The rise of people-watching research carried out by brands

People-watching can get you into trouble, but not if it’s an ethnographic study with volunteers surrendering to researchers who are trying to understand lifestyles from a business perspective

It sounds a little creepy, but around the world there are growing numbers of researchers watching people’s every move. They watch them do their shopping, prepare a meal, put their kids to bed and even have a shower – all in the name of understanding what human beings really want from businesses, not what statistics say they want.

Ethnography involves simply watching, for hours, days or even weeks. In person or remotely via cameras, sometimes it’s silently watching and other times asking people about what they’re doing. Think David Attenborough and you’re on the right track. Except the subjects of these documentaries are driving their cars, cleaning the bathroom, or perhaps having a family argument.

This is a social science technique that has been deployed by anthropologists for decades and is now surging in popularity in the corporate world as brands look to get a deeper, broader insight into what makes people tick, and not just which laundry liquid they bought this week.

Cultural anthropology

In this line of work, there’s a popular mantra: if you want to know how a lion hunts, you don’t go to the zoo, you go to the jungle. It’s about the “why” and “how” people behave, rather than just the “what”.

Ethnography involves simply watching, for hours, days or even weeks

The range of brands now looking for insights in this consumer jungle is vast and growing. Microsoft, P&G, Unilever, Tesco and LEGO are among the technique’s advocates. Ford has hired its own cultural anthropologist; Toyota sends people on drive-alongs to see how motorists use the features in its cars; and The North Face goes on hike-alongs with explorers to help it refine where pockets in its clothing should go. P&G famously came up with the Swiffer mop when it observed, through ethnography, that people spent more time cleaning their mop than they did cleaning their floors.

Anna Cucurull, managing partner of A Piece of Pie, a Barcelona-based business anthropology firm whose clients include Intel, Mondalez, Volkswagen Group and Vodafone, says business grew 90 per cent last year and is up 70 per cent in 2016.

“There’s one key driver in this, and that’s the uncertainty and complexity in business,” she says. “Traditional linear thinking based on data, or what’s worked before, is not enough. Solving today’s problems requires a deeper understanding of people and seeing the context in which people live.”

At TNS, one of the world’s largest international research companies, head of qualitative research Anjali Puri says it’s difficult to quantify the rise of ethnography as definitions of true ethnography vary. But 38 out of 50 randomly selected projects they’d done included some element of observation-based data collection and demand has risen even since then. “If you take the broadest definition, then technology-enabled observation is certainly part of almost all strategic work we do,” she says.

Of course, there are simpler, quicker and cheaper research techniques than ethnography. Asking people about what they do and why they do it is one, though respondents are prone to give answers they feel they should give, such as “Yes, I read to my children for an hour a day” and “No, I don’t buy sugary cereal”. Sometimes they’re lying out of embarrassment; other times they really believe they exercise three times a week and got the last round at the pub. In some cases, behaviour is so subtle or complex, they simply don’t know they’re doing it.ethnographic research

What we say vs what we do

In a UK project to understand families on tight budgets, C Space vice-president Nick Coates says “life-logging” cameras worn on people’s lapels, which take a photo every 30 seconds over days or weeks, highlighted differences between how people behave and how they say they behave.

He says: “Families often say ‘I’m struggling, we’ve cut everything back to basics, we don’t do anything that’s not essential’, then the camera shows you they’re in Nando’s three times a week. What’s going on there?” People aren’t necessarily fibbing; it may be that what’s assumed to be “essential” isn’t clearly defined. Similarly, LEGO observed children spending far longer on computer games than their parents report; not a lie, but perhaps wishful thinking.

Life-logging cameras such as Narrative Clip 2, pictured worn around the neck, are often used in ethnographic research
Life-logging cameras such as Narrative Clip 2, pictured worn around the neck, are often used in ethnographic research

UK children’s publisher Egmont has used ethnography to inform its digitisation strategy. Researchers watched parents reading books to their children and reading the same stories from digital screens. They saw that families sat more closely, touched each other more often and looked at each other more when reading from a printed book. This physical closeness helped explain the enduring appeal of print, despite children’s love of technology.

In South Korea, researchers watched a rheumatoid arthritis patient to better understand the effect of her condition and treatment. “We quickly gained a richer picture of her family relationships, issues about performing as a mother and wife in the home, living in a family, and the strain of housework than we could have through a traditional interview,” says Junghwa Lee, general manager of Kantar Health South Korea. Clients saw the bigger picture, as well as the difficulty the patient had in storing and administering her medication.

Siamack Salari, founder of Everyday Lives, which specialises in ethnography, says the most useful insights are often in unexpected places. “It’s about what people don’t do and what they nearly do. It’s about seeing their unarticulated needs,” he says. A supermarket, for instance, realised it needed baskets at the back of stores when they saw that shoppers stopped collecting items when their arms were full.

The video that ethnographers produce is far more compelling for clients than any PowerPoint, users say. The sample size is small, but the results have a bigger impact. C Space client McDonald’s could see parents struggling to reach upstairs family areas with prams and shopping, and now has family booths at ground level in new outlets.

Ms Cucurull at A Piece of Pie says the strongest demand comes from the most challenged business sectors. “Beer has been among the least innovative FMCG [fast-moving consumer goods] sectors. Now it’s challenged by craft beer, they need a big transformation,” she says. “Automotive was also very traditional, but now they’re thinking about self-driving cars and how will humans interact? Do they have to own the car? How will they manage their time differently?”

Mr Coates of C Space says ethnography takes researchers from being interrogators to being investigators, piecing together clues – images and comments over a period of time – along with “moment in time” snapshots, such as opinion polls and focus groups. “You need to triangulate, just like a good detective,” he concludes.