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The Rise of Ethnography: How Market Research Has Gone Gonzo

Published: October 25, 2011 in Knowledge@Australian School of Business
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The late and celebrated US "gonzo journalist" Hunter S. Thompson made his early reputation living alongside the Hells Angels motorcycle gang and writing a book about his experiences. Thompson was hailed as a journalistic pioneer for his anthropological approach to the subject.

However, less well known are the researchers, in both the US and Australia, who have joined biker culture to investigate the relationship between riders and their iconic motorcycle brand, Harley-Davidson. Not surprisingly, their insights have been keenly sought by the renowned motorcycle manufacturer, which turned them into lessons in brand management and marketing.

Welcome to the world of the modern ethnographer, a discipline that has its origins in early 20th century anthropology but which, since the early 1990s, has increasingly permeated the corporate world. Sitting beside traditional analytically based market research, ethnography began as a way for anthropologists to understand exotic cultures and is now used as a way of understanding the sub-cultures and behaviours of groups relevant to business.

"At the beginning of ethnography, it was Western anthropologists going into exotic locations and trying to understand social and cultural dynamics," says Julien Cayla, a lecturer in Marketing at the Australian School of Business. "Originally it was a fairly colonial way of research. They'd go in and set up an office, do a survey and then leave, but after a while it evolved into the idea that you had to 'hang out' and immerse yourself and become a participant in the community you were researching."

In its recent corporate application, ethnography is used in a wide range of domains that are critical to business success, including product design, marketing and business strategy. Its uptake in Australia, however, has been slow. In a 2008 study, only about 5% of market research suppliers in Australia offered ethnographic research to clients compared with 17% in the UK.

It has particularly taken off in the US, where companies in the fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector, such as Procter & Gamble and SC Johnson, have been enthusiastic adopters as they research consumers' mindsets. Technology firms are also leading the charge, notably Microsoft and Intel, where Australian-born anthropologist Genevieve Bell heads a team of about 30 social scientists. One of her key projects was ethnographic research that went into the design of a low-cost, child-friendly notebook computer – the Classmate PC – that has now sold more than two million units. Bell was named among Fast Company magazine's "100 Most Creative People in Business" in 2010.

Bell's research was based on ethnographic principles: to watch how people used products in their own environments, talk to them, and ask them questions. "Intel used ethnography to understand how children actually learn in the classroom environment," says Cayla. "What are classrooms like? What are the processes of learning and teaching and how do we develop a product to fit a classroom in Uganda as well as one in Buenos Aires?"

The Breakthroughs

Australian forays into the world of ethnography have so far been limited, but there have been some high-profile breakthroughs. The NSW Roads and Traffic Authority's controversial "Pinkie" advertising campaign – depicting a young woman giving a risqué finger gesture along with the slogan, "Speeding. No one thinks big of you" – was the end result of ethnographic research. The award-winning campaign flowed from the finding that young people among their peers had a different, and often critical view, of hoon drivers.

The insight came from a researcher hanging out with the target group. "I spent a lot of time with young people in their cars and drove around and talked to them and talked to their friends," says Charlie Cochrane, a director of the research company Ethnography Australia and a Cambridge University anthropology graduate, who was part of the original research team that created the campaign. "It became quite obvious that there was a difference between what the drivers who were taking the risks felt about their behaviour and what the people who were with them were thinking, and this was something that hadn't really come up in previous research focus groups.

"Passengers talked a lot about how they felt it was difficult to say anything at the time, but they often wanted to say something and didn't really approve of drivers showing off, speeding or generally driving in risky ways," reports Cochrane. From that "nugget", the advertising agency took the inspiration for the Pinkie concept, which became one of the most talked about road safety campaigns and a significant departure from the regularly used scare messages.

A key difference is that traditional market research often leads respondents down a particular line of questioning designed by the researchers, whereas ethnography is based around "eliciting stories from people", according to Cochrane. "With ethnography, you try to get people to tell their own stories around the subject area and, in that process, the insights become framed around whatever meaning is relevant to the participants rather than a construct that you as the researcher are imposing," he says.

However, ethnographers have to be prepared to hang out with people for quite a long time, notes Cochrane. By contrast, conventional qualitative research is quite quick. "You can cover off an extensive agenda in a short timeframe if you ask pointed questions. But what you don't always get from that are the revelations that ethnography can deliver. That is when people talk about something in a new and different way which can lead to a whole different slant on the problem, and that is what happened with the 'Pinkie' campaign."

Ethnography Emerges

In an emerging career sector, Cochrane has straddled both traditional market research and ethnography. After graduating as an anthropologist, he moved into a 20-year career in qualitative market research in his native UK and then Australia. His anthropological skills found fresh relevance about eight years ago. "Around 2003, I felt the whole area of focus groups in viewing facility goldfish bowls wasn't all that good at bringing consumers to life and showing marketers what consumers are really like," Cochrane says. "So I started to experiment with ways of trying to capture more authentic slices of consumers' lives. I hadn't gone that far when I realised that what I was doing was ethnography."

The disciplines of qualitative market research and ethnography are not mutually exclusive. "They actually complement each other very well," Cochrane says. "About 40% of what I do is ethnographic and the rest is pretty much straight qualitative research. I will recommend that clients employ one or other technique depending on what the issue or problem is. For example, if you are looking at an idea for a piece of advertising that is at storyboard stage, I wouldn't dream of doing ethnography on that. It would be better to sit in a focus group and have the creatives watch from behind the mirror, than hang out in people's homes.

"Where ethnography is more useful is when they have done some qualitative research but it's not quite cracking the problem. In those circumstances, it's good to say 'let's take a different look at this, go and hang out with some people, elicit their feelings and look at this thing afresh.'"

Ethnography is an excellent tool to stimulate innovation, Cochrane believes. For example, the Japanese are turning to ethnography to help drive a new wave of innovation in the face of strong global competition, particularly from China. "You get these moments watching how people use a product or how they talk about it when using it where an idea about what's missing comes out of left field. This is something that ethnography elicits in a way that doesn't happen with conventional qualitative research, because we are looking at people's real behaviour with a product and can observe things that are often subconscious for the consumer," says Cochrane. "There are these inspirational moments where it's about getting close to your consumer and understanding them in a deeper sense, and that can really help in the marketing process."

A key tool for the ethnographer is the video camera, along with diaries, which the researchers ask consumers to fill in. "We video record in 80% of our ethnographic work, and often leave consumers with cameras to use themselves," Cochrane says. Clients receive a PowerPoint deck with recommendations and edited video, which show consumers talking about their lives, using a product and engaging with it. "It brings the consumer into the boardroom," Cochrane notes.

Both Cochrane and Cayla say that while corporate Australia has been comparatively slow to embrace ethnography, there are signs that it is starting to resonate. The Australian arm of global drinks giant Diageo has been using ethnographic techniques to research consumer relationships with several of its brands, including Smirnoff Black Ice and Bundaberg. Ikea Australia has also used ethnography to understand the distinctive way Australians perceive and use their homes.

At the Australian School of Business, ethnography is the subject of a new course where students work on small ethnographic projects and learn how to mix business with anthropology. "Ethnography is a way of developing the innovative organisational culture that successive Australian Governments have been calling for, and which will be necessary in the future for Australian companies to innovate, compete and succeed," says Cayla. "The bottom line is that ethnography gives a wider lens than other forms of research. It is putting people in context, in the place where they consume, rather than getting them to come to you. In that sense it has a lot of potential, and I think Australian organisations are going to find it a very useful method in coming years."

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