Throwing terms around like ‘Behaviour Change’, ‘Cultural Insight’, and ‘Ethnography’ is a great way to sound clever and on-trend (if somewhat mystical) within the world of qualitative research. In an industry where there are few fixed terms for how we describe research, the words can quickly become badges without anybody needing to know the details. Unsurprisingly, quant research has a much more organised dictionary of terminology. Our recent nomination for this AQR Award, however, shows that qualitative language is real, straightforward, and effective. It is something we can and should all start using regularly.

Behaviour change is real

The ongoing debate about whether Behavioural Science is an outfit in the emperor’s new wardrobe is completely pointless. The critics argue that BS is BS, and it is simply what good marketers and ad agencies have been doing for years — persuading people to buy your products.

The behavioural scientists argue that they have successfully helped categorise people’s innate biases and heuristics into frameworks that help people in marketing know what to do. In fact, both statements are true — people have been doing it for years, and now we have frameworks to make us all better at it.

The work of Byron Sharp at the Ehrenburg Bass Institute is a body of knowledge that has contributed to the marketing strategies of many FMCG clients. His razor-sharp focus on the need to be present — both physically and psychologically — is a game changer. The work we conducted for Mars Petcare helped focus our research minds on how our client could either change its distribution channels, or be top of mind more easily. Having a framework meant we were successful in getting consumers to buy products that they didn’t previously.

Cultural Insight can be straightforward

Culture can be seen as the hidden hand that guides our behaviour, and with it comes a bunch of cryptic research terms that you have to be really clever to understand. Terms like ‘values’ and ‘archetypal behaviour’ are accompanied with complex descriptions that sound impressive, but aren’t easy to use.

What this really shows is that, if you can’t explain the issue simply, you don’t really understand it yourself. For our research with Mars, we went back to the people who really understood the culture we were exploring: anthropologists. So as to create cultural relevance (relevance being the more important word here), we asked them to tell us the historical and cultural importance of pet ownership in each market. Yep, owning a pet is cultural!

This meant that a global study focusing on seven developing markets suddenly became locally relevant. For example, anthropologists were able to tell us the history behind why cats are important pets in Russia, through having a spiritual connection to the countryside. In the Soviet era, understanding the anatomy of animals was part of every child’s scientific education, and linked to trips to the countryside and the Dacha.

This importance has behavioural consequences, relevant both to the guilt they feel when they get home to their cooped up housecat, and epitomised through the different feeding regimes for their pets when living in the city or at the Dacha. Cultural insight, explained clearly, creates very powerful local relevance for activation within any category.

Ethnography is effective

Ethnography is the oldest technique in the research handbook, dating back to anthropologists visiting the Trobriand islands during World War One. Yet it is often exhibited as a shiny new technique the research industry is still discovering different applications for, be it ethno-shopalongs, ethno-diaries, or ethno-web-browsing.

This watering down of a robust technique — based on participant observation — is completely unnecessary. The power of ethnography comes from doing it properly, which is the same shopalongs, diaries, and web-browsing. Sticking ‘ethno‘ before an otherwise solid research technique just confuses what you are actually doing, and makes people confused as to what ethnography is.

Observing behaviours of pet owners in seven different markets, we saw seven fundamentally different approaches to feeding pets. We also saw seven fundamentally different approaches to shopping, looking after the family, and ways of having fun. Each behaviour painted a detailed picture for Mars about what was presently happening in each market. From this, Mars could very quickly see how its brand could become part of people’s lives.

Such was the detail gathered, it could adapt its strategy to the quirks of the market exposed by the research. Having ethnography at the core of this approach uncovered a comprehensive catalogue of behavioural insight needed to activate different brands in each market.

Real methods, real results

The impact of the research at Mars inevitably remains commercially sensitive, but the project has had a direct sales impact over 400 times greater than the cost of the research itself. This was due to following the right processes, conducting research in the right way, and not just throwing anything that was deemed ‘new’, ‘cool’ or ‘sexy’ at the project. It was just qualitative researchers, doing what they do best. And I can say on this occasion more than any other, we were lucky to have a client that allowed us to do it.