The ethnographic look


“Fostering meaningful innovation”

Joan Vinyets, April 2012

The truth in today’s business climate is that the globalization of the economy is characterized by intense competition and an extremely complex market, forcing business leaders to innovate: rethinking constantly their strategies and longs–established business practices. Within this world of increasing complexity it is even more complex to try to understand markets and consumers, to predict consumer behaviors and the role of products, services and brands in shaping our culture, identities and lifestyles. Furthermore, the current economic situation does not allow companies and organizations the expected 86% failure rate of new product offerings. Mitigating the risk of failure is crucial, and applied anthropology and ethnography are playing important roles as new tools for gathering more profound and enlarged knowledge. Companies as Intel, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, Kraft, Telenor, Philips, General Motors are a case in point in using ethnography as a new key resource to “make sense”, inspiring the company and to improve its competence. Indeed, anthropologists have been hired as high-level consultants by various organizations. Procter & Gamble famously came up with the idea for the Swiffer mop range when it realized, through ethnography – watching people clean their floors, and noticing that users were spending more time cleaning their mop than they were spending cleaning their floor.

Ethnographic methods and anthropological analysis have a considerable value for the understanding, interpretation and guidance of business and innovation. In fact, Grant McCracken (2009), one of the pioneers and most prestigious anthropologist applying anthropology, suggests that every company will need a Chief Cultural Officer, someone who carries the ethnographic way of thinking into organizations and makes it part of its strategic thinking. So, businesses are increasingly looking to ethnography to see how and why people really do what they do because peoples’ actions are less reflective than we are normally lead to believe, and companies need to meet consumer expectations in the best possible way. There are many documented cases in which business organizations have faced loss due to their failure to grasp the different cultural environments, understand new markets and segments.

In essence, ethnography is watching people do what they normally do, where and when they normally do it because it is well known that humans often do not act on what they say. Applied anthropology tries to turn the implicit into something explicit, and values and patterns into operative elements. Unlike a traditional market researcher, who asks specific, highly practical questions, anthropological researchers visit consumers and users in their own environments to observe and listen, and interview in a non-directed way. Ethnography is more than a simple record of facts; it’s an exploration of meaning (what people think, say, and do) and provides powerful insights into people’s experiences:

  • the way people understand or think about their behaviors
  • the environments and objects that have meaning for them
  • the participant’s activities and daily routines

Ethnography provides a deep understanding (non- conscious and latent) and “actionability” (people why’s)

The scope of applied anthropology is very wide: analyzing marketing and consumer behaviors; studying cultural and cross-cultural consumer behaviors, intercultural communications and advertising; exploring brand values and meaning; identifying key issues on developing new products and services; analyzing organizational cultures and supporting strategic planning, programs and policies, etc. Ethnography is a powerful tool for companies and organizations and can provide a different value to business:

  • Enabling a human centered approach
  • Building an emphatic understanding of customers/users
  • Levering strategic and “tangible” visualization for new directions and innovation paths
  • Creating interdisciplinary alignment & engaging “first feel” to share insights for inspiring new products and services creation

In this extremely complex market, companies need to take the larger view. They have to understand the world outside the corporation, to know worlds that proceed according other values and assumptions, and anthropologists can help companies and organizations to read culture, to connect to it, and to build empathy. Without a connection to culture, without building empathy any product or brand it is merely just another “me to”. The ethnographic look creates the opportunity for business and organizations to provide meaningful innovations and value to people. People, customers, have an unspoken problem and trying to understand that problem or need is at the heart of applied ethnography. Comprehending the daily lives of potential customers is vital for creating meaningful innovation.

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