, engages more of the senses. Enter the label, the bottle, the website. They serve to establish a particular flavor, lifestyle, to situate the product within a given community context. The packaging and display of the beer enhance the sensory experience, giving it a life of its own, a sense of identity. So beer is more than the taste, it’s the presentation, as well.

Making It MeanIngful

Food has symbolic meanings based on association with other meaningful experiences. An example of the symbolic meanings including food references can be found in many of our common expressions. Bread is a good example of the symbolism found in foods. When people sit together with friends at a meal they are said to break bread with one another. This expression symbolizes a setting where friends come together in a warm, inviting and jovial manner to eat. Bread has been called the staff of life – and as I alluded to before, bread is, in one sense, liquid bread. As much as taste and design impact the decisions we make about our beer, creating a sense of meaning is perhaps just as powerful. Food and drink, but especially beer, provide you with more than a taste experience. They are endowed with mystery, nostalgia, a sense of purpose. They provide the drinker with a sense of purpose.

Brand identity (and personal identity to a large degree) can be formed by the beers a brewery chooses to produce in relation to their definition of craftwork. Anchor Steam puts its history and dedication to the craft front and center in their identity through the connection to San Francisco and the tradition of “steam brewing”, as well as intentionally remaining relatively small. Boulevard Brewing out of Kansas City encourages their brewers in creative freedom, while Green Brewery creates all their beer while only using organic ingredientsAnd then there are those beers that are meant to inspire and encourage connection to a place. They create a sense of cultural connection by establishing a sense of imagined community. Most notably in the use of events by craft breweries to overlap the imagined communities of their own brewery with those of other businesses or breweries. Brooklyn Brewery ties one to a somewhat imagined sense of cultural unity with other Brooklyn Brewery drinkers. Lifting a bottle of Free State Ad Astra Ale connects people to Kansas and a bond between people over space and time.

And then there are those beers that are meant to inspire and encourage connection to a place. They create a sense of cultural connection by establishing a sense of imagined community. Most notably in the use of events by craft breweries to overlap the imagined communities of their own brewery with those of other businesses or breweries. Brooklyn Brewery ties one to a somewhat imagined sense of cultural unity with other Brooklyn Brewery drinkers. Lifting a bottle of Free State Ad Astra Ale connects people to Kansas and a bond between people over space and time.

But beyond the logo, the messaging, etc., many, if not most, of these breweries act. They have deep connections with their communities and facilitate a sense of betterment. Blue Brewery, for example, works closely with local charity organizations by giving them the proceeds from their monthly art shows. Free State helps support local organic farmers. Sun King sponsors events throughout the Indianapolis area, donating time and money to the efforts. They are all visible and engaged, helping establish themselves as anchors in the process of place-making.

Beyond Beer

So can it be done beyond beer? Do these same qualities apply to beef? Or milk? These are typically consumed away from the larger community, either alone, with family, or friends. They still fit into the complex symbolic exchange of sharing food, but they aren’t necessarily the types of food or drink you consume at a party, for instance. I would be inclined to say yes.
Personal and cultural connection to a place has a tremendous impact on the decisions we make about what we buy. Unless, of course, we’re talking about commodities. Whether that connection is to a direct cultural experience or to imagined community (e.g. a point in time, say, the late 1800s), the more connection you have to the product, the more likely you are to embrace it, to share it with likeminded individuals. If you’re from Maine, maple syrup has meaning. But if you’re from Maine, beef has meaning, too – it’s just that said beef may mean something representative of a bygone era to you. Regardless, the notion of craft factors in by establishing a strong set of feelings.

The feelings of both freedom and enslavement that mass production engenders appear to have been particularly invigorated in the wake of the economic crisis in the past several years. As opting out isn’t on the table for most, adapting within the system, personalization and localization, and efforts at self-sufficiency abound. That includes how we think about food. We’ve seen the explosion of trends such as the maker movement, the sharing economy and the associated decline in markets such as new car purchases, artisanal or slow-food cooking, and the success of marketplaces such Etsy, where at least if one isn’t quite ready for “doing handmade”, it’s easy to support the passion economy and gain something one-of-a-kind; revealing tensions towards mass production’s global reach and grip. It also creates a connection to something tangible. So too is it with how we construct meaning around our food. The more we can create a sense of connection and humanity with our food and drink, the more likely we are to create devotees.

