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Ethnography 101

Ask people what their personal appearance habits are, and you probably won't get the full story. But watch people actually brush their teeth or blowdry their hair, and a much clearer picture comes to light.

That's what one of the world's largest marketers of consumer products did recently with the help of Context-Based Research Group, a global research company that uses a staff of four anthropologists and a proprietary network of 2,000 scientists around the world to gain a better understanding of consumer experiences. The Baltimore-based company is a subsidiary of brand-experience design firm Carton Donofrio Partners (previously known as Richardson, Myers & Donofrio).

For the company, which had developed a concept for a new product, Context's research in five countries helped with branding strategy, marketing communication approaches, online applications, and product development refinements.

"It's all about learning how people actually use and shop for products and services, as opposed to what they say they do," says Context principal anthropologist Robbie Blinkoff, Ph.D. "And the applications are endless, from product and brand experience design to marketing, Web site usability, and testing advertising concepts."

The Context approach is rooted in cultural anthropology and utilizes ethnographic research tools such as participant observation, photo and video diaries, product inventories, and structured interview. Context's ethnographers spend time with people in their home, work, and play environments observing how they behave.

For many, hearing the word anthropology evokes images of Margaret Mead. Yet for Context and Dr. Blinkoff (who did his doctoral work in Papua New Guinea), as well as a growing number of companies, the techniques translate well into the business world.

"In Papua New Guinea, I studied culture and put the experiences of the Sokamin people into the context of their environment," Blinkoff says. "While the culture I study now is often a consumer one, it's still about placing experiences in the proper context."

Beyond Focus Groups

Through its unique anthropologist network, Context is able to perform simultaneous research around the world and mobilize quickly to meet business timelines. Context also takes advantage of the Internet, with its anthropologists able to upload their research to a proprietary and secure Web site, allowing clients to access and interact with the findings in real time.

Between the rapid pace of technological change and increased competition, it's no secret that companies want valuable insights, and they want them yesterday. Ethnography--he branch of anthropology that deals descriptively with specific cultures-delivers that insight in a way traditional market research techniques such as surveys and focus groups can't match. And while these traditional methods still have a place, they only measure what people think or can remember, and they are often influenced by the impressions respondents try to give the researcher. "From our experience, the ethnographic approach leads to greater innovation," Blinkoff says.

Consider the competitive world of real estate. RE/MAX International, which thinks of itself as a different kind of real estate company, was planning a new, $30 million advertising campaign and wanted to differentiate itself in the market. The company turned to Carton Donofrio Partners-which had already performed some initial ethnographic research as part of its new business pitch-to create that differentiation. Eight anthropologists in five U.S. cities spent time in consumers' homes for a series of observations, photo-essays, and interviews regarding their home-buying and selling experiences. Participants also kept detailed TV-commercial journals.

"Using ethnography to better understand the life stages and lifestyles of home buyers and sellers, as well as their real estate histories and general perceptions of advertisements, provided deep insight that informed the development of the campaign and enabled us to create more targeted ads," says Carton Donofrio Partners' Creative Director Margie Weeks.

Once the spots were in storyboard form, Context tested the creative concepts in facilitated gatherings with the same participants. "The insights into how people think, believe, and feel about the real estate experience helped us put the participants' reactions to the creative concepts in context," Weeks says. "It allowed for a more constructive use of their feedback to refine the finished spots."

The acknowledgement in the ads that buying or selling a home can be an emotional process contributed to a campaign vastly different than traditional real estate advertising.

Wireless On The Horizon

Another Context project with advertising and marketing implications was a first-of-its-kind global study of wireless use and opportunities. Ethnographers observed and conducted structured interviews and photo essays with 180 participants in nine major cities in the United States, China, Japan, Sweden, France, and England.

In addition to observing wireless users in action, the researchers examined their expectations, explored how wireless use has changed behavior among certain groups, interacted with non-wireless users, and analyzed how wireless is advertised and communicated in the media.

One of the key findings that Context believes is keeping the wireless industry from reaching its potential is that non-users across the globe are mystified by wireless ads and other marketing messages, making them reluctant to buy into the latest technology. From TV spots touting the ease of wireless Internet access anywhere, to marketer assumptions that potential users know what terms such as WAP mean, there is a general knowledge gap about the reality of wireless.

"We got inside the minds of consumers, and what they are saying to marketers is, 'Don't overpromise what the devices can do, and make them easier to use,' " says Blinkoff. "The gap between a device's real capabilities and the messages provided by wireless marketing and promotion lead to consumer frustration. Terms such as 'wireless Web,' for example, lead people to believe that they will be able to do everything on the phone or PDA that they can do on their desktop computer, yet wireless devices are now and always will be different from desktops."

Other key issues raised by the study-and that Context believes need to be addressed in order to close the gap between expectations and actual user experiences-include cultural differences, difficulty learning to use devices, and not enough emphasis on the social utility of wireless.

"These findings point to the need for marketers to better educate consumers, and to make sure their marketing reflects the variations in consumer behavior from one part of the world to another," says Matt Barranca, another anthropologist who worked on the study.

If The Shoe Fits

Study participants often reveal many "stories" about their lives that enrich the findings. In "Shoe Stories," a study for a leading company in the outdoor apparel industry, researchers in four countries studied the language people use surrounding the word "comfort," in order to discover communication opportunities across a variety of footwear market segments.

The impact of the stories is evident in the words of one female participant in Edinburgh, who remarked, "My shoes really affect how I feel. I must wear heels to feel confident and to be able to contend with males. To be tall is important. The relationship with my shoes definitely reflects my relationship with people."

And this from a golfer: "My shoes and my feet have a tight relationship. My feet are the foundation of my swing, so it's a high priority as far as equipment goes."

For this company, these stories formed the foundation of new marketing communications efforts, ranging from positioning statements to point-of-sale materials and training.

Ethnography is also valuable when crafting business-to-business communications strategies. For one well-known office-supplies provider and its agency, this meant sending anthropologists into corporate environments to shadow, observe, and conduct structured interviews with office-supply managers. The goal was to understand better the day-to-day experiences and decision-making processes of the buyers, thus learning the best points of entry to reach them.

The following comment from one participant points to the importance of a vendor maintaining direct communication: "Joe does a good job of communicating and a lot of office suppliers don't do that. Every so often he leaves me an email or a voicemail saying, 'It's Joe, do you need anything?' He stays in touch."

Another finding-uncovered by being in the workplace-was that office-supply managers are often away from their desks, indicating that e-mail may be a more effective way of reaching them.

Contact Zone

For Carton Donofrio Partners, the success of ethnography in helping understand consumers represents more than just innovative thinking. It has become a foundation of the firm's evolution from Richardson, Myers & Donofrio (and its past as a more traditional marketing communications agency) to a firm whose focus is designing brand experiences from the customer's point of view.

To help companies understand their brand, maximize customer relationships, or generate awareness, the agency starts by using ethnography to gain a better understanding of the experience a customer or prospect has at all points of contact with a company. This "contact zone" includes everything from visiting a Web site, walking into a retail store and seeing an ad, to using a product, calling customer service, getting mail from the company, and interacting with a sales rep.

Taking the point of view of the customer, the firm's team of anthropologists, designers, and marketing communications experts then develops-or redesigns-the brand experience at each point of contact. It then integrates its expertise in areas such as advertising, interactive media, public relations, customer services, retail environments, and product design.

The goal is simple: To help people get better products and services.


Chuck Donofrio, Agency. Spring 2001

Copyright © 2001 American Association of Advertising Agencies. All rights reserved.