Ethnography: and comes back again

Well, my attempts to instruct senior executives in the mystery that is ethnography went pretty well.

I spent the first hour talking about ethnography as a new way to honor the marketer’s long standing commitment to make the corporation more consumer centric.

The second hour was devoted to the specific steps, the "how to," of doing ethnography.

The third hour was a chance for the CEO, CFO, chief legal counsel, head of HR, and 10 other senior players actually to do an interview. We recruited people, locals, not ringers, as the respondents. We brought them in, paid them well, and prepared them not at all.

The effect was electric. Just before the respondents came into the room, one of the executives asked me, with a note of small panic, "is this going to work?" which I took to mean, "what in God’s name are you asking us to do?"

It worked really well. There they were, person to person, face to face, seventeen conversations between one high powered executive and one local housewife.

Bang, the room exploded into talk, chatter, animation, happy exclamation. I had to brush back a tear. Seventeen conversations ablaze with … what? Well, just ablaze. It was an interesting exercise in calibration. Senior executives and local housewives finding one another across the differences of income, age, education, ethnicity, experience, lifestyle, and outlook. I thought they might circle like boxers, approach with caution. But it looked at a distance as if they just fell into one another’s arms. They looked pleased, really pleased, to find one another in this conversation.

I would like to think I deserve some credit. I worked hard to make it clear that the executives’ first responsibility was humility, that they needed to know, fully to grasp, that the consumer knew and they did not. They needed to set aside all the things that business school and professional life encourages in us, being smart, clear, fast. This was the time to listen very, very carefully. I think I sold this well.

And I worked hard to persuade the recruiter that we wanted respondents who were everyday consumers in every respect except that they happened to be talkative and forthcoming. And I prepped the respondents. I said, listen, corporations can lose touch.  This is a chance for this corporation to listen to you, the consumer, directly.

Yeah, right. I don’t deserve any credit. The afternoon worked because we are, our extravagant protestations notwithstanding, one nation, after all. Our powers of empathy have not yet been outstripped. Smart people, with a curiosity activated by empathy and self interest, can still make contact with smart people endowed curiosity, empathy and self interest. (This is when the species is most attractive, when driven by these our three best motives.)

Anyhow, it turned out rather well.  Blessed are those who take a chance. 

References and acknowledgments :

I stole the "one nation" line from Wolfe, Alan. 1998. One nation, after all. New York: Viking.

The cartoon is the work of the immortal Gary Larson.   I’m not sure that the text is visible.  It reads: "Anthropologists!  Anthropologists!"

5 thoughts on “Ethnography: and comes back again

  1. Graham Hill


    Sounds like time well spent. The acid test, of course, will be if the executives continue to listen to customers face-to-face or whether Marketing is tasked with doing it.

    Having successfully brought customers inside a single room of the corporation (boardroom), the big challenge is to bring them into the other rooms where real work gets done (R&D, marketing, manufacturing, sales, service, etc). To involve customers in broader and deeper co-creation if you will.

    Now there is a BHAG for you.

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  3. Amy Scissons


    Sr. Executives are unlocking the secrets of ethnography… I love it. I don´t suppose I could convince you to share some of your specific steps (or ¨how to¨) with your loyal fans and readers?


  4. Fadzilah

    I love seeing Larson’s famous cartoon within the context of your post on the corporate cosmos. Puts a different spin on it.

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