Consumers are a tricky breed. They say one thing, and in the next breath contradict themselves. They express a lack of trust in certain brands and growing cynicism about the marketing process. So do they unwittingly lie when they talk about life, brands, the universe?
Researchers would argue that it is their role to dig beneath the surface to unearth consumers' inner feelings and motivations. Brand owners, meanwhile, are eager for anything in the researchers' tool kit that will enable them to gain insights.
Enter ethnographic research, which is helping a new generation of marketers understand behaviour that they would not previously have thought to ask about.
Its origins lie in anthropology. The word itself holds a clue: 'ethno' means people and 'graphy' means describe. Ethnography takes research to the people, allowing them to describe their world in their own terms and observing them in the home, the office, the car or the supermarket.
Such studies may involve personal diaries or the consumer being filmed, with the output discussed by the interviewee, the researcher and the client.
It is used - in combination with other forms of research - to understand those people who are hard to reach by conventional methods, such as clubbers, extreme-sport enthusiasts and the leading-edge youth market.
"Marketing problems these days are harder to solve, and standard approaches tend to reveal the same learning," says Louise Southcott, chairman of research firm Link Consumer Strategies.
That is why marketers have to look for alternatives, of which ethnography is just one. Researchers also have to deal with the fact that consumers are not always accurate, although not deliberately so. "For instance, a mother's view on what kids think does not necessarily match the kids' own views," says Southcott.
Lucy Peile, associate director of RDSi, agrees. "Ethnography takes the pressure off children as they don't need to answer questions, they can simply go about their normal lives," she says. "They live very much in the here and now, so eliciting likely future or even past behaviour from them is not a natural or easy task. They have constantly changing ideas and wants, which makes ethnography particularly suited through its broad and open techniques."
It is in situations such as these that ethnography starts to make sense.
If consumer behaviour can be watched - and discussed afterward - in an environment that makes consumers feel safe, it provides definite insights.
Take pan-European supermarket chain Lidl. It entered the UK a few years ago, catering to the price-conscious, bottom end of the market. Yet data on the brand and its sector was scarce.
It asked Ogilvy to examine its business and propose marketing and communications strategies across the board. The agency's FBI Division was sent to carry out an extensive audit of the shopping experience by talking to customers in the stores and filming them.
The results proved an eye-opener, not just for FBI, but for Lidl's board.
It underlined the retailer's strengths - its low prices and quality goods - but also its weaknesses, such as its limited and unfamiliar range - its 'foreignness'. It allowed FBI to show Lidl that all of these had the potential to be spun in a positive way.
This was confirmed when FBI took one shopper's advice, and asked four label snobs to test-drive Lidl. It made converts of them all.
"There is a suspicion that ethnographic research is a bit of psycho-babble, and there are doubts over whether we should be diverting away from tried and tested techniques to something a bit more experimental," says FBI's head, Paul Eden. "But when clients use it, it becomes apparent what it is good for."
Ethnography has long been used in the academic world, and was first employed in commercial research in the 70s. Anne-Marie McDermott, managing director of Quaestor Research, points to a project 13 years ago, which looked at a new chicken-burger product. "I spent time with different consumers while they were shopping, cooking and eating in their own home," she says. "This was revolutionary at the time."
Perhaps the difference now is that a great deal of market research is not conducted solely at a single point in time. "Researchers spend a lot of time with respondents, living in their environment - even to the point of moving in with them and sharing the experience being researched," she says.
The advent of the portable video camera has enhanced ethnography's appeal.
A project using this type of research will never be cheap, by virtue of the fact that it is very labour-intensive and not to be used in isolation, but it would have been a lot more expensive a decade ago.
Its converts include Gino Zisa, a research analyst at Orange. He points out that the company is operating in a completely different business environment to that in which it launched. The focus has switched from acquisition to value maximisation, but to launch value-added services successfully, the company needs to know the mindset of its consumers.
"For example, it can be difficult to ask consumers what they do in their 'dead time', while commuting, between meetings and so on, because it is not in their particular language," he says. "So we thought it would be helpful to observe people in those circumstances in their own environment, rather than in a focus group."
