Category Archives: Ethnography

Chicago as a field site

Water_liliesOk, so I made it to Chicago.  I had hoped to take the train from Las Vegas, the Southwest Chief–and what could be better than taking the train through the desert–but a derailment intervened and I was forced to take the plane.

Good thing, too.  For I was just settling into my seat, when a woman beside me said,

I trust him just the tiniest bit more after this weekend…but I am not going to let myself get hurt.

Normally, I would contrive to persuade her to tell me all about it, but I am going to spend this week doing ethnographic interviews in Chicago persuading people tell me all about it and I thought I would keep my own councel for a change.

The flight was otherwise uneventful, except that they were showing The Pink Panther.  Some good moments which I credit to one half of the film writing team, Len Blum, a fellow I happen to know slightly.  But the rest of the film actually so dishonors the original concept that Inspector Clouseau actually becomes Lieutenant Frank Dreben (sp?) of the Naked Gun series by about the 20 minutes mark.  Now, that, in my opinion, is a crime against civilization as we know it. 

Happily, I had along a copy of the new book by Alan Furst, The Foreign Correspondent, which I recommend heartily.  What a writer!  He builds narrative as well as John le Carre, but he is more nuanced, more anthropological in his development of person and place.  He is free of ideologically self indulgent that so often took le Carre captive.  Finally, Furst understands the French with a depth of knowledge and affection, a useful corrective against our current impatience and, sometimes, loathing. 

I am now (or was at this writing) in a a chop house in Chicago called The Chop House, Sinatra and Billie Holiday as the "music over."  (Why is it always voice over and never music over?  It’s because music insinuates and voice does not, I think.)  It’s all dark wood and deep booths with lots of words on the wall: "New York Strip, Pinot Blanc, Maine Lobster…"  Some of the Chop houses of our time are instruments of the restoration of a steak and whisky masculinity.  Not The Chop House.  I mean, they are playing Billie Holiday, who in her extraordinary way captured another feminity in which women always let themselves get hurt.  Or perhaps that femininity and the steak and whisky masculinity go together.  Nah, couldn’t be.

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!"

Ethnography goes to the board room

Stringer_1 I am preparing to instruct the senior managers at an American corporation on the ethnographic method. 

The question is, of course, why would a CEO and his team need to know about ethnography in a "hand’s on" way.  The answer is A.G. Lafley.  The head of P&G has smiled on ethnography, frowned on focus groups, and made the life of this humble anthropologist vastly easier and more interesting.

And it’s going to be really interesting.  How do I take several years of PhD training at the University of Chicago and turn it into an four hours of instruction?  Not possible, of course.  Not plausible, to be honest. 

But is it a good idea, anyhow? It is a great idea, anyhow!  The American corporation is run by men and women who are, most of them, products of the business school.  And there are almost no business schools that build an ethnographic or even a qualitative sensitivity into their currulum.  This means that the senior managers charged with guiding the organization sometimes do not have the most useful listening instruments at their disposal.

Consumer centricity is widely help to be the first, the most pressing, task of the corporation.  Ethnography is now widely regarded as a particularly good way of accomplishing this centricity.  When senior managers don’t have it, they suffer a distinct disadvantage.  Especially if they are obliged to go up against the formidable likes of A.G. Lafley and P&G. 

Naturally, this seems like a motherhood issue.  Who doesn’t care about making contact with the consumer?  Who wouldn’t embrace any useful method for doing so?  Well, the New York Times on Sunday carried a 1000 words on Sir Howard Stringer, the Sony CEO.  The article details the first 11 months of Stringer’s reign.  It talks about his strengths and his challenges.  Clearly this guy is talented and tireless, collaborative and hard charging. 

But there was not a single word about the consumer.  Sony ends up sounding like a corporation driven by an engineering mentality.  And when we look at where Sony has stumbled, digital rights management, music, movies, the Connect connection, fighting Apple and the iPod, these are precisely the areas where consumer centricity makes a difference.  I don’t doubt that the brain trust at Sony has worked this out.  If they want to reassure analysts that Sony is making contact with consumers and with culture, what better way that to make sure this fact features prominently in the talk generated by the CEO for public consumption?

But the article offers only a great silence on the consumer.  Maybe this is one of those snobbery things.  Technical people are loathe to think they could learn from a consumer goods player.  Too bad.  I’m guessing Howard Stringer could learn a great deal from the likes of A.G. Lafley.  And if that seems somehow inappropriate, I am on very good terms with an anthropologist who would be most happy to help out.


