Ethnography is much used in corporate circles. As a matter of fact, I’m headed to Toronto to participate in the Marketing Science Institute’s "Business Insights from consumer culture." It will be jammed with ethnographers and marketers interested in ethnography. Here’s a sneak preview of part of my presentation.
This interest in ethnography is being driven chiefly by 4 things:
1) the simple recognition that the focus group is no longer the preeminent methodological tool for qualitative inquiry.
2) the CEO of P&G, A.G. Lafley has smiled on ethnography and in marketing circles this is pretty close to a Papal blessing.
3) ethnography is moving through its life cycle. It is no longer the new kid on the block, and its time to get serious about what it is, how it works, and how it can be managed for corporate purposes.
4) there are lots of bad practitioners now operating, and it is time for the corporation to begin to separate the sheep from the goats.
If ethnography has an obvious advantage, it is that it disintermediates the connection between the corporation and the consumer. The ethnographer goes into the life of the consumer, sitting in kitchens and living rooms, to listen and observe. This is good. Ideally, it means that the corporation can see how the product and the brand manifests itself in home, in use, in life. The famous and most obvious example of the value of ethnography: a 20 minute video showing a consumer trying to open a package. "Ah," says the corporation, "we have a design problem."
This is fine as far as it goes, but some clients are now treating ethnography as if it were merely for disintermediation, only a way to collapse the distance between the corporation and the corporation. In the partial view, the ethnographer becomes, in effect, the marketer’s surrogate, a way for the marketer to see into the life of the consumer, his or her eyes and ears in place. The presumption here is that, with a little more time, the marketer would have gone himself (herself) and would have seen pretty much the same thing. This might be someone struggling with a package they cannot open. Who could miss this? The ethnographer is merely a witness to something so obvious it would have been evident to anyone.
This short changes the method and the corporation. For the method is designed not just for observation but analysis. In a mature methodological universe, the ethnographer returns not just with brute observations but with insights. And this is called for because many of the things the corporation needs to know are not evident on the surface of the consumer’s life. We have to see beneath the surface into the beliefs and assumptions, the patterns and the practices, that make this life practical and sensible. No mere "eyes and ears" ethnographer can supply these deeper insights.
The "eyes and ears" model of ethnography is, I think, one of the reasons that bad practitioners have flourished. Many are too uneducated or dim witted to offer anything more than surface reports. More pointedly, they are often too stupid to see the real analytic opportunity or competitive insight. This means that the corporation is buying only half the method. More pointedly, many ethnographers are selling half the insight. Naive empiricism is fine if all we need to worry about is impenetrable packaging. But when the marketing problem is more difficult, more nuanced, more interesting, this sort of thing will not do. Certainly, no partial ethnographer is going to spot a BFI. No partial ethnographer is going to discover a "blue ocean." No partial ethnographer can hope to perform the higher order analysis that is the corporation’s due.
Here is an ad from Nokia that helps make the point. It’s for the Nokia 8801. The tag is "It’s your life in there." The ad is available on line (see the link below). When you get to the website, you will have to select one of several images that are scrolling horizontally. You want the one that shows a blond woman with the tag "new." If you’ve got the time, please watch both ads. The link is here.
Here’s a recap of the second ad, the one entitled "Jill and her Nokia." Jill says,
"I met a guy last Saturday night and he asked for my phone number and, like, things were going well at the bar, so I give him my phone number and he puts me right into his phone and was like, hey, that’s ,that’s, that’s pretty quick and then he asked me if I wanted his number and I was like yeah do you want to put it down on a business card or something. I mean I’m a lady! Who thinks of jumping right into my phone. I got to take this as a process. If we call, if we have some sort of thing going."
[The ad shows the Nokia 8801 and the line:] Nokia: It’s your life in there
"It’s like my cell phone is precious, it’s precious territory."
Now this is a great ad in some ways. It says the Nokia has gone well behind the boiler plate of its PR, which I found online and reproduce, very partially, here:
Nokia is dedicated to enhancing people’s lives and productivity by providing easy-to-use and secure products like mobiles phones and solutions for imaging, games, media,, mobile network operations and businesses.
…we aim to help people get connected and increase the level of enjoyment and productivity that results.
Using ethnography, Nokia has drilled down into some of the real uses of the phone, and especially the way the phone interacts with the consumer’s life. The second ad shows us that this Nokia is not merely an "enhancement" of Jill’s life but something deeply personal, a way of marking the boundaries of her social life, a way of deciding whether someone is in or out. And in the first ad, we see that the Nokia is actually a way to remove people from her life, as when Jill "deletes" her boyfriend.
Now, I would be prepared to bet a substantial sum of money that this ad comes almost directly from the ethnographer’s note book. Clearly, "Jill" is an actress. Clearly, this ethnographic moment has been reshot. Just as clearly, Nokia decided that they liked the insight of the research so well that they would turn the insight into the ad and reproduce the moment of illumination. They even went so far as to preserve the original cheesy video work.
I think this is a bad idea. The first ad (Jill deleting an old boyfriend) is cringingly unpleasant to watch. Especially "Jill’s" laugh at the very end which happens to catch the pain of this experience rather too vividly. The phrase "overshare" is making the rounds of adolescent speech at the moment, and it seems particularly apt here. This is research overshare. I don’t really want to know about Jill’s anxieties. Unlike a former president, I don’t want to feel her pain.
Don’t get me wrong. The underlying research, the insight that some ethnographer brought back from Jill’s bedroom, is a beauty. As I say, it moves us beyond the "we sell communications" model of the corporation. But it is just an insight, and as such it is too personal, particular and painful too deliver a powerful branding message. I am impressed that Nokia did their homework. I am impressed that they hired an ethnographer to capture this insight but I don’t want disintermediated access to the research. For marketing purposes, this should be the point of departure. But it should not be our point of arrival.
In sum, the world of corporate ethnography appears to be leaving an exuberant adolescence and entering what we hope will be a more solemn, deliberate, and useful adulthood. It will, we hope, put the things of childhood behind it. See you at the conference, if you are going. Watch this space for periodic reports, if you’re not.
The quote above from Nolkia’s corporate brochure can be found here.