Freelance ethnographer, researcher & consultant

By Jacob Langvad Nilsson on January 7, 2012

Business Ethnography as a Key Strategy for International Brands

Business ethnography can be used as a key strategy when an international brand expands into a new market. It is paramount for the business to understand well how its brand can become relevant to the consumers of the country or region. When penetrating new markets, two critical mistakes seem to repeat themselves.

The first mistake involves thinking that because it is already a big and recognizable brand, its potential consumers will be overwhelmingly impressed when the products becomes available in a new market. The second mistake is for the business to think that solely relying on macro-economic data and quantitative research methods will suffice to understand the aspirations and needs of its consumers. Read on to learn more about business ethnography and how to use ethnography for business.

If a brand builds its consumer insight on data derived from an endless list of questions, it will help little more than to re-affirm pre-conceived notions. Fortunately today, smart brand executives are becoming increasingly aware of the potential value in a more thorough use of ethnographic research. A meaningful market research today is build on immersive studies combining participant-observations with social behavior analyses to build a holistic understanding of the consumer based on patterns of behavior.

What is Business Ethnography

Ethnography is a social science discipline with roots in anthropology. Literally, ethnography is the study of mankind. Also known as participant-observation, ethnographic methods include entering a subject’s own environment: in the modern world, this includes their living room, school, the supermarket, the beauty parlor, or the streets – settings of their daily existence.

Ethnographers observe what people actually do and how they explain their actions. By documenting actual behavior, this research approach offers valuable insight into the meaning people attach to each action and activity. After a period of fieldwork and data-collection, findings are interpreted and analyzed in the context of people’s actual lives – including relations to family, community, local subculture, and the larger society.

When ethnographic research is taken into a business context, it can be used to gain insights into patterns of behavior that help businesses thrive. Unlike a traditional market researcher, who asks specific, highly practical questions, anthropological researchers visit consumers in their own environments to observe and listen, and interview in a non-directed way.

Qualitative methods, including focus groups and open-ended survey questionnaires, have proven to be valuable strategies to delve deeper into the relationship between the brand and those who buy or use their products. By listening, observing, and interpreting, we can access many meaningful layers that help clients better understand the true aspirations of their customers.

This observational method may appear inefficient and time consuming; however, it provides a valuable insight about the context in which customers would use a new product and the meaning that product might hold in their lives. These techniques also allow potential customers to express their opinions about a brand using their own words, rather than those of a brand executive.

In an increasingly competitive economic landscape, a more hands-on approach involving face-to-face dialogues with consumers is essential for a brand to differentiate itself and succeed in new markets, not least in growth markets such as Brazil, India, and China.

Corporate Ethnography for International Brands

Corporate ethnography is central to gaining a full understanding of customers and the appropriate business strategies. Over the past years, I have been helping international brands to delve deeper into the mindset of their customers, particularly in emerging markets.

Each project has been different in terms of respondent’s location, age, income level, but one thing encompass my findings in all these projects: With an open-ended, ethnographic research approach, the client gained valuable insights about their brand that surpassed the expectations of their traditional approach to market research. The best research has been those that were initiated with as few assumptions as possible; it is an approach that allows the consumer to shape the brand.

As noted in previous articles, to sustain and accelerate growth in new markets, companies have to tailor their response to fragmented regional cultures and sub-cultures by constantly launching customized product and service offerings.

They also need to understand perhaps, subtlety, the dreams and aspirations of its consumers as these influence their behavior to invest in the product or service. In many ways, success in emerging markets will depend in large part on how quickly companies can understand and respond to differences in attitudes, spending behavior, and preferences among the increasingly affluent consumers.

Within the context of a business partnership, a trained ethnographer will contribute a deep understanding of cultural and social theory to the analysis process of entering new markets. This goes beyond casual observation and rather, will pull together a web of intimate field research and best practices that make visible underlying structures of why people do what they do.

For this reason, any analysis should always work within a framework grounded in social sciences. Analysis takes time, but the results will include models of behavior and practice, experience frameworks, design principles, and cultural patterns that enables those involved to build long lasting relationships. Once the data has been analyzed and crafted into something meaningful, the research team will be able to provide a rich story with a clear set of genuine discoveries.

In the end, the goal of getting closer to the consumers is to better understand their cultures and behaviors, and in the process develop aspiring and meaningful products and services relevant to their lives. Business ethnography can help business do just that.


4 comments
malka leeal
malka leeal

I am using ethnography in analysis of business for a few years. The results are more accurate and cut costs to the client. China and India are growing grounds as they bound by their own rules. Very diffrent from the Middle-East.

jlangvad
jlangvad

Thanks for your comment, Malka. Where are you based?

Prateep Roy
Prateep Roy

Very interesting. Being a practicing Anthropologist in consumer insight analysis for about two decades I feel country like India provides the correct blend of diversity (in ehonicity & culture) and market volume which I think will be attractive for any international brand.

jlangvad
jlangvad

Thanks, Prateep - India is indeed an exciting country for any international brand. Luckily the government is making it increasingly easier for foreign brands to enter India. There is so much potential in India, many say it will be the 'next China'

Human-centered Design Research in Emerging Markets


Jacob Langvad Nilsson continues to work persistently in the cross-section between editorial photojournalism and visual ethnography, pushing the boundaries of human-centered design research to tell stories about globalization, cultural shift, and the aspirations and desires of people living in a changing world.

Learn more

Contact

Jacob Langvad Nilsson / JLCO Group contact@jacoblangvad.com+1 (917) 740-9015