Siklos, Richard and Martin Fackler.  2006.  Sony’s Road Warrior.  The New York Times, May 28, 2006.

Post Script

And please no comments that say that Sir Howard Stringer, as the person who insisted that Sony pick up The DaVinci Code, is a now a certified "rain man" when it comes to detecting consumer taste and preference.  In fact, The DaVinci is from a marketing point of view, a certified freak of nature, an accident that happened to Sony, to Stringer’s good fortune.  Come to think of it, where is the marketing community on this one?  Have we xrayed this movie phenomenon?  Have we learned the lessons it has to teach us.  What can brands learn from The DaVinci Code?  Hmm, perhaps this is a job for our code breaker, Claude Rapaille.   Ok, maybe not. 

Ethnography in London, the Hogarthian kind

Hogarth Some ethnographic projects are a labor from start to finish.  We are standing in a wind tunnel, data coming at us at volume and speed.  Eventually a pattern forms, but not before exhaustion and sometimes delirium takes hold.

This project is different.  It has a Hogarthian quality.  The engraving is rich and complicated, but you don’t have to look at it for very long before the story becomes clear.  Oh, there’s the pub owner, oh, there’s the women ruined by gin, the man consumed by a life of crime.  The pattern forms, develops photolike in the fixing tray of consciousness.

There is lots going on, a fabulous diversity of response, and just when you then you are going to be carried away by a data storm, the pattern forms.  There are moments where you are almost claimed by glib assumptions.  Respondents are talking about something you thought you knew.  But no, in the course of conversation, you realize that you were supplying an assumption that does not apply.  It would have been easy to miss one, and you count your blessings, and thank God for the messiness and redundancy of the method. 

This is a demanding project: 3 interviews a day, 6 hours of careful listening and questioning, hours of commuting as I travel back and forth across London.  This is a chance to see how truly superb is this system of public transport.  Really, I sometimes feel like a datum speeding about in the mind of the machine.  This schedule leaves no time to see the London that tourist’s care about, but this morning, coming to the Kinko’s from which I write this, I did get a glimpse of Berkeley square, a place so beautiful it feels thoroughly inhabited. 

You could say that the 20th century was, among other things, a contest between two phrases:

1. Don’t you know who I am?

2. Who do you think you are?

I am always glad that the latter won.   Almost always.

Thanks to my patron on this trip, Mark Murray.

Ethnography at the MSI meetings


The Marketing Science Institute meetings on ethnography are
now over. 

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. 

The problem of partial ethnography


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


Story time 15: emergency ethnography for the Coca-Cola Company in Japan

Nagano_torchThis is the latest installment in an occasional series of stories drawn from my experience as a professional marketer. Usually, "story time" runs on Friday and it aims to reveal something about the practice of marketing, and, in this way, the models of marketing.

In 1998, Nick Hahn and I were sent to Nagano, Japan on an emergency mission. The Torch Run sponsored by the Coca-Cola Company (TCCC hereafter) had proven unexpectedly successful, and Sergio Zyman, then VP in charge of marketing, wanted to know why. More simply, TCCC had hit a marketing gusher and the question was "why did this happen and how do we leverage it?"

The Torch Run is a relatively recent innovation at the Olympics, emerging in the Amsterdam and Berlin games of 1928 and 1936. The formula is now simple. A new flame is lit in the Greece. The flame tours Greece, and is then transported, usually by plane, to the site of the new Olympic games.

In the Nagano case, the flame had come ashore at three points in Japan and, over the course of a month, was making its way by three routes, touching en route almost all of Japan’s 47 prefectures. Eventually, about 2 weeks from now, the three torches would become one, and a single flame would be carried into the stadium to mark the beginning of the Winter games. The stadium torch would burn for the duration of the game and would then be extinquished during the closing ceremony.

The surprise was this. TCCC had hoped that the Torch Run would bring people out to urge the torch bearers forward. Precedent and best estimates said that people would come out in the 10s and 100s. Instead, they came out in the 1000s and 10000s, demonstrative, weeping, applauding, exulting. The Run proved unexpectedly emotional. Word went back to Atlanta, and Nick and I were dispatched. We were accompanied by Ewen Cameron of the advertising firm Berlin Cameron.

