Research: Closer Encounters

Marketing, July 14, 2004 | Go to article overview

Research: Closer Encounters


Ethnography has been hailed as a breakthrough in consumer analysis. Drew Barrand asks whether it lives up to agency hype

Every industry has its fashionable buzzwords, and the market research sector is no different. The current word on everybody's lips is ethnography - a research technique that claims to get closer to consumers by using their own descriptions of their activities while observing them in every facet of their daily lives.

Finding an original way of profiling consumers is a rarity. The agency world is well aware of the need to pioneer unique selling points with which to attract business, so as 'fly on the wall' research has aroused the interest of clients, agencies have cashed in with a host of ethnographic offerings.

In theory, these techniques should provide a deeper understanding of consumer movements and attitudes than is delivered by traditional methods. Phyllis Macfarlane, chief executive for Europe at NOP World, is a firm believer in the long-term value of ethnographic research and argues that it represents a definite step forward from the basic focus group that has been the industry's standard.

'In a way we've been doing it for a while but only with individuals and not whole demographic groups of people,' she says. 'I certainly don't think it's a flash in the pan.'

According to Macfarlane, the better agencies are now advancing ethnographic research techniques to the stage that they can look beneath the rational view of consumers held by many clients to examine their underlying motivations.

'With so much information around, ethnography is one of the few areas that can provide real cut-through for the client,' she adds.

While ethnography is certainly appealing and of growing interest to clients, there remains a fundamental question: does knowing exactly how someone behaves in real life, based on extremely small samples, actually help you know how they might react in different circumstances, when surrounded by different products or services?

Ethnography has been promoted as a uniquely realistic approach to analysing consumer lifestyles. But the validity of the information resulting from such studies is starting to be more closely examined. The initial novelty of ethnographic techniques is now wearing off, and clients are beginning to ask whether the method offers true cut-through in consumer knowledge, or whether it is simply the latest agency show pony.

Practical problems

Unsurprisingly, most agencies agree on the theoretical advantages of ethnography, but putting the techniques into practice is an area where many fall down. 'Nearly every agency out there claims to be doing it,' comments David Iddiols, partner at HPI Research. 'But in reality, many are just doing standard household interviews. They are not getting close enough to view the consumer dynamics, which is where the value of ethnographic research resides.'

Despite the potential benefits of ethnographic research, Iddiols believes many clients think twice when they see the price tag attached to it. 'If done correctly the results can be much more incisive than general focus groups,' he says. 'But it does come at a cost.'

A half-hearted approach to ethnography is not the only problem. The various ways it has been packaged by agencies, which are often looking for proprietary ownership of their technique, means there is no real definition of what constitutes ethnographic research. This has left the discipline open to accusations of superficiality, and critics have taken to describing it as nothing more than 'dressed-up focus groups'.

'Ethnography has become an industry buzzword, which automatically brings the reality of its benefits into question,' says Sanjay Nazerali, managing director of research agency The Depot.

He argues that while the technique has been promoted as the solution to 'the problem of artificial focus groups', care is needed to get the most out of it.

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