Understanding customer behaviour is the greatest currency available to brands. To achieve this, brands are increasingly using ethnographic research techniques to understand more accurately how people are living their lives.
Ethnography involves observing and discussing the ordinary activities of people in their naturally occurring settings, uncovering more insightful information about what people do, rather than what they say they actually do.
This may not sound much, but the impact can be significant. It allows for a more personal and in-depth view of the participants and their behaviour and choices, and will provide valuable insights about how, why and when customers might choose brands or new products and the role that these will play within the consumer’s life.
In this sense, ethnographic research can help brands really get under the skins of their customers. This means spending a lot of time hanging out with respondents as they chat, shop and get on with the tasks that make up their everyday lives, so that we can witness their actual behaviours in a natural environment, with nothing artificial or contrived to influence the findings.
By taking an ethnographic approach, we can observe and monitor anything from food preparation rituals to the food storage habits of Britain’s consumers; which products are given priority position at the front of the cupboard and which are pushed to the back, and why; which products only make it as far as the ‘back-up’ store cupboard.
We look at what we call ‘real life packaging’ – observing how easy or difficult families find it to manage types of product packaging, which can be used by brands to inform new packaging options. We also monitor eating occasions, frequently filming family eating occasions to look at how, why and when certain foods are included.
If we look at a particular category, for example cereals, we may look at all cereal eating occasions. For this, we would be as interested in the ‘misuse’ of cereals as we would in conventional breakfast consumption. This would help identify snacking, or use of cereals for lunch or even dinner rather than how one might expect cereals to be consumed.
There is a downside. Traditional, pure ethnography is expensive and time-consuming. Because the aim is to capture natural behaviour, the ethnographer must wait until this behaviour occurs, and that can mean a lot of waiting.
The aim of our Ethnobus methodology is to capitalise on this waiting time. While we are waiting for a respondent to interact with one client’s category, we can observe what they are doing in another, gradually building up a holistic view of consumers’ lives, of value to a diverse range of clients.
For those willing to adopt a pragmatic approach, it’s also possible to eliminate much of the wastage by adopting a task-based approach. To do this, we set respondents a number of tasks, each designed to uncover a different aspect of relevant behaviour without revealing the core focus of our interest. We shorten the observation time by asking respondents to do some of the work for us – be that blogging, keeping diaries, sharing photos and video footage online – all of which, thanks to Twitter, fits with their natural behaviour.
There are now many examples of brands taking rich insights obtained through ethnographic research and utilising them for tangible effect.
All sectors can use this form of research effectively, particularly when minute observations and insights can have such an influence. Rather than making marketing or product development decisions based on instinct or a general feeling for the way the market is going, only closer consumer research can provide brands with detailed insights on which to rely.
Hetta Bramley is qualitative director of customer insight agency Engage Research.
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2020