Torch bearers were a variety of people: local school children, public officials, athletes, notables of one kind or another. A Taiwan TV celebrity, Pai Ping-ping was chosen. She was running, she said, to demonstrate to her daughter, murdered a year before, that "Mum is back on her feet again." Chris Moon, a British activists who had lost an arm and a leg to a mine in Mozambique and was now working to end the use of land mines, also participated. A junior high school teacher Yasuji Niwa carried the Olympic flame in Gifu Prefecture by the Pacific Ocean route through western Japan. Niwa, 28, had suffered a terrible injury and had been in a coma for 3 months. Kazuo Kawamoto, a social worker who seven years ago survived heart surgery, completed his 1-km trek with his wife, a nurse he met at the hospital.

Nick’s team had a week to do the research, write the report and present, first to TCCC Japan and then TCCC USA in the intimidating person of Sergio Zyman. The idea was to come up with actionable findings while the Olympics were still in play. This meant doing our interviews, visiting the Torch Run (still in progress), doing analysis, yelling at one another, undertaking the idea generation, writing the report, and yelling at one another, almost all at once while in transit with jet lag all on a just-in-time, what-should-we-do-next, where-should-we-go-next sort of spontaneity. It was as if the 2 minute drill from football had come to marketing.

The Japanese loved the Torch run for several reasons. This Olympics came at a time when some Japanese were feeling that scandals, banking difficulties, and other frustrations had diminished the country’s position as a master of capitalism. The Olympics would not restore this vaunted position, but it would augment Japan’s international profile. The Torch Run was the first opportunity to contemplate the Olypics and Japan together.

There was also a certain admiration for the logistical perfection of the Torch Run. Getting three torches from far flung places by 1 kilometer intervals through thousands of hands for simultaneous arrival in Nagano is not easy. Americans might have taken the thing for granted, but some of the Japanese I talked to were deeply impressed. It was as if the exquisite calibrations of the Tokyo subway system had been scaled up to fit an entire nation. (And the Tokyo subway is of course a system so perfectly organized that it dares tell you that the next train will arrive in 5…4…3…2…1 seconds. At the stroke of 0, a train pulls up and the doors open. I coulda plotzed.)

The Torch Run also impressed because it was so deeply local, touching many, tiny little towns that would normally be allowed to slumber in obscurity. The idea that the far margin should be articulated with a national center and that this center should be articulated with an international event, there was an embedded hierarchy here that impressed some respondents almost into speechlessness. It is a tough idea to represent with words, but I began to see that what really made it tricky was that it was emotionally powerful and brought some people close to tears to see played out. (You would have to know more about Japanese culture to know how the Torch Run interacted with Japanese notions of center and periphery, traditional and current. Clearly, something was going on here. I couldn’t be sure what. More exactly, I could get the "what" but not the "why".)

And then there was the choice of all those people who had very personal and sometimes tragic stories to tell. This made the Torch Runners like so many panels in a comic book. Each runner his/her own story, all runners a collectivity. Differences visible, identities undiminished. (Or in the language of Weinberger’s magnificient title: Small pieces loosely joined.) Here too it was clear that something was at work in the play of individualism relative to the collective. If I had had something more than 7 days, I might have found what.

There was also the sheer heroism of some of these runners. They were civilians who had endured difficulty with courage and this, at a stroke, made everyone an Olympic hero, and this in turn made the preliminary "run up" (sorry) to the Olympics fully continuous with the Olympics. The runners were, in some emotional sense, Olympians too.

In sum, the emergency ethnographers were able to report back to TCCC Japan and TCCC Atlanta and suggest some of the things that had ignited the success of the Torch Run.

I had the distinct sense that Cameron was handling us. He is a very sweet guy and a great travelling companion. But he appeared to have made up his mind what it was we would discover, and he seemed to have a fixed idea what creative strategy we ought to pursue. Indeed, he suggested a great idea to leverage the success of the Torch Run, but I couldnt help feeling that he was dusting something off, some creative armament he had long wanted to get into a TCCC cannon.

But then this is daring work, and we can be forgiven working prefab. The pressure is pretty spectacular. We were working across time zones, countries, cultures, and languages. It was not easy. Nick is good in these circumstances. He was "other worldly" enough to commune with the creatives and "this worldly" enough to keep us on target, on schedule and on budget. But everyone is pressed to the limit on one of these things. I remember rocketing back to the hotel lobby to join the team. Nick said, "he’s always just a little bit late." And indeed I always was, not least because I was in my hotel room treasuring a last few seconds out of the sheer, relentless press of getting things right.

