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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Metaphor and Design

“Metaphor is for most people device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish–a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. For this reason, most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” George Lakoff

As rational people who like to rationally talk about doing rational things, we like to think we choose products based on what we can see, hear, feel, taste and touch. Is this a good beer? We taste it. Is this a good car? We drive it. We like to believe that we make our judgments by distinguishing tangible distinctions. But is there’s a lot more to the equation than just our five senses. There is more to it than cataloging functional benefits. There are the subconscious elements, the deeper meanings, the other intangible benefits that products offer, which factor into the formula and influence our decisions.

The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They have deeper meanings that intertwine the supposed rational with the symbolic. They govern our everyday functioning, from the expression of complex beliefs and concepts down to the most mundane details. These systems of meaning structure what we perceive, how we perceive it and how we act upon those perceptions.  They inform us how to get around in the world, how we relate to other people and even how to select objects of consumption. Our conceptual system thus plays the central role in defining our everyday realities. And we structure concepts in relation to each other.  Take the concept of argument as war: 

  • Your claims are indefensible.
  • He attacked every weak point in my argument.
  • I demolished his argument.
  • I’ve never won an argument with him.
  • You disagree? Okay, shoot!
  • If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
  • He shot down all of my arguments. 

We do this all the time – time is money, data is geology, clothing is theater.  Consequently, understanding associations between concepts is pivotal to turning insights into action, whether you are designing an object or a strategy.

Pure metaphor.

Sometimes, when luck is with you, you can just show us something that isn’t your product at all and tell us it is. This is the use of  pure metaphor: something that stands in for your product that helps clarify and convince. This is obviously a good idea when your product is intangible, but also when the product is, frankly, dull, complicated or has no contextual frame of reference.

I once saw a poster in a library. In it, a hiker was pausing on a beautiful vista overlooking the Grand Canyon, the awesome spectacle looming before him. The poster could have been advertising Timberland or Arizona tourism or even cigarettes, but headline instead read, “Knowledge is free. Visit your library.” Visually, the message was the perfect use of metaphor. A library visit is like an odyssey through immense, spectacular country; it goes beyond the things housed there speaks to the underlying sense of discovery, exploration and surprise.

Fused metaphor.

Unfortunately, pure metaphors are rare, the reason being that it’s simply easier to create a fused metaphor. With a fused metaphor, you take the product (or something associated with it, the way a toothbrush is associated with toothpaste) and attach, or fuse it, with something else.

Objects, at least from a design or advertising perspective, that are modified in some way are often more engaging to us. We are, after all, naturally curious creatures. Unmodified images are often just clichés or stale representations. Disrupting the symbolic structure and associated metaphor primes the viewer’s psyche, drawing them into product or message to make sense of what’s going on. For example, one of advertiser David Ogilvy’s famous ideas was “The Man in the Hathaway Shirt,” who wore an eye patch and was thereby more interesting than a man who didn’t. He wasn’t just the your typical handsome man, he was a wounded, brave, paragon of masculinity with a story to tell.

Unlike pure metaphor, fused images help contextualize the selling argument for us. we don’t have to leap quite as far when part of what we’re looking at is what’s for sale.

So what? At its most basic level, design is about people rather than the objects and spaces we construct.  Design facilitates interaction between people and brands, mediated by the products and spaces those brands construct. We think in terms of solving problems (addressing functional needs, increasing efficiencies, etc.), but problems aren’t unchanging.  They are fluid and influenced by a host of factors, from basic function to notions of status to whether or not they make sense in relation to our worldview.  Because genuinely innovative, new ideas are almost always the product of juxtaposition, they can be nearly impossible to quantify in terms of risk or acceptance. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to reduce risks.  

Why? Because metaphors endow products and spaces with human-like characteristics, making them more approachable and usable. They couch them in concepts with which we are already familiar and make the process of acceptance easier. They also make conversion from insight to object, space or message easier in the same way, by grounding them in concepts people understand, they can more readily see differences and similarities.  They can more easily envision what materials, words, colors, etc. will resonate and can start to readily think in new directions.

Doing so simply requires using a different set of tools than those typically used to test peoples’ reactions.  This is when the use of metaphor in the design process becomes most important. Metaphor provides us with the means to understand complex spaces, things and relationships. Like the example of “argument is war,” imagine applying the same model to designing a product.  Food as spirituality, for example: 

  • This dish is heavenly.
  • This ice cream is divine.
  • Bacon is good for the soul

Ask yourself these questions:


1. What is this product? What does it do? The logotype for Exhale, a pulmonary disease therapy company, demonstrates visually what they do best: they help us breathe better. Each subsequent letter in the logo is less heavy and lighter in color than the previous. As we read the name, we realize and understand its meaning through this visual metaphor.

2. How does it differ from the competition? One of Herman Miller’s annual reports used transparent paper stock to suggest the serendipity of innovation: You look at one problem and sometimes see through it, the answer to another.

3. What’s the largest claim you can make for the product? That it’s a dog shampoo that dogs actually love? Then put the shampoo in packaging designed like something else they love: a fire hydrant.

4. What is this product’s central purpose? One annual report for the Calgary YWCA emphasized the organization’s work with battered women, so the report itself was torn and distressed. The headline on the beat-up cover: “Last year over 11,000 Calgary women were treated worse than this book.” This metaphor may even be stronger than if they had used actual photographs of battered women, since this approach is less expected. 