Culturally speaking, in essence, what one eats defines who one is and is not. Eating is a daily reaffirmation of one’s cultural identity. Many people affiliate the foods from their culture, their childhood with warm, good feelings and memories. The food is part of who we are and become. It ties us to our families and holds a special worth to a person. Foods from our culture, from our family often become the comfort foods we seek as adults in times of frustration and stress. Be it beer, beef, or bread, tying what we consume to our personal identity and cultural context drives adoption.

PREFUNKING: Ethnography, booze, and neon drink

First Published in Peeps Forum:

In its original formulation, Sparks was one of the first alcoholic beverages to contain caffeine. Its other original active ingredients included taurine, ginseng, and guarana, the backbone ingredients of traditional energy drinks. It also contained 6% alcohol. Packaged in a can that looked like a AAA battery, its labeling boldly and loudly stated all of its ingredients and its 6% alcoholic content by volume.  Its flavor was similar to other energy drinks mixed with malt liquor, having a tart, sugary, synthetic taste. Its color was a vibrant day-glow orange. All of this added up to a drink that caught the attention of twenty-somethings. They were the people in the know; tattoo chic, experimenting, and bringing trends to life, not the people on the cutting edge of what is cool, but not the late comers to the subcultural party. Sparks was a catalyst for exploring a wilder side. It was what you took to a party, a kickball game, a rave or an outdoor concert.

Sparks was bought by Miller Brewing in 2006, but for all its success, Miller’s initial marketing campaigns fell flat. Sales, though strong, remained essentially unchanged from one year to the next. While the success of Sparks was tremendous, they hadn’t a clue about the people drinking it. There was plenty of data about the age group, but when it came to the lives and habits of the consumers, they really didn’t “get” them. Despite all of the traditional marketing data they held in their hands, Sparks was shaping up to be a puzzle they couldn’t solve. And so they reached out to ethnographers to get at the heart of the matter. What was it about this drink that Miller just didn’t quite get? After spending millions on the product, Miller was decidedly keen to get to the bottom of this mystery.

SHAPING THE CAMPAIGN

Initially, Miller had relied on a traditional campaign strategy – images of people at fairly tame social gatherings, savoring Sparks the way one might savor a beer after a long day at work, focusing on flavor. They even considered changing the formulation of the drink to offer an array of flavors that weren’t so dramatic, packaging the cans in twelve packs for sharing and easy storage, and mimicking other beverage producers with on-premises promotions that emphasized flavor and direct competition with the Red Bull and vodka crowd. In the end, Miller chose a different route, based on what came out of the fieldwork. The strategy focused on the one thing that made Sparks special; its sheer absurdity and embodiment of sanitized rebellion.

Sparks was defined by its users. They felt a large degree of control over it and a deep appreciation for the fact that its ingredients simply weren’t meant to go together. Sparks represented a categorical frame that defied convention and the campaign we helped them develop reflected that. The focus moved away from traditional advertising and competing directly with the competition. Instead, the strategy was to become a presence at transitory events such as raves, mutant bike rallies, skateboarding competitions, music festivals that weren’t in the mainstream, but not so far outside the norm as to be overlooked. Event were chosen that reflected a sanitized sense of rebellion. Photo-bombing was encouraged and recipes were shared. One Brooklyn kickball team took it upon themselves to use the Sparks can as their mascot, shooting it “doing things” before every game, which led to competition between teams for posting the best shots.  One woman and her roommate gave the world their recipe for a Sparks float. While the drink is interesting, having had a couple of Sparks before trying it helps with the flavor.

The other central aspect of the campaign was to focus on small, stop-and-go liquor stores and groceries, rather than worrying about what happened at the bar. Bars are about projection of sophistication, group affiliation, and building group identity in a closed environment with certain social rules. Sparks was all about the individual drinking it and being part of a group activity defined by being temporary and over the top. The places where Sparks was consumed were about mutability and liminality, which fit right in with the places it was typically bought. Finally, the product itself saw no change. Making it taste “good” defeated the purpose and devalued the drink. It was one thing to introduce Blackberry Sparks, but quite another to mask the strange, chemically flavor notes that made the drink cool. Equally important to keep the unusual flavor, changes to the packaging were made to reflect its utility, giving it greater symbolic credibility and making it something you could show off to your friends and strangers.