Zisa says ethnography can also be useful in product development. It helps Orange understand consumer behaviour, then modify its findings to gauge potential take-up of a particular technology.
So what are the drawbacks? "Every method makes various bargains with reality," says Mark Ritson, assistant professor of marketing at London Business School. "That is why methods must be combined. Classically, ethnography is expensive, time-consuming and badly understood. The sample sizes, meanwhile, are always tiny and thus unrepresentative. Finally, there is rarely any quantitative data and the results can appear obvious and easy to dismiss."
Zisa talks about setting parameters to such research, because of the danger of being swamped by too much information. But this carries a risk, because by doing so, an essential nugget could be lost. It is reminiscent of the experience of the motor industry in the early days of database marketing: excessive data and no way of organising it.
Power of film
It's ironic then, that some manufacturers argue they are investing in ethnography for the future. Arnold + Bolingbroke has begun using a professional film crew and makes feature film presentations of its results.
"Our work with Land Rover and Jaguar seeks to understand consumer attitudes and behaviour today that will be relevant as far ahead as 2010, when new models being planned today are launched," says director Anne Bolingbroke.
Her films are useful, says Bomme Komolafe, market research manager at Jaguar Cars, because "pseudo-academic presentations of ethnographic research results mean nothing to a design team".
He adds: "Bolingbroke's films are accessible at all levels, even to very technically-oriented audiences. And when a launch is seven years away, it is so valuable that they can be kept and referred to time and again, whenever we are debating issues as our designs evolve."
Such research is also used by the motor industry in Germany, where - for part of the strategic development for the launch of a luxury sports car - Stephan Tun, managing director at Maritz Research Germany, spent time with owners driving on motorways, going to golf courses, shopping and in their homes. "It gave us information that was vast and rich, providing a new understanding of a very specialised market," he says.
It fed into final product development, assisted positioning and contributed to the communication strategy.
Of course, there are other ways of tapping in to the minds of consumers. Gerald Zaltman, a professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, has developed a technique called ZMET, under exclusive licence in the UK to Business Development Research Consultants (BDRC).
This involves asking consumers a question about a product, either existing or in development, and requesting that they find between eight and ten pictures or objects that capture their thoughts and feelings about it.
This is brought down to a one-to-one level with professional interviewers.
The end results are combined to reveal consumers' conscious and unconscious feelings about the product.
"We are using it either to understand fundamental issues or explore brand positioning," says Tony Wornell, BDRC research director. "I have recently done a project looking to understand the nature of trust in financial services. It can be used to tackle any issue, but tends to be most effective when targeting the more fundamental issues where we don't know the questions to ask."
So are such tools an alternative to focus groups or ethnographic research? Professor Zaltman would argue that they are, and that groups, surveys and questionnaires underperform.
Maybe they do, on occasion, but then the professor does have a proprietary method to sell.
Can all the alternatives co-exist? Nunwood Consulting associate director Richard Walker believes so. "Ethnography is only ever one part of a consumer insight programme. It is at its most powerful when hand in hand with quantitative and more traditional qualitative research," he says.
And as Gill Ereaut, founder of Linguistic Landscapes, points out: "We don't have to worry about getting to the truth or a single reality. We can treat the full range of people's realities as useful."
Research is a very broad church, and brand owners would be well-advised to remember that all methodologies are welcome and have a unique role to play.
TEN STEPS TO SUCCESSFUL ETHNOGRAPHIC RESEARCH
Siamack Salari founder of Everyday Lives, and Association for Qualitative Research (AQR) spokesman, gives ten tips on ethnography
1. The ethnographer is not there to capture 'interesting' things, but rather ordinary events and conversations. These can be reframed for clients to use in ways that reveal implications and opportunities for products and brands.
2. Do not ask research-like questions or interview the respondents while hanging out with them. This should be saved for the co-discovery process at the end of the observation. It is essential to wait for events to unfold of their own accord, and for products and brands to be used (or not, as the case may be) without any prompting.
3. Apart from the insight into everyday consumer behaviour that ethnography provides, it is also perfectly suited to uncovering those consumer needs and wants that were previously not communicated.
