Helen Edwards: the strategic value of ethnography

Attention young marketers. Here is a proposal to put in front of your chief marketing officer, aka the boss. You want a budget, a big one, to undertake some new consumer research. When asked what you wish to learn, your answer is simple: "I don't know."

In the ensuing awkward silence, it is important to hold your nerve, since reason is on your side. Research, by definition, seeks to illuminate some unknown. Yet much of what is conducted in the name of consumer understanding falls into the trap of proceeding from supposition to evidence.

Consumers are asked to navigate between communications ideas, supposing that any might be of interest to them; they are nudged into discussing your brand within "the category" as though it had ever occurred to them to place it there; they are probed for "insights" based on the assumption that their emotional connection with your offer runs that deep.

Consumer research is commissioned, in other words, by people who live and breathe the category. You, conversely, simply wish to become intimate with how people live and breathe. There is a seismic difference.

The methodology you propose is ethnography. Your boss has probably heard of this, but is unlikely to have either used it or grasped its true meaning.

Ethnography, you explain, stems from just one question: "What's going on?" It is open to the discovery of deeper rhythms that connect the humdrum happenings of the day-to-day chaos, but makes no more suppositions than that.

It proceeds by quiet observation, in the real-life setting, for upwards of six weeks. Ethnography is the ultimate "watching brief".

What might it offer you?

Again, the honest answer is "Who knows?" Another possibility is "Nothing much". There is a third, though, and it really matters.

Simple observation could point the way to "disruptive innovation" - the term coined by Clayton Christensen to delineate ideas that cut across, rather than simply enhance, current product assumptions.

How can it help achieve this? Because disruption, in Christensen's words, comes from understanding the "job to be done". That phrase is a convention-buster: it helps you see "need" from a people-up, rather than category-down, perspective. "Home furnishing" is a category. "Furnish this room today" was a job-to-be-done. IKEA became the disruption.

As everyday life progresses, new jobs-to-be-done sneak up on the unwary, who can suddenly find their brands, categories and suppositions "disrupted".

Yet it is notoriously difficult to ask consumers to imagine what is beyond their current experience. Observing, conversely, can show you the need that cannot speak its name.

Whether your brand is the one to undertake the innovation, or simply to be aware of it as a future threat, is a question for the boss, and their boss.

Still, even to get that far, your research budget will need to be sanctioned. It could be that the answer is a raised eyebrow and a shrug. In which case, bide your time. Chief marketing officers can be disrupted, too.

Helen has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand. She is a former PPA business columnist of the year. 

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