All of these elements came together to ignite a simple idea: Sparks isn’t something you drink so much as it was something you used, whether for the obvious physical effects or to set the stage to an evening (or, less often, a day) where abandonment of social norms was the rule.  This meant Miller had to embrace greater risk and deviate from its normal operating procedures. They couldn’t stick with a brand image that was intentionally subdued. They could focus on the middle of the bell curve, but had to embrace the people who were setting trends. It was a gamble, but one that paid off. Under the new campaign direction, Sparks saw sales and awareness increase 20% after having been stagnant for well over a year. So how did we get there?

GETTING DIRTY: PREPARING AND PLANNING

Everything begins with a solid methodology. Defining our target was based on Miller’s data, but went beyond basic demographics, the reason being twofold. First, traditional segmentation is often, if not always, too restrictive and not designed to reflect the fact that people are social creatures, not individuals who function outside of cultural realities. In other words, while we like to think we’re individuals, we are products and shapers of our cultures and context shapes how we think, act, and believe. Rather than going after individuals, we designed the research to focus on cultural groups and settings.  What are the situations in which drinking is occurring? How do we type different drinking situations? How do they change through time? How do people outside the target segment reflect and shape a given context? Treating the moments in which interactions occurred is if they were also the sample allowed us to look at Sparks from a different angle, not just from the position of product and/as person.

Once we began defining who we would use as our person of entry into a given setting and thinking through the possible drinking contexts we would need to see, we began the process of developing field teams and determining where geographically we would go. Developing field teams involves more than simply picking out observant individuals with a knack for interviewing and conversing with strangers, it meant taking time to reflect on strengths, individual psychologies, and interpretive skills. Taking more than two ethnographers into the field is, in my estimation, a mistake but the same can often be said about taking a single ethnographer. Having more than two people simply makes the situation awkward and leads to a lab-rat situation where people are more concerned with feeding you what they think you want to hear than letting you into their world for a time. This was extremely important for the Sparks work because we wanted an “inside/outsider” approach; someone the participants could teach and another they felt comfortable bringing into the group. By having two sets of minds with different views and backgrounds, it’s easier to triangulate observations and determine what is interpretive bias vs. what’s actually going on. Individually, what we learn may look very different, but together we start to see patterns emerge.

Deciding the locations of study was, perhaps, an easier task. Sparks had a fairly finite range of consumption – the hipper parts of town. Initially, the client wanted us to focus exclusively on their three largest markets, New York, Chicago and LA. We, however, thought that while these were certainly legitimate, the cities were limiting. The reason is twofold. First, if were going to grow the market we needed to see what was happening in places other than the Big 3. Second, if the defining characteristic of the Sparks buyer (and potential Sparks buyer) was being part of a cool group, we needed to see how that was defined in cities other than the top trend setters in the US. All this guides the decision about the field sites we choose. In the end we settled on the New York metro (primarily the Williamsburg area, but also the Lower East Side, Harlem, and Greenwich Village), Portland (smaller population), Austin (college town defined as a bastion of weirdness in an otherwise conservative state) and Atlanta (emerging as a major music hub at the time). With the planning and prep out of the way, and with the blessing of the client, we were ready to go.

HEADING INTO THE FIELD

Ethnography involves significantly more than one-on-one interviewing. The whole humankind is riven with contrasting practices, cultures, tongues, traditions and world views. A cultural context may exist on levels as diverse as a workplace, a family, a building, a city, a county, a state, a nation, a continent, a hemisphere etc. A cultural context provides a shared understanding of meaning provides a framework for what “works” in the world. It is what helps you recognize “your kind” in all senses of the word. Getting at this sort of knowledge can’t be uncovered exclusively through the interview process.

So in the case of Sparks, this meant meeting with our key informants and their friends. It meant going out on the town, so to speak, as they engaged in any number of activities. Inevitably, this led us to bars, parties, etc. Being in the moment, taking advantage of unexpected fieldwork situations to gather information, became the unspoken mantra of the research. One of our key informants had us meet in her Williamsburg apartment the night she was throwing a party. Much to our delight, nearly everyone attending had a couple of cans of Sparks with them, along with a six pack of something else, usually an import. The six packs went in the fridge or on the fire escape, it was a brutally cold winter, so people took advantage of the situation, but the cans of Sparks stayed with the owner. What we discovered was surprisingly simple – one can was used to kick start the evening and the other was downed at about midnight or 1:00 to keep the party going. Functionally, the product was all about what several participants called the “pre-funk”.

