No longer content to ask questions, researchers are now moving in with consumers. Louella Miles reports.
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. …