Jessica's Blog

Anthropology Today: Ethnographic Market Research

Business companies are starting to re-envision how products are developed and marketed to the consumer.  As stated by Stephen Jackson, in his article “Breakthrough market discoveries often hide out in latent forms”, companies have begun to see that: “customers have difficulty envisioning new technologies or being locked in habits and thought processes developed over time” (2009).  The solution has come in the form of anthropologic studies; more specifically, a possible solution has been found in the form of ethnographic research:

“… ethnographic research, a technique developed by anthropologists… [is] the systematic study of how people go about their daily living.  In the business world it means actually observing how customers use products and services and make buying decisions.  Ethnography has its origins in anthropology.  The word itself holds a clue: ‘ethno’ means people and ‘graphy’ means describe.  Ethnography takes research to the people, allowing them to describe their world in their own terms and observing them in the home, the office, the car, the supermarket or wherever” (Jackson 2009).

In other words, Business companies are now turning away from the traditional methods of product testing—namely the focus group which relays on formal inquiry—and turning to alternative techniques that deal heavily with observing the costumer (Jackson 2009).  Ethnographic studies avoid possible biases and minimize the chance of false information; problems that are often seen in formal inquiry methods such as surveys and formal interviews (Jackson 2009).  Also, ethnographic studies are known to often capture latent customer needs.  One such example is given by Spencer Ante as he describes the “satellite-radio war” between Sirius and XM Satellite Radio Holdings:

“(XM) Ziba Design dispatched a team of social scientists, designers, and ethnographers on a road trip to Nashville and Boston.  For four weeks they shadowed 45 people, studying how they listen to music, watch TV, and even peruse gossip magazines.  Their conclusion: A portable satellite-radio player that was easy to use and load with music for later playback could be a killer app in competition against XM” (Ante 2006).

What these anthropologists are directly observing are, “cultural trends, attitudes, and lifestyle factors that influence consumer decisions” (Jackson 2009).    Note that this sentence is deceptively simple.  For instance, middle class suburban families in New York could be considered a target study group.  This group would have a different a cultural ideology from upper class suburban families. Likewise, suburban families would have different ideologies from families living in the city.  Then, one must also consider ethnicity as a factor in consumption.  Western culture values, a very material oriented society, are far different from non-western values, which is more community oriented.  Considering these factors, it is wondrous anthropologists are really useful at all!  Yet in Intel alone, ethnographic research has proven so valuable that they now employ, “over two dozen anthropologists and other trained ethnographers” (Jackson 2009).  Other highly recognizable names jumping on the bandwagon of ethnographic research teams are such big-time names as IBM and Microsoft (Jackson 2009).   Companies such as these are now spending $20,000 to $300,000 dollars in ethnographic research in hopes of better understanding the values of their costumers (Jackson 2009).


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