But Sparks isn’t as simple as the obvious functional benefits. It’s property that is guarded, like someone’s stash. And more importantly, it’s a symbol that tells everyone the drinker has license to break the rules and to turn the night into something more than a casual get together. Inevitably, when you’re drinking Sparks, the expectation is that you’ll be out late engaging in the unexpected. In one case it meant heading to a rave in in the Bronx, followed by a sunrise trip to Hoboken to find a place that served legendary waffles. In another, it set the stage for semi-nude wrestling on the front lawn in the cold and damp of a Portland winter. The important thing to take away from this is that a pattern of behavior emerged that we wouldn’t have gotten had had we simple conducted an interview. We had to be in the moment.

And it is out of these moments that good insights, not just data points, begin to emerge. For example, what do you do when it turns out a recruit doesn’t fit the sample defined by the client segmentation? You can, of course, always walk away, but you run the risk of missing a moment that would otherwise be overlooked. In one case we found ourselves at the apartment of a 28-year-old male living on the Upper East Side. He had gotten into the mix because he was making under $50,000 a year (the majority of Sparks drinkers were not affluent and so the client had asked that we cap the incomes). However, the participant, Marco, was taking time off from his job as the head of social media for a major clothing brand. At the time he left he was making upwards of $300,000. Marco clearly fell outside the segmentation scheme, but as it turned out, our day with Marco was instrumental to the success of the project. As it turned out, while he stocked his pantry with high-quality wines and liquor, he was also an avid Sparks fan. Not so much for its energy properties, but because it allowed him to reconnect with what he saw as his rebel past. Marco recounted his early years in New York, struggling to get by and living a romanticized quasi-punk existence. Every Sunday, Marco would spend the day in Brooklyn with his pre-affluence friends building and riding mutant bikes and the searching out the “worst” or “most ridiculous” drink possible. For Marco, and for almost all the Sparks fans we met, Sparks became a something that not only gave them symbolic license to act in ways they normally wouldn’t, but also provided them with a sense of connection to their youth.

HEADING HOME: MOMENTS OF INSIGHT

After leaving the field the hard work begins. Literally hundreds of pieces of information from different field teams have to be synthesized into a meaningful set of patterns, and the final output can be large and daunting.  That works well if your goal is academic, but when all is said and done, our clients are looking for direction and specific ideas on which they can act. In the case of Sparks, several key conceptual points bubbled to the surface. The first was to capitalize of the idea of function vs. connoisseurship. Sparks has a fairly clear purpose of establishing a physical state vs. status. Unlike, say Oban (seek it out if you’re unfamiliar), Sparks does not convey taste or knowledge about culinary matters. It does convey knowledge about being part of the inner circle of cool.  Above all else, Sparks functions as a means of kicking off the night and gives the drinker license to behave in unexpected ways. Second, Sparks has an undertone of humor to it. Throughout the research, participants talked about the cartoonishness of the drink – the “absurdity” of the battery-like can, the color, the very idea of combining malt liquor and an energy drink. Sparks was a manifestation of incongruity in beverage form, bricolage in a can.  Not surprisingly, urban myths and folklore about Sparks were in ready supply. For example, more than one participant told us, “If you drink more than three you may die”. Another told us that if you leave a glass of it out overnight, it would eat through the bottom, though they had never tried the experiment themselves. One participant firmly believed that if taken to a picnic, Sparks would be the only item ants would avoid. None of it was taken all that seriously, but that simply added to the fun. The brand’s very absurdity was a major strength.

Finally, Sparks tied in with symbols of youth. It signified rebellion and a lack of inhibitions. It also represents a sense of abandon where mortality is challenged. Almost everyone we spoke with commented at some point that they would stop drinking the stuff before they were thirty. As one participant said, “I know this stuff is killing me, but I’m still young, I have time.” Sparks tempts fate, it reifies the drinker’s youth and briefly puts them in opposition to the larger culture without having to commit to a permanent state of rebellion.

