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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Sleeping With Truckers and Building Mutant Bikes

I once spent a day with a 29 year old man who made about $600K a year running all things web-related for a major clothing designer.  He lived on the Upper West Side and ate out nearly every night.  He kept a 20 year old bottle of Oban on the bar for his end-of-day cocktail. But on the weekends, he headed to Brooklyn to drink the cheapest malt liquor he could find and build mutant bikes with his friends.  Turns out he did it to keep “true to his punk-rock roots.”

Most independent trucks buy hard candy to bump up their metabolisms when the nights get too cold in the cab.  It helps save on the costs for heating the cab.

Fishermen love Pringles and similar chips because the packaging can be readily converted to a mini-trash can when on the water. It’s the central decision for about 25% of them.

On the surface these silly insights. But if you’re in the business of selling beer and spirits, candy, or snacks they are extremely important.  They are the places that lead to real insight and real innovation.  And you don’t get these sorts of insights from traditional methods.

When was the last time you spent time in the homes of the people who buy your products?  Real time, not a one hour interview, but really digging in and having dinner, helping with the laundry, going to a movie.  We know the demographic make up by neighborhood, but we don’t often know the subtleties of behavior and meaning that shape the lives of our consumers.

Thinking about insights gather in this way has two major implications.  The first is that sampling includes contexts as well as people – the place, the time, etc. all have meaning. The second is that the amount of time spent with an individual or group is dependent on the nature of the problem. An ethnographic field session, for example, may only last a couple of hours, or it may span multiple days, weeks or months. The bottom line is that ethnographers try to plan their fieldwork to include observation of all relevant behaviors and events.  Because of this, timelines are generally longer for this sort project than they are for traditional qualitative research.

Getting to this level of depth 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 devoting yourself to this kind of deep understanding of your consumer or shopper provides a wide range of answers that, if analyzed properly, go well beyond the tactical, the sensational, and the superficial.  They can redefine your business.

 

Gavin