Marketers: Get yourself a front row seat in your consumers’ lives

Posted: October 21, 2015


Charmaine Mogari, Project Manager, Added ValueBy Added Value Project Manager, Charmaine Mogari

As market researchers, we are constantly trying to keep up with consumer behaviour. We want to understand what consumers use our clients’ products for, and most importantly, how they use them.

This often involves traditional research methods such as focus groups where we invite consumers to a neutral environment. Here, we ask people to recall their actions “think back to the last time you …” often in front of seven strangers in the room, not forgetting the clients behind the one way mirror.

Being a moderator, I have often found the first 15 minutes in a room with respondents to be the longest. You either click as a group or you don’t. This is when the moderator creates rapport with respondents, when they decide to “let you in”. Some people are more comfortable talking openly about themselves, their lives, their habits, their fears. Others simply hold back, making the moderator’s job even harder.

Respondents are more self-aware in focus groups. Naturally, they tend to present a more positive view of themselves, sometimes unaware. They give us post-rationalised responses because people don’t know why they do what they do. Everyday actions become deeply ingrained, taken-for-granted behaviour that can’t be explained. This is where we find the value in ethnography.

The primary objective of ethnography is to understand participants’ view of the social environment surrounding them, cited from It relies on the power of in-depth interviewing and participant observation all which happen in a consumer’s natural environment, whether that’s their home or workplace.

Unlike traditional anthropologists, we and our clients do not have the luxury of time to spend observing and interviewing people over extended periods, but we can dip in and out of their lives to understand their growing needs and develop strategic solutions that address existing gaps. This relatively quick market research methodology is what we call an ethnographic immersion.

Typically ranging from 2.5-4 hours, ethno-immersions allow us to pin ourselves in the consumer’s life in a less invasive but equally effective way, view life from their position and simply watch as they engage in everyday product rituals. In their home, there is less of a need to “impress”. On the contrary, there is more openness to share one’s life based on the mere act of having invited people albeit researchers, into your home.

In their space, consumers are asked to demonstrate how they do things and although they may start off being mindful of the observer’s prying eye, after a while they fall right back into their existing habits of doing things.

I never forget the first time I ran an ethno-immersion. A cereal client wanted to understand how to innovate in the breakfast space and they knew that getting respondents into a room and asking them for new ideas was not going to work. People don’t know what they don’t know. They can’t always anticipate their needs but they can tell you in detail what/how they do things.

So off I went to Limpopo, accompanied by a camera person who would film the whole consumer engagement. Our first stop was with a young family of five – a stay at home mom of three, two young primary school going kids under the ages of 10 and a toddler. Her husband worked in a removed mining town therefore he was away during the week and only came home on Fridays. We were scheduled to arrive at her home at 4:45 am, just in time to observe her getting the kids ready for school. Our brief was clear, we would observe her process from the moment she gets up to the moment the kids finally left for school. We would then accompany her on a top-up shopping trip to her local supermarket.

From the moment we exchanged greetings and briefly reiterated the reason for our visit, this mom went into complete auto-pilot. Her week-day morning routine consisted of drawing water from an outside drum – there’s a tap on the yard that doesn’t run consistently, forcing them to store water for dry days, she then heats the water using a small electric kettle.

She repeats this process four times, pours the water into small basins and wakes the kids up for their bath. She helps to bathe them, but leaves them to pat-dry themselves while she puts out their school uniform. While they get dressed, she quickly dashes back to the kitchen to get breakfast ready.

During the first 3 weeks of the month breakfast is Kellogg’s corn flakes served with warm milk. This is the breakfast her kids are happy to eat without kicking up a fuss plus it provides a lasting tummy-fill till their lunch break.

But some days they run out of corn flakes and/or milk. When this happens, mom has to make soft porridge from scratch. This adds extra time into her morning routine and breakfast is served over her children’s grumpy faces.

Although she doesn’t overtly state this, it is frustrating for her to leave her young children to bathe themselves while she makes the porridge. In that moment, she feels like she has short-changed her kids. While the kids are eating breakfast, she quickly hurries into the kitchen to prepare their school lunch. Its polony sandwiches they love! Once they have left for school, the house clean-up routine starts with the toddler on her back.

Ensuring that her kids are well looked after and presentable for school is how she displays her social currency in her community. It is what earns her respect as a woman, a wife and a mother. She prides herself in her ability to perform these roles well.

From this visit alone, one thing is very clear, this young woman equates hard work to being a good mother. From the time she gets up at 4:45 to the time her children leave for school at 7:30, close to 3 hours of her time is solely dedicated to making sure that she gives her children a good start, a better chance at success. She does this five days a week without protest. Except for the days when she has to work extra hard i.e. make porridge in the morning.

At the end of our 4 and a half hours, we thank her for her time and make our way back to our B&B for an insight download. Once settled, we start replaying our observations. The insight emerges that mom is looking for a nourishing and filling but easy-to-prepare breakfast that frees her up to be the best mom that she can be.

We are thrilled to have “cracked it”. We run a few more of these immersions, the consistency is remarkable. We also learn that due to budget constraints, these moms are not always able to buy the Kellogg’s corn flakes that their children love. They are also looking for a good-tasting cereal that is affordable.  This is the insight that later leads our client to launch corn flakes instant porridge which can be enjoyed with milk or water, nailing the value equation.

The important thing to remember when conducting ethnography is that the respondent’s view is imperative to building meaning for the researcher. The respondent provides context for the insight.

At Added Value we like to “prep” our clients right before we go off on our ethnographic missions. The following are some of the key things we think are important to remember when conducting ethno-immersions:

  1. Be curious. By this we mean ask questions even if you think you might know the answer. Eight months ago I visited a young bachelor in his mid-20s on a male grooming ethnography mission. When I asked for a “tour” of his bathroom I was amazed at the amount of female beauty products I saw. I couldn’t assume that they were not his so I asked him to tell me about the products. He had an explanation for every single one of them from the face scrub, mask, and toner right down to his skin firming lotion. He did admit that his male grooming journey had led him to believe in the efficacy of female beauty products as this category has existed much longer than male grooming. This guy would have never admitted to this in front of seven other guys in a focus group!
  1. Put consumer at centre stage. In a focus group or in-depth interview, the moderator steers the conversation. In an ethno-immersion the consumer leads the conversation. We like to go in with our research objectives in mind and we do share these with the consumer upfront, but mostly, we let them lead conversation. In this way, they open up more without even realising they are doing it.
  1. Pay close attention. To what they tell you versus what they actually do. Consumers are people, they have tensions and contradictions that they unaware of. We did work for a financial services client a year ago where we visited a middle aged male to understand his needs as a family man. He proudly talked about himself as a modern man. Probing deeper into his attitude toward gender roles revealed that he was working really hard to get a promotion at work because his wife was earning more than him. He often had to be home early to prepare supper and help the kids with homework while his wife was working late or studying. Though he didn’t mind the financial benefits of his wife’s position, he felt others would lose respect for him if they ever found out what the real situation was.
  1. Immerse yourself and dig deep. This is a time to fully be present and soak up as much as you can. You only have that single interaction with the same consumer, therefore it’s important to leave feeling like you understand them fully. Try to unpack their behaviours and perceptions in as much detail as is permissible.
  1. Capture as much as you can. We always encourage our clients to take as many pictures and notes as they possibly can. Those pictures are what you use to bring the life of the consumer into a boardroom.

Ethnography allows market researchers to understand the role that products, services and brands play in people’s lives by understanding the impact of their surrounding environment for context.  It helps us unearth insight into consumers’ hidden needs and deeply rooted behaviour that is otherwise concealed in habitual patterns.