All of this led to a number of clear recommendations, some of which flew in the face of what the data and the focus groups said. First, it was extremely important to keep the flavor funky. Tasting strange, like the color of the drink, gave it credibility. Tasting strange solidifies it as a symbol of absurdity, making the drink a publicly displayed symbol of their “inner cool.” Second, Miller had to rethink packaging. Like the flavor, the can itself is a symbol drinkers use to let others know that social norms are fluid while drinking it. But this is not a drink you share. You only drink 2-3 in a night, which meant six packs are useless. It’s all about grab and go, not something you stockpile, savor, or sip with friends. That means designing two packs and three packs. Third, the brand had to accept that on-trade is not where success lies, at least not initially. Cans in a bar are unacceptable, unless the product is seen as a throwback drink (i.e. retro beers, etc.). On the surface, Red Bull and vodka might not appear that dissimilar from Sparks, but what they convey in a bar is vastly different. Cans are acceptable in public space when it is truly public. Finally, Miller needed to rethink traditional media. Because of an inherent distrust of advertising, the rise of social media, and word of mouth being the most trustworthy means of communicating “cool”, print, radio, and TV had little relevance. Live events and being in unexpected places, such as sponsoring a last-minute street party or having a presence at a mutant bike rally, adds credibility and cache to the brand. Sparks, unlike the other products in the parent brand’s suite, needed to break away from everything the company was comfortable with. Indeed, it needed to work in opposition to it.

THE SAD DEMISE OF SPARKS

Unfortunately, for all its success, Spark has faded into the background, the reason being that all the “good stuff” was removed, stripping it of the very things that made it work. In September 2008, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington D.C.-based watchdog group, sued MillerCoors (Miller Brewing and Coors had merged the year before), claiming that its Sparks alcoholic beverages that include caffeine are a health hazard. Next, Congress began a probe. But the suit never made it to court. Three months later, at the behest of San Francisco and 13 states, distributor MillerCoors  buckled and announced it would remove the caffeine and other energy-drink ingredients from its Sparks line of energy drinks, and would change its marketing campaign. With the ingredients gone, Sparks simply didn’t have a campaign or a product that mattered. The drink still exists, but the brand has fallen into the shadows of the broader MillerCoors portfolio as sales have declined over time.

For better or for worse, the work we did increased awareness, market share and sales. Unfortunately, it also helped put the brand squarely in the crosshairs. Had Sparks remained quietly in the background, it might not have garnered the ire of watchdog groups. The drink was representational of the people who drank it: outsiders, rebels, people who are often seen as a threat by the standard order. Sparks, like heavy metal or punk in the 80s, was more than a potential health hazard, it was a threat to the status quo. By bringing it into a more accepted space, it challenged what drinking “should be”. And so, Sparks became a target as it grew in popularity, and ultimately was undone by the very factors which had driven the marketing campaign that had made it so successful.  Even so, what the client and our team learned from the research done on this project continues to be used to this day, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the greatest compliment a project can receive.

 

Anthropology, Ethnography and Insights

Someone recently asked me,”When working with a retailer or brand, how do you conduct your research?” It’s a simple but extremely important question.  We do a mix of ethnographic field work, Proxemics studies, biological analysis and dramaturgical analysis, all of which sounds very technical and jargony. The point is to, well, make a point. Ethnography is simple one of a number of tools and good qualitative work that is rooted in an anthropological perspective should make that clear.

Over the past decade, ethnography has been embraced by the business community. But the term “ethnography” has been used fairly loosely and expectations about the work and final outcomes vary as much as the people calling themselves ethnographers. As I have written before, anthropology provides a real-world way of looking at a problem or opportunity, applying social and cultural understanding to the topic. What this means is that anthropology provides a wide range of answers that, if analyzed properly, go well beyond the tactical, the sensational, and the superficial. The point is that we think about shopping in its totality.  If you want to sell more beer, you have to look at how people understand social and private drinking, how they provision their homes, how they think about the “appropriate” place to buy a product. Once those cultural, behavioral and biological/cognitive elements are teased out, we build prototypes, test them, break them and build them again. Or at least, we should.