Actually, this was the trip in which I discovered that I dance in elevators (and absolutely no place else). The elevators in the Imperial hotel in Tokyo have little video cameras in the corner. This was enough to prompt me to think about what I was doing, and to discover, to my astonishment, that I was dancing. I am not a good dancer. By which I mean I’m Canadian, but there is something about being in those suspended little cubicles that brings out the disco artist within.

Certainly, the Torch Run study looks like an exercise in the ad hoc and episodic, and not at all the sort of thing we would expect to be become a part of marketing orthodoxy or due process. But if marketing is moving away from the soap opera to staging many, smaller, short lived, events that must be ventured, recalled, rethought, reissued…if marketing is going to become, that is to say, more creative, experimental, innovative and iterative, then emergency ethnography might well become the order of the day, useful for the study of unexpected successes and sudden failures alike.

A couple of posts ago, we praised Motorola for it’s use of small, fast, teams in the creation of the Razr.  It may well be that these very teams are the things we use to investigate our innovations after they have been released into the world. 


McCracken, Grant. 2005.  The Malamud effect: Ideas and the Corporation.  September 23, 2005. here.

post script:

I did promise Thursday that I would look at the similarities between the worlds of Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II and I now promise to do that Monday.  Sorry.

Story Time 7: effervescing on the flats


A couple of years ago, I was doing ethnographic research on the topic of beer drinking. Martin Weigel, my agency double, and I went to Cleveland to a neighborhood filled with bars called “the flats.”

The flats has one big advantage as a place to go drinking. It used to be an industrial area and now it’s just bars. So there is no residential population there to take umbrage when the young people of Cleveland indulge themselves with Dionysian abandon.

Martin is an Englishman and the young people of Ohio are…not. (Some anthropological assertions are incontrovertible.) There are many differences between Englishmen and Ohioans, but this story-time turns on one in particular: the young people of Ohio are pleased to make a spectacle of themselves in a way that Martin and I never would.

The English are raised never to make a spectacle of themselves.* (Canadians, too.) It’s a rule. Laughing too loudly. Sneezing more than once. Shouting, gesticulating, staggering around in public. Anything that suggests a failure of self control breaks the spectacle rule. The penalty is clear. Make a spectacle of yourself and you surrender your status credentials, and, of course, any self respect you may be harboring.

So putting an Englishman and a Canadian onto the flats was a very good idea. (Thank you, J. Walter Thompson.) Nothing we saw there was likely to escape our attention. We might as well have been on Mars. (Martin, my favorite Martian.)

This particular evening, a Thursday I think, all was quiet. Martin and I go into several bars and the tableau is always the same. The music is loud, the place is relatively crowded, the drinks are in place. Everything is there except the spectacle.

The bar is a big square room. Men and women stand around the perimeter. The women, many of them, are dancing in place, as if by themselves. They are standing beside men who are leaning against the bar. Occasionally, the girls beseech the guys to start dancing. The music was deafening. The DJ was exhorting people to dance. Nothing doing. Martin and I look on and wonder: What’s to be learned from a room like this?

We wander out into the street. Kids walk past wearing crazy paper hats with outrageously off-color remarks written on them. One of them reads, and I am not making this up, “sperm receptacle.” Evidently, there is a restaurant in the flats that makes these hats up and hands them out. Wonder of wonders, customers agree to wear them. Further wonder: they then wear them while walking in the flats. Talk about making a spectacle of yourself! Martin can’t believe his eyes.  I feel a strong temptation to look the other way. It’s the only decent, Canadian, thoroughly tedious thing to do.

Martin and I wonder back into the bar. Whammo! All hell has broken lose. Everyone is dancing, including the guys. There are women now actually dancing on the bar. In the ten minutes that Martin and I spent on the street, the bar went off. In his dry English way, Martin said, “I guess they were waiting for us to leave.”

In a perfect world, we would have had Malcolm Gladwell with us. Clearly, some tipping point had just been passed. It would take a finer eye, or at least more research, to determine how the crowd negotiated this sudden transition, this phase change. (The trouble with this research is that there is never more than a couple of days to collect data.) No doubt, several signaling systems were used. Or maybe this is a simple hydraulic system. Combine enough patrons with enough drinks, music, DJ exhortation, and this always happens around the 44 minute mark.

