What’s This Thing Called “Ethnography?”

Ethnography is a fancy way of saying, “talking to people in their own environments.” It may mean interviewing women in their kitchens, talking to executives in their workplaces, going along for a shopping trip with parents and their kids, or any context you can think of.

What insights can ethnography provide? When consumers or business people give us their perceptions in a focus group or one-on-one interview, they tell us how they think they behave and how they’re reacting to key concepts, creative, or new products. However, ethnography adds the dimension of showing contrasts between what people think they do vs. what they actually do in their own environments.

An example is how people use a paper towel. We think they use it for cleaning up. However, when we study how consumers actually cleanup, we see that a paper towel is really used to distance the consumer from “icky things” like germs, liquid, a mess, etc.

What consumers think of themselves vs. what can be observed through behavior. Most people have a skewed view of their personal behavior. For example, how well or how poorly they’re doing financially, especially compared to others. Low users of credit cards think they need to closely monitor their spending behavior, constantly talking about needing to keep “on top of” their finances, implying that they’re not so “on top of” things. But, when we see them in their environments, we discover they’re extremely organized and “on top of” their finances already. And, interestingly, because they’re so proficient already, most are considered “money experts” by their friends and family.

Case Study: Kid’s Clothing… How “That’s So Cute!” Trumps Price

In qualitative and quantitative research, parents say price is the key deciding factor in selecting children’s clothing. However, in ethnographic shopalongs, we found that people select their price based on the store they’re in—Target vs. Macy’s, for example. Once in the store, parents first look at “how cute” the outfit is, then feel the fabric for softness, and then look at price. If the cute factor is high, price goes out the window and they buy it anyway.

Case Study: College Kids and Pizza… Brand Means Less Than Fitting In

College students were given video cameras and asked to blog about their brand use over time. We discovered that even brands the kids really loved prior to entering college were discarded when peer pressure came into play. Also, kids would claim to have behaved one way during their daytime video diaries, but would later confess to having behaved very differently in their “nighttime” confessions, where the need to fit in became even more obvious.

Case Study: Snack Foods… How Peanut Butter, A Kid, And A Dog Equals A Healthy Snack

Going to homes and observing moms and kids gave terrific insight into how to increase sales of peanuts and peanut butter. When one five year old got out a spoon to demonstrate how she liked to eat peanut butter, the family dog began to lick the spoon. Mom laughed and said, “At least I know she can do it herself and I feel good about it.” In fact, both peanuts and peanut butter have a fun, child-like emotional appeal than was fully appreciated, leading to an effective campaign targeted to children and adults.

Case Study: Asthma… How NOT Feeling Symptoms Feels Out of Control

In-home interviews with asthma patients who had access to the most effective drug on the market—yet refused to use it on a regular basis—yielded an incredible discovery: medicine cabinets and vitamin stockpiles rivaling the corner drug store! The patients’ perception of “managing” asthma was focused on doing something about the condition when they could feel the symptoms. They liked the feeling of being in control, whereas without the symptoms, they felt less in control and could possibly lose their “family health expert” status because they were no longer ill.

Case Study: Tobacco Cessation – A Social Crutch Addiction

By combining focus groups, one-on-one interviews, and in-home/office interviews with patients and doctors, we discovered that the key reason people go back to smoking after quitting is because their smoking was a social crutch. For example, getting Mom away from the kids because she needs a cigarette break. We also found a depth of despair and self-loathing among patients that was never communicated to doctors, and thus was completely underestimated in terms of their treatment.