Writing Case Studies, Not White Papers

When we were in college, particularly those of us who came out of the social sciences, we tended to write volumes when given the task of reporting. I recall regularly churning out 50 pages or more every week at times.  For better or for worse, many researchers, ethnographers in particular, have come to think of themselves as descriptive interpreters, which often leads to rich but dense texts.  Our role has been to translate cultural practices and allow those people who consume our work determine what, if anything, should be done.  We tell a story and provide information that is deep and expansive. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can, however, get in the way of writing short pieces meant to sell or skills and engage readers with little time or patience.  When it comes to case studies, nine times out of ten the reader is looking for information that is quite literal and instructional.  Ambiguity and/or involved anecdotal descriptions are usually rejected in favor of what is more concrete. Rather than looking for a white paper, they are looking for simplicity and proof that the research had applicable results.

White papers are detailed, often lengthy descriptions of methods, variables, problems, outcomes. They are meant to expose the reasoning and rationale behind a position, a problem or a generalized topic. The point is, they are designed to be consumed with a higher degree of reflection on the part of the reader. Case studies, in contrast, are (or should be) direct and brief. They should convince the client to seek more information and take the next step, namely, engagement with the author or company that produced them.  The case studies most potential clients want need to be short, simple, to the point and entertaining. So, other than being brief, what makes for a good case study?

It starts with understanding why we’re writing what we’re writing. It needs to entertain and be thought provoking, but it also serves a purpose for the author. Good content isn’t just fun to read. It should set in motion a sequence of visitor thoughts and actions that ultimately lead to a sale. Case studies are meant to get business, not just enlighten or entertain. The people reading the case study assume you’re writing them to drive business. If you don’t hook them, they assume you’re incompetent or you’re wasting their time. Case studies are the shiny-shiny of authorship.

Before you begin writing, organize your information around two basic principle: what was the business pain and what were the results. reveal real business pain

We often spend more time than is necessary on the way we went about finding a solution rather than thinking through why a solution was needed in the first place. Or, we don’t link the process to the outcomes.  Shorter is better and remembering that everything needs to relate to the Why and So What will help focus the story.

If the objective is to showcase your organization’s ability to generate awareness, revenue or innovation, it needs to equate capabilities with results.  Once the two fundamental points are defined, the story being told needs to be broken out into three simple elements:

  1. Issue
  2. Solution
  3. Results

A well-written case study should:

  1. Build suspense and be provocative: State the problem in terms that make the readers stop in their tracks and want to know what is to come. Simply stating problem in dry, mechanical terms doesn’t attract the reader. Set the stage with language that makes people want to see an outcome – an outcome they can’t predict.
  2. Solve a specific business problem (company X needed to know Y): Tell the reader what needed to be done, how you solved their specific problem and why your process was different from (and better than) your competition. Simply saying something along the lines of “we used an ethnographic approach to uncover insights…” won’t engage and it won’t set you apart.
  3. Solve a generalizable business problem (make money or save money): Once you tell the reader the specific problem you solved, tell them what ultimately matters most; how you made the client money or helped them save money. If the results can be quantified, all the better. The point here is that we often actually manage to overlook this part.  We give examples of outcomes that are often interesting and inspiring, but we fail to tie them back to the money.
  4. Have a satisfying conclusion: Resolve the tension that the story built at the beginning of the case study.  Don’t simply leave the reader with numbers, give them a sense of emotional resolution.
So, as an example:

What does a company do when it’s flagship product isn’t making the money it once did despite huge advertising budgets? It figures out how to talk about what it makes and sells in ways that have never been considered before. It embraces new markets. But to do that, it needs to define those markets in ways their competitors hadn’t. It needs to rethink who it is. 

As part of a brand repositioning and product development initiative, [the client] needed to develop a better understanding of how [lite beer] was understood and used in context by Latinos. They needed on-the-ground, experience-rich information. The response was an in-depth ethnographic project spanning multiple geographic areas and seasons. This wasn’t just interviews – it meant attending rodeos, picnics, BYOB restaurants, bars and birthday parties to gather insights about symbolism, rituals and uses of the product.

The research steered the client down a completely new road of product positioning, saving them millions by developing a campaign strategy and messaging system that were in line with what consumers do, not just what they say they do.  Unlike their competitors, [the client] were able to use the insights uncovered to identify entirely new channels for sales and promotions. Ultimately, sales saw a 6% increase in the first year of the new campaign.
Not a bad end result. Sometimes doing research right leads to big things. 

This is hardly ideal and its quality could no doubt be argued. But it does tell the story. And for someone simply trying to narrow the field from thousands of vendors to just a few in the space of an afternoon, it is considerably easier to read than a full-blown white paper. And that is more likely to help you make a sale.