What was especially interesting for Martin and I was that the tipping point here marked a transition from social restraint to spectacle. Something, some things, in the bar worked as a licensing system. All these people had found a way to give one another permission to go nuts. It was a kind of social contract that begins, “I will if you will.” No doubt, there are lots of early gambits. People take leads and no one follows. But eventually one lead brings out a couple of imitators and this provokes still more “adoption” until the whole thing scales up and over the tipping point.

But none of this reckons with the flats. This is apparently a liminal zone, a place that says you may leave your usual “spectacle constraints” at home. There is an inclination to suppose that liminal places are ones in which no rules apply. This is wrong. In fact, the behavior of young people in Cleveland is as highly coded, social formed, cultural codified and socially formed after the tipping point as before it. People who get really blind, stumbling, who-am-I, where-am-I, drunk wake up friendless, unless they have the designated “Jim Belushi” role to play. And ever here there are still rules that constraint what remains a performance of drunkenness.

It is one of those little miracles that happen in American life, governed as it so often is not by a ceremonial order, but something more emergent. We are a culture where things emerge  out  of an apparent muddling and the most subtle of  signalling systems.  Usually, it’s the market place that supplies the field for this convergence not consensus.  Not in Cleveland.  Here it’s that alluvial plane called the flats. 


Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point.  Viking. 


* I knew an English family, educated and intelligent, who insisted that no one should ever tell Sarah, a daughter in her early 30s, any sort of joke. Why? Because once someone told Sarah a joke and she couldn’t stop laughing. 

(Filed from Dallas)


Story time IV: Ronald, patron saint of ethnography

RonaldCommercial ethnography is sometimes the method of last resort. All other methods, quantitative and qualitative, have been tried and all have failed. 

That’s why, a couple of years ago, I got a call from The Coca-Cola Company (TCCC). A great torrent of Coke flows through McDonald’s every day. So TCCC was particularly concerned by a new finding: that consumers order a smaller size of Coke when passing through the drive-through than when ordering indoors at the counter. Multiply this difference (even if it’s just 3 ounces) by millions of drinks per day over thousands of outlets, and you get the idea.

All the obvious methods had failed. TCCC had collected every kind of quantitative data and subjected it to every statistical manipulation. Focus groups had been held. Consumers panels had been convened and consulted. The experts had been consulted.

All the obvious answers had been exhausted. No, it wasn’t that people were worried about spilling their Coke in the car. No, it wasn’t that they were concerned about bladders filling and perhaps exploding on route. This is was for both McDonald’s and TCCC a WTF moment.

So TCCC asked me if I could solve this problem? I said yes, because I always say yes. But I figured that if all other methods had failed, no one would be inclined to crucify the method (or me) if ethnography did too.

Off I went to Southern California. I found a McDonald’s with the right mix of consumers and a robust drive through line. The manager was a little mystified but entirely helpful. I decided to see if I could interview people in the drive-through. And predictably, this made people in the drive through line a little uncomfortable.

I was wearing a suit and tie, to make myself look more professional. Actually, wearing a suit in a drive-through line really just makes you look Martian. But that’s good too. To magnify the effect, I wore a little blue McDonald’s cap. Now, I looked like a complete asshole. To be fair.

Very shortly, I was feeling like an asshole, too. The longest you can talk to someone who is driving through a drive-through line is about 40 seconds. You have no longer introduced and explained yourself than the driver is ready to move on. You can walk along beside the car as if shuffles forward, but this is tricky because you have to walk backwards, and the lane is narrow.

So most of your interviews last about 22 seconds. It is hot, very hot. It is so hot that I am soaked right through and my camera person, Suz, has discovered that the sun block has run off her forehead into her eyes and she can barely see. At this point, we aren’t getting very much more on camera than we are in the interviews.

I can’t tell you the outcome of the research. That was bought and paid for by TCCC, and what are the chances that I would ever work again if I blabbed (and blogged) my research results. But, at the risk of blowing my own horn, I can tell you this. The idea finally came to me, out there in the broiling sun, and when I gave it to my client over the phone, she gasped. In my experience, this is the best sound a client can make. I have only heard it once.

But let me end on a methodological point. Ethnography must always start with an act of humility. You are talking to the respondent because they know and you don’t. They are the expert and you are the supplicant. You have to communicate this early on, especially if you are talking to someone who might be intimated by you or your appearance. Nothing quite gets this job done like a suit, tie and a blue McDonald’s hat. In these circumstances, I might as well have been dressed up like Ronald McDonald.