4. Do not reveal the specific nature of the exploration to the household involved. Sensitising its members to products or brands may alter the way they use them.
5. Using a small video camera to film enables you to understand much more when scrutinising the tapes retrospectively. The edited version can be played back to households, and respondents asked to provide a running commentary on their behaviour and thoughts. This is part of the co-discovery process and can be recorded and dubbed on to the final version of the tape.
6. Video clips are worthless without meaning attached to them. It is the researcher's commentary, signposting and fresh ways of interpreting the significance of ordinary events that adds real and substantial value for clients.
7. Capturing events on film means that observations and associated interpretations can be shared, archived and accessed for years to come.
8. Knowing how to present findings in the form of thematically-split observations and analysis, or a series of household films is critical, so agree the most effective communication method with clients for the expected debrief audience.
9. Involve the clients in the ethnographic explorations and invite them to visit the observation sites. Their different agendas, interests and belief systems can lead to some of the most powerful insights.
10. Ethnographic research is dangerous in untrained hands. Stringent ethical standards are vital if the hospitality and openness of the respondents is not to be abused.
MARCO RIMINI, executive planning director, J Walter Thompson
At its worst, ethnography could become the reality TV of marketing information - entertaining, easy and quick, but superficial. I am always interested in original approaches to analysing problems, but my concern about ethnography in a commercial context is that it will not lead to original explanation, but to microscopic reflections of the everyday.
It is neither as long-term nor as rigorous as academic study, and risks becoming an excuse for unedited reportage masquerading as 'important' information. It uses a fashionable label to sell something entirely different: pret-a-porter ethnography, where only haute couture will do, and in a situation where the timing and budget are at high-street level.
Ever since we sold our souls to the god of insights - an all-powerful, but unforgiving and often unknowable master - there seems to be a desire for more observations and examples of customer behaviour, which can be reported back as insightful.
It is the actions of people that are the 'insights'. It is not the way we interpret them, how we might apply them to the problem, or what they signify, but literally the behaviour itself.
We risk accepting as good practice the creation of an observational laboratory of chosen groups, then marvelling at their behaviour via a filter which is no more than the technology of capture. Ethnography can be an additional input, but it is no replacement for thoughtful and intelligent analysis.
In another moment of fashion madness, observations once labelled as insights, become more important than just research.
They are no longer something that planners and researchers arrived at, but rather pieces of symbolically important consumer behaviour. And when acted out on-screen, they are somehow supposed to become good ads.
At worst, ethnography is the enemy of good analysis.
But, as in every other field, it depends more on the quality of the person in charge of the project than the technique itself.
JULIA WOODHAM, category insights and planning manager, Colgate-Palmolive (UK)
Any business seeking to get closer to its consumers needs to invest in the research tools that allow it to do so - and ethnography is one such tool. It allows us to generate smarter insights and identify marketing opportunities, which in turn can generate real business advantages.
All marketers experience the problem of getting under the consumer's skin, of being able to anticipate their needs before they express them, and understanding those who are hard to research by conventional methods.
Ethnography tells us to ask about things which we were previously unaware we ought to ask about. It offers a reality check in terms of understanding consumers, provides stimulation for new product development ideas and has improved our questionnaires by highlighting unusual habits or rituals, shattering myths and so on.
A recent project by Colgate-Palmolive with Everyday Lives, involving filming people in their homes brushing their teeth, provided some salutary lessons. It lifted the lid on the state of toothbrushes and brushing habits.
We found there were things we didn't know about, which we were able to adapt to our use and attitude study. We also gained some interesting angles to develop a specific market and insights that could lead to some exciting potential product ideas.
Yes, there are potential pitfalls. Cost prohibits big samples, and ethnography should not be used in isolation. There are also those who believe that being filmed inevitably affects the subject's behaviour, although in practice this doesn't seem to happen. In addition, it can be difficult to get to the bottom of why consumers perform such actions.
But all these problems are surmountable if objectives are clearly defined, actions are discussed as well as observed, and the results are explored in workshops afterward. One thing is certain: the nuggets you find are always worth knowing.