 

 

 

 

Culture, Sample and What Clients NEED to Know

The key point in ethnography is that the unit of analysis is not the individual, but the culture in which people operate.  As such, it is intrinsic to understanding ethnography’s value to comprehend that the study of a culture involves exploring two levels of consciousness and meaning: the explicit and the implicit. Explicit culture is what we see and hear people articulate: social mores, tool, basic interactions, etc.  It is that level of shared knowledge people can typically communicate easily, or those aspects of material culture that are readily identifiable. Implicit culture is comprised of those things, which are simply “known” and usually either unspoken or difficult to articulate. It is that space where culture is not just trappings and customs, but rather meanings, symbols, and practices. The implicit side of culture is the domain of meanings takes shape, and it is here where the ethnographic understanding finds its true value.

Participants do not attend a facility in an ethnographic study. In fact, the participants or the context/setting largely determines where and when they meet with the ethnographer(s). So, if the area of inquiry is about, say, beer consumption, the fieldwork may take place at a bar, at a picnic, or at a ball game.  The point is that these are all contexts in which beer is purchased and consumed and by exploring various contexts, the ethnographer begins to understand the myriad roles beer plays in people’s lives. Once the range of contexts is understood, patterns of meaning and norms emerge. Understanding these contexts helps companies identify and talk to the beliefs, needs, processes and hidden triggers of their shoppers and consumers. It seems daunting, but it is not a stretch to say that everything is data in an ethnographic project.  The goal, and the hardest part by far, is to connect the dots between the various points of data and build a meaningful, valid pattern.  And this is where the real value of ethnography lies.

This is also one of the hardest things to convey to a client.  On the surface it seems like a simple sell, but we are conditioned to look to individuals as defined by segmentation studies when developing business plans, advertising, marketing strategies, etc. It’s known, it’s safe and it’s easy to grasp.  This is why we make a point of doing some sort of field exercise with clients before we engage in a project, whether it’s an ideation session that involves limited fieldwork or actually taking people into the field with us.  This is also why every session or day ends in a debriefing where the interview is compared against the unsaid, the environment and the contextual makeup of the area of study. Having clients participate in the interpretation and analysis is as significant as having them take part in the fieldwork itself because it begins to convey the complexity of the topic and the interconnectedness of people, setting and product (or retailer, brand, condition, etc.).

Yard Beer, Manliness and Purchase Decisions

Yard beer, cheap domestics that we’re all very familiar with, is a staple in the American male drinking process.  One of the primary reasons is obvious – it’s cheap.  It does its job quite well.  But cost is only one element in the decision process for beer shopping.  Indeed, there is little about it that involves shopping – thinking through the multitude of choices, weighing quality and experimentation are of minimal concern.  But, buying yard beer isn’t as simple as it seems.  The decision process begins at home, well before the buyer enters the liquor store, grocery or bodega.  Context is the driver and reciprocity, the shared experience, directs the decision.

Inexpensive beer is extremely adaptable because people can define it according to what the buyer needs or wants. The beer is imbued with social mechanisms, engaging the honor and sense of fraternity of both giver and receiver. The giver does not merely give a beer but also part of himself.   The act of giving creates a social bond and it is expected that the exchange will someday be returned.  It often becomes the central element of creating solidarity amongst men.  And that also means exchange becomes a means by which men express and create a sense of masculinity.

Beer advertising frequently relies on images of powerful men (defined in Anglo imagery by possession of women), or men as adolescents. For men with less access to more abstract forms of masculinity-validating power or those wishing to reconnect with more traditional expressions of it, beer becomes an extension of being a man. Beer choice often has less to do with ethnicity or regionalism than it does with the need to create a male-male bond that is easily defined, displayed and acted out.  Beer is an agent for establishing social and cultural norms.  Bud Light is great for the game, Duvel probably is not.

So what?  Well, it matters because this sort of understanding doesn’t come from traditional segmentation.  Indeed, it often flies in the face of traditional marketing practices.  What it provides the manufacturer and/or seller of any product, be it beer or jeans, a way of thinking about marketing that is more subtle and more inclined to build brand loyalty.  Rather than focusing on the obvious, it speaks to deeper needs.  And if you can identify those, you can create rituals, traditions and iconic status.  You gain life-long brand advocates that carry your torch across generations.