But there is a second grounds for humility, one that exists for all researchers. Every time I drive by a McDonald’s, I look to see if they embraced my strategy or adopted any of my recommendations. Five years later, they haven’t done a thing.

Ethnography and quality control


Well, this is a little awkward.  Renee Hopkins Callahan at Corante/IdeaFlow is reporting on a conference that promises an “An Ethnographic Learning Journey IntoThe CPSI Culture.”  (CPSI stands for Creative Problem Solving Institute.)

“Great,” I thought, “ethnography!” It’s interesting to see what becomes of this brave little method when it leaves the groves of the academic world for the “real world.”  I have done quite a lot of ethnographic “export” myself, and in fact I am now working on a study for the Marketing Science Institute on this very topic. 

Here’s the problem: the “Immersion Session” in question, the one that will “use ethnography as a research method,” does not appear to have anyone trained in ethnography attached to it.  The leader of the session says that she has a degree in Psychology and that she is a “self-trained visual anthropologist.”  Self-trained anthropologist? Oh, be still my acid pen.

Well, that could be something for Callahan to report on.  If she sees an ethnographer, I mean.  “News flash: ethnographer found at learning journey!”

This is a widespread problem. There are lots of people claiming to do ethnography who are, um, “self trained.”   There are of no barriers to entry and no one licensing ethnographers. And the term “ethnography” is now so sought after in certain circles that there is plenty of demand.

For all I know, the CPSI “ethnographer” is smart and variously gifted enough to do a great job leading the research and creating the “immersion.”  But it is not clear to me that the term “ethnography” is properly used here.

Ford rides a trend

Mustang_1The Ford Motor Company is selling 18,000 a month Mustangs a month.  They could sell more but, darn it, then they’d have to make them.

To meet current demand, Ford considered investing in additional capacity to build more Mustangs…  Executives decides against it to avoid getting stuck with too much capacity should demand slack off after a year or two.

If I were a share holder or an analyst, I’d be unhappy about this.  Ford is leaving value  on the table.  And they are doing so,  apparently, because  they cannot predict demand a year or two down the road.

If I were a share holder or an analyst, I would  say, "Predicting demand?  Isn’t this what we pay you for?  Haven’t you just declared yourself unfit for office?"

Anyone who hasn’t been living in North Korea the last couple of years knows that muscle cars are back.  Even Hollywood got the news and managed to make a lot of money with a couple of pictures staring Vin Diesel.  Mr. Diesel can’t act to save his life (or a picture) but then he didn’t have to.  In fact, the real stars of The Fast and the Furious and XXX were the cars Mr. Diesel drove.   

This is marketing for free.  Contemporary culture in its wisdom and for its own particular reasons decided that cars were BACK.  In other words, Detroit just got a great big gift. 

But to ride the trend, Detroit must know the trend.  And to know the trend Detroit must bridge the gap between  kids racing in the streets and Detroit marketing executives.  From an anthropological point of view, it’s hard to imagine two worlds more disparate.  Men of middle age living in the leafy, gracious suburbs of Detroit (grosse point blank) versus kids working two jobs to race  one car late, late at night in warehouse districts where leaves are not allowed.  There is a vast cultural difference between them. 

But the good news: bridging the gap is easy.  The important thing: never  use cool hunters, or a member of the car community.  The trick: put on your dumbest, more conservative suit.  Borrow the stupidest car you can find.  A K-car would be an excellent choice.  Get up at 2:00 in the morning, go to a warehouse district and listen for loud engines.  Find the race, approach someone, and pepper them with questions.

You will be met with ridicule.  This is good. 

Ethnography begins with an act of humility and the declaration of igorance.  The respondent will mock you at first and then something remarkable happens.  When they see that you are not going to cut and run, that you are so sincere about finding out about what they know, you are prepared to endure a massive loss of face to do so, they will take you in, sit you down, and tell you all about it. 

Clearly, this is only the first step.  It remains to talk to everyone else in the diffusion chain about newly muscular cars.  This will tell us which and how much of the innovations of the early adopter will come in from the margin to transform the tastes and preferences of more mainstream players.  And this will tell us whether demand is sufficient to warrant expanding our production numbers for the next couple of years. 

And this is a very good thing, because, frankly, I think share holders and analysts are watching. 


Boudette, Neal. E.  2005.  Muscle Cars Make a Comeback.  Wall Street Journal.  June 16, 2005, pp. D1, D3.