Once the metaphor is defined (and there will no doubt be more than one metaphor in the mix in many cases), other associations will start to emerge.  If associations are made between food and spirituality, for example, what does that mean for color palette choices, brand elements, package design, etc.?  That leads to defining not only the functional aspects of the design, but the story behind it.

And design, particularly when thinking about design of something that is new or takes an existing brand in a totally new direction, is akin to creating a story.  There are tensions, themes, characters, frames, etc.  Conflicts, tensions and interactions become connectors between ideas and actions. And like the elements or any story (or the type of story), metaphor allows you to categorize, structure and create boundaries with the information you work with.  The final result is a strategy for design that makes sense to the consumer.

Taking Clients Along for the Ride

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. The idea of 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.

Perhaps naively, many ethnographers assumed that we would work in a vacuum when they learned their trade. We’d go into the field – people’s homes, workplaces, and leisure areas – and then report to clients what we learned. However, we soon realize that some clients take us literally when we state ethnography will bring them into their customers’ homes. They aren’t always satisfied with just overseeing the project or telling us what they want to learn and why. This is a great opportunity for clients to see customers using their products in real situations and a chance to get to know the customers personally. But it presents ethnographers with certain challenges. 

Involvement Risks

Ethnographers tread delicately. Every time we perform fieldwork we need to become instant friends with participants. We need them comfortable enough to behave “normally” while we point a camera at them, and to feel that they can tell us anything – even if they’re just talking about peanut butter. The field is spontaneous and sensitive, and anything can happen. That means making sure we and our clients do all we can to ensure that the field remains as natural as possible.

Clients have varying levels of fieldwork experience. Some are qualitative market researchers with a little in-context interviewing under their belts, and others don’t have much first-hand knowledge of qualitative research or the human sciences. Consequently, clients might interfere with the interview process, misinterpret the data, or overlook important but subtle information. However, ethnographers can take steps to mitigate these concerns.

1. Explore Motives

Understand why clients need to go into the field and what their expectations are of the project. DO they want direct exposure to generate ideas, ease issues of trust/competency/legality, train their in-house ethnographer, or simply be more engaged in the process? For the sake of both the research and the client-ethnographer relationship, articulating these issues is essential.

It’s paramount that clients communicate goals for a smooth operation. On one occasion, a busy client of ours wanted to see his products used in context, so he attended two field visits early in the project. Knowing his reason and planned number of outings, we ensured they’d include use of his products. Everything went well, and his observations were eye-opening. Because he didn’t have time to invest in more fieldwork, we sent him a video document every time someone used his products during the project.

2. Establish Boundaries

Before fieldwork, ethnographers must communicate the research boundaries and client role. Clients should recognize that ethnographers’ expertise consists of more than an ability to build rapport with strangers; their skills are rooted in a keen understanding of social theory and methodological rigor, and entail years of training.

Ethnographers have a process and particular mindset that directs the interview, interaction, and interpretation, so guiding client input before starting a project will help prevent everyone from asking leading questions or biasing conversations. Limits ensure quality work and allow clients to make the most of a field visit.

It also permits them to function within a frame of hierarchical authority, lessening their need to be project leader. In other words, clients understand that the context reduces or removes a layer of authority. It lets them focus on learning and executing predetermined tasks, instead of feeling compelled to handle everything. They can filter information through a training perspective while taking a holistic approach.

3. Allocate Responsibilities

Providing clients an indispensable role in the projects, such as videotaping an interview, helps them feel more like team members and less like visitors. It also raises comfort levels of everyone involved. Assigning tasks s also a practical necessity: Clients can replace research assistants in the field. Two researchers plus a client can threaten and crowd a participant, who just wants to demonstrate the best way to clean a bathroom countertop.

4. Encourage Reciprocation

It’s important to know clients well and be thoughtful about their flexibility, political realities, and character traits. Unfortunately, there often isn’t enough time to do so in-depth. Clients might arrive a half-hour earl for an afternoon interview and leave that evening, never to go into the field again. In this case, an ethnographer can only outline some expectations and techniques – through phone and e-mail conversations beforehand, and on the spot (frequently while sitting on cushy hotel-lobby chairs).

When clients have more time to invest in the ethnography, there are two parts to building a solid team and guaranteeing productive fieldwork (despite their lack of experience.) Clients must be willing to adapt to new or unfamiliar methodologies – techniques for data gathering and interpretation – regardless of their backgrounds (e.g. design, business strategy, engineering). And ethnographers must appreciate and incorporate clients’ theoretical and practical contributions. Success requires devoting time and energy to discovering the capabilities of all the team members – ethnographer and client alike.

Each team member can learn to apply findings across a range of activities. After all, a key to business achievement is using seemingly disconnected information to build new products, brands, and business models. Learning how best to conduct research and understanding individual roles in the field ultimately helps the client use the gathered information most effectively.

Protection and Collaboration

As ethnography becomes a staple of market research, we just might see marketers and product designers make an exodus to the field – with or without us. Ethnographers need to prepare for the possible outcomes. They should do so by not only preventing research from being disturbed, but also by harnessing clients’ intelligence and know-how – using their involvement as a springboard for more effective and actionable ethnography. In the future, most marketing decisions and product innovations will be based on real-world experiences with ordinary people.