In focus groups or depth interviews, consumers are asked questions, usually out of their natural environment. Even though these dynamics have much value in generating useful knowledge, perhaps even insight, the current business environment throws up a consistently tough challenge that often cannot be answered by asking consumers themselves, how to grow in saturated (with messages, positionings, brands, line extensions, etc.) markets.

Actual unmet needs are extremely few and far between in our hyper-modern world. And most obvious category positioning territories have been laid claim to. We in the marketing industry have asked and asked consumers about what they want, and what they need; about what they find relevant and what they find motivating, and half the time they say things that they don’t remember or mean once they leave the viewing facility. This often ends up costing clients millions of pounds for very little gain.

There are, however, plenty of under-exploited opportunities.

To access these, businesses need to go deeper than the depth, further than the focus group, and attempt to understand and explore real human beings, seeing in their complexity simple and accessible openings for brands.

Ethnography, with its roots in anthropology and the human sciences, is a very powerful tool to do just this. It is supreme at allowing us to gain deep and penetrating insight into how products and brands fit (or not) into the everyday life of the consumer. Even more crucially it is, we feel, the best way of identifying new opportunities for brand positioning, communication and innovation to give our clients that elusive edge, that hard to find strategic advantage, in today’s over-researched markets.

If ethnography is the science of everyday culture, commercial ethnography is the science of the everyday culture of brands, how they work in the context of the individuals, families, groups and segments that consume them.

Ethnography, however, is not observation. Ethnography is, in fact, both a body of knowledge and theory and a set of techniques (of which observation is only one). Both elements are vital in understanding consumers’ everyday lives in any profound, and profoundly useful, way.

In fact, ethnography’s core technique (canonical to any anthropologist) is Participant Observation, not observation. The difference is this: observation, and its most unpleasant form, video observation, delivers reams of data (in the latter case far too much data to do anything useful with; ask various large consumer goods corporations about this) on behaviours and language in context.

True ethnography, on the other hand, blends this learning with past theory, observation and crucially the ethnographer’s own experiences and feelings of the informant’s world. This vital triumvirate (supplemented by photos, structured interviews, casual questions, artefacts) generates rich, deep, penetrating and, above all, useful insight into both the current status quo and where emerging opportunities lie.

With a rigorously designed and delivered commercial ethnography project one can spend two or three days ‘living’ with ten or so informants (they inform us, they don’t respond to us) and deliver insights that can fuel brand development, innovation and strategy for months, even years.

Supplier and buyer alike, however, are increasingly confusing observation and video observation. It is our belief that video observation is a feeble attempt by suppliers -- ill-trained and ill-experienced in anthropology or cultural theory -- to sell to corporations that want the trendiness of ‘ethnography’ a bogus quantitative mutation, one that feels nice and safe but has very little inherent value.

Instead of providing such snapshots, ethnography reveals contexts, worldviews and belief systems. In the act of participating, the fully trained, fieldwork experienced ethnographer accesses, albeit momentarily, the informant’s view of their own world, their motives and rationales behind choices and actions. To undertake research like this, trained ethnographers must be used.

To undertake an ethnography is to enter and experience a life: it is a privilege not to be abused. The ethnographer must know not only how to participate at the same time as observing (an incredibly hard thing to do), but also how and when to ask questions and how to adapt and relate to her/his informants. In doing an ethnography, she/he must understand their own viewpoint and their own interpretive filter and use this self-knowledge to be able to capture glimpses of the informant’s own truths.

Ethnography is wonderful. The techniques, theory and orientation can give clients unprecedented insights of a richness and value rarely seen, opening up positioning areas and communication messages, product and service innovation gaps, that can tap right into our cultural lives, resonating powerfully with our own view of our world.

But be warned, ethnography is not observation, it is not video observation and bears little resemblance to moderation. To do any of these in the guise of ethnography is to risk damaging its credibility, reputation and, therefore, longevity. It is not the answer to everything, it must not be used to replace focus groups, nor used because it is trendy and/or can win pitches. Treat it with the respect it deserves and nurture it so that it becomes a fundamental tool of understanding and value creation in our lives.

See also: The perils of ethnography, by Ken Erickson