The Marketing Science Institute meetings on ethnography are
A couple of things impressed.
1. The ethnography for corporate purposes is around 20 years old, and already is said to be indispensable for five of the corporations at the conference: Kodak, Intel, P&G, Miller Brewing and Philips. Wow. Not bad for a method that was widely sneered at in the early years.
2. The stand-off between qualitative and quantitative methods may still have hot spots in the academic world, but this contest is now over in the corporate world. The corporation is method agnostic. Now that ethnography has been blessed by both A.G. Lafley and the Marketing Science Institute, it a method in good standing, and no longer the dubious stranger who just keeps "barging in."
3. In the early days of corporate ethnography, the insights were sufficiently robust that the method could be forgiven some of its eccentricities and eccentrics. That’s now over. New standards are coming. Some practices and practitioners will have to go. Qualifications, rigor, discipline, quality control, these are the new watch words. Unless they are really good (and some are), "self trained" ethnographers should find another field. This time around, who knows, they might like to pose as surgeons, pilots, or possibly NASA engineers. But it’s time to go.
Eventually, the business schools and the design schools will make themselves useful here in the supply of training systems. But as it stands, almost all the b-school academics who care to teach this stuff were in the room [John Sherry (Notre Dame), Eric Arnould, Linda Price (Arizona), Lisa Penaloza (Colorado), Craig Thompson (Wisconsin) and Rob Kozinets (York and MIT)] and this is not a good sign. Still, the MSI conference happened largely at the inspiration of John Deighton, a professor at the Harvard Business School and the editor of the Journal of Consumer Research. He is as impressive a patron (god father?) as the field could hope for. Perhaps b-schools and design schools will now rise to the occasion.
4. Ethnography reels in lots and lots of very messy data. We can extract value from these data if and only if we have formidable powers of pattern recognition. This means it is useful to be an anthropologist as well as an ethnographer. That is to say, it helps if you know something about the formal properties of social life and cultural matters.
But you don’t have to be an anthropologist. (In fact, a lot of anthropologists couldn’t find their way out of an ethnographic study with a flashlight and a GPS PDA.) Nor do you need to be a sociologist or hold an advanced degree. But you have to have spent some time thinking in a formal way about culture and your culture, preferably in the company of the likes of Durkheim, Goffman, Warner, Levi-Stauss, to name a few. You may choose your own leading lights, your own "pattern suppliers," but you have to have some. It’s not enough to have "read a book about proxemics" in college.
Pattern recognition depends upon having many, formal "patterns" at hand. These patterns do not do the work of analysis. Our conclusions will always depart from them. But they give us templates with which to work, and when you are deep in the 2nd hour of your 6th interview of a project and the data are piling up all around you, interpretive options are most welcome.
5. Ethnography has always been a way to make good on marketing’s wish to be "consumer centric." Ken Anderson of Intel showed how effectively it can help this corporation answer the big question from Theodore Levitt: "what business are you in?" In Intel’s case, ethnography helped demonstrate that the one of the new objectives was not so much the "digital home" as "digital homemaking." This small difference in phrase makes for a vast difference in product development and marketing. It’s the difference between a product development literalism ("let’s wire the home") and capturing the concerns of the consumer and the value for which they will surrender value.
6. But Ethnography is also useful because it makes the corporation more responsive. Everyone know lives in a world that bucks and weaves with novelty. Michael Kallenberger of Miller Brewing showed as some of the ferocious innovation taking place in the bar. Beer consumption is falling in part because women now influence men’s consumption choices in ways they never did before. This is a huge change, both recent and quite sudden. That beer consumption numbers was falling, this was a simple quantitative matter. Why these numbers were falling, this came from the ethnographic side. What to do about it? This too will in part spring from the ethnographic work, as Miller Brewing thinks about way of repositioning beer to speak to the "bar cultures" now emerging.
7. And that is, as Dominique M. Hanssens, the Executive director of MSI, pointed out, one of the most important contributions ethnography can make. It turns out to be a good lantern to take with us when we go looking for innovation. Innovation is not usually a really great idea we find fully formed sitting neglected in a corner of the consumer culture. ("Velcro, of course!") Innovation often depends on a conceptual cunning, that sudden insight that if we look at this problem or product or person in a slightly new light, everything changes. (Not a digital home, but digital home making.) Innovation comes, that is to say, to those who are capable of changing conceptual frame quickly, often and well. Because it is so good at provoking and then managing messiness, ethnography delivers value here. Indeed, it sometimes seems to me almost as if purpose build for critical parts of the innovation process.
8. One of the real challenges that remains stands at the border between outward research and inward process. Some corporate cultures have a hard time bringing the ethnographic insight fully in-house. Mike Lotti (Kodak) Ken Anderson (Intel), Michael Kallenberger (Miller Brewing) all showed that the corporations has now drawn so much value from ethnographic work that the way is paved. Resistance is down. Transmission is fast. Insights are lasting. Lisa Phelan and Alejandra Arreaga (Philips) outlined a "persona" technique that helps preserve the insight through the product develop process.
All and all, then, a good conference. It marks an interesting development in the maturation of the field. This is no longer the "little method that could," no longer the methodological outlier, no longer the party crasher everyone wishes would just go home. Ethnography is giving up its amateur status, its adolescent excesses, its most flagrant abuses. It will make the corporation more responsive to consumers, more responsive to the dynamism of contemporary market places, and better at innovation.
If there is a larger ethnographic/anthropological point to make here, it is that the corporation is a superbly adaptive animal. I know how difficult it was for the corporation to "get" ethnography. Here was a method that seemed to break all the rules of order and discipline that marketing had with some difficulty imposed upon itself. Ethnography was anomalous and a little nervous making. (I know. When I was doing ethnography in the 80s, people shouted at me for daring to do so.) But it didn’t take long before the corporation took on even this. Unlike the academic world from which ethnography largely sprang, the corporate world, always liquid and restless, always opportunity and advantage seeking, said, "oh we don’t want to do this but we will." Capitalism was responsive enough to take up this odd little duck of a method, and having done so, is more responsive still.
Thanks to Marnie Clippenger, John Deighton, Dominique Hanssens, Donna Peck, Ross Rizley, Earl Taylor and the rest of the MSI team for a great conference.