Getting innovation right is a challenging proposition. To respond to changes in markets, customers and demands, businesses feel increasing pressure to innovate their products and services. Methodologies for innovation include those for finding unknown and unmet opportunities, which often come from examining end-user contexts and seeing the world from the customers’ perspectives. Finding the unarticulated needs and the underlying beliefs and values of consumers yields insights for product development and solutions that resonate with end users. Ethnographic techniques excel at uncovering the social, cultural and emotional forces behind participant answers. However, ethnography is a relatively new and innovative strategy in market research.
I am currently employed as a Senior Market Analyst at Ducker Worldwide, a 50-year-old market research firm driven to achieve our clients’ most ambitious growth goals through custom market intelligence, strategic consulting, and financial advisory services. Coming to a market research company with an anthropology background, I was excited to bring qualitative and ethnographic methods to help clients solve business problems. I knew I would have a steep learning curve when it came to using the more traditional market research methods of information gathering and analysis. Traditional market research techniques, often quantitative, provide important structural and size information about markets. These approaches allow financial and business decisions to be made based on identified options. To fully take on the responsibilities in my new role, I would need to quickly learn to be able to conduct telephone interviews to collect both qualitative and quantitative information, use Excel as a primary data management and analysis tool, and communicate results in graphs, charts and tables in PowerPoint decks. In my opinion, challenges with traditional methods are: (1) they take participants’ stated answers at face value and (2) they provide little contextual information or description of motivations, emotions and behaviors. My comfort area is in words, patterns and themes; I struggle with numbers, counts and percentages. Clients, too, have their comfort zones and may rely on quantitative information to provide the framework for business decisions. Research project design requires a careful balance of traditional and new approaches to be able to deliver results that clients can use successfully.
A recent innovation project I worked on with a leading multinational consumer products company combined traditional market research and ethnographic approaches. The client wanted to identify consumer attitudes around a specific product area in an emerging market. First, we used statistical techniques on a large consumer survey data set to find discrete clusters, or types of respondents whose answers were more similar to each other. This approach goes beyond demographics to find distinct groups within the data. Once the “who” were statistically identified and described, the client wanted to understand the contexts and the behaviors that set this group apart. During this phase of the research, we took a deeper dive into participant contexts to see behaviors in action. We asked participants to show items from their homes and in their lives that related to and exemplified their experiences with products and services in this consumer goods category. We also immersed ourselves as much as possible in analogous ways to get close to participant experiences within this category; as researchers, we participated in activities that participants might do in order to get an experiential understanding that we could bring to our data analysis. An example of an analogous way to understand different methods people try to manage stress in their lives might be to visit a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner. The research results allowed the client to understand consumer motivations and unmet needs: the statistical analysis found a type of consumer who represented a strong business opportunity, and the ethnographic research revealed behavioral information and emotional drivers for this type. As a result, the client developed new products and messaging suitable for and attractive to their target market.
There are great opportunities for practicing anthropology in the context of market research. Increasingly, clients want to look further ahead to future markets and develop products and services that do not yet exist, which is where ethnographic approaches are needed and anthropologists can provide value. By combining statistical tools and ethnographic approaches, a rich picture of human behavior, contextual information and the current state of the market emerges, which in turn helps create meaningful solutions for end users.
There are great opportunities for practicing anthropology in the context of market research. Increasingly, clients want to look further ahead to future markets and develop products and services that do not yet exist, which is where ethnographic approaches are needed and anthropologists can provide value.
Amy Goldmacher of Ducker Worldwide holds a PhD in anthropology from Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. She brings nine years of applied qualitative and ethnographic research experience to Ducker’s market intelligence, strategic consulting, and financial advisory services.
Wendy D Bartlo and Antonio Chavarria are contributing editors of Anthropology Works, the AN column of the AAA Committee on Practicing, Applied and Public Interest Anthropology.