When the Jungle Meets Main Street – Anthropology in Market Research

If it sounds like this essay refers to opposing worlds … it does, and it doesn’t.  While the word ‘Jungle’ may turn your thoughts to famous anthropologists studying apes and aboriginal people, the Main Street investigator considers societal sub-sets within today’s culture, i.e., professionals, workers, homemakers, using socio-cultural anthropology or ethnographic research.  Whether the researcher is studying aboriginal people in Samoa, gorillas in Rwanda, or people on Main Street, Anytown, USA, you’ll be surprised to find that there are more similarities than differences. 
Take a moment and imagine a market researcher (perhaps carrying a laptop, wearing business attire instead of bush clothes) talking to you or your colleagues in an effort to understand how people come to make consumer decisions, why they use product/service ‘A’ over product/service ‘B,’ or, perhaps, how they build a product or service into their lives.  The seemingly disparate research endeavors between the Jungle anthropologists and the Main street researchers truly have the same objective in common.  The examiners all seek to understand – FULLY and COMPLETELY!  They desire to tell the entire story.  They don’t want a snapshot … they want a full-length movie.

Today’s ethnographic researchers use timelines for longitudinal studies, and methods of triangulation, utilizing some of the following:  In-depth Interviews (IDIs), observation/shadowing, surveys, focus groups, webcams, journals, etc.  In summary, they study the situation ethnographically.  Throughout these diverse studies, they take time to listen and learn.  They begin with an objective to fully understand; they build a framework of several methodologies and then allow nature to take its course while remaining flexible and open to shifts in tactic (this is key!).  They listen, watch, and then listen and watch some more; they combine and compare assorted study results for a fine-tuned picture.  Only then are they able to come away confident that what they saw and heard was not a one-time thing.  Fortified with this conclusive information they can then devise ways to work within the subjects’ environments so as to make changes and influence decisions, or to leave well enough alone, if appropriate. 

Bottom line:  testing an ad campaign, building a product’s packaging or asking about needs/wants are quite easily accomplished through our current ad hoc methods.  However, there can be circumstances which warrant deeper exploration.  For example, you may be seeking a clearer understanding of how consumers use a product (yours or one like yours) – how it fits into their lives, how and why they choose it, or if it meets their needs.   Depending on the insights gleaned through these varied research methods, you will be equipped with the information you need to change a consumer’s behavior in a way which shines positively on YOUR brand.   Unlike the TV game show where you had to pick one door from three, you get the advantage of seeing what’s behind all three doors. 

Frankly, you cannot have an ethnographic study without studying the consumers from within the worlds in which they live.  Bringing them into your world to ask questions about their world (for example: focus groups only) is not ethnography.   One test – one result … and you only see what’s behind door number one.

My challenge to you is to look at market research not as simply researching ‘the market.’   Rather, look at it as exploring deeper to understand the people who will inevitably use your products or services and truly get to know them.  By learning in depth about your present and potential clients, you will acquire the tools needed to produce the movie that tells the story of your product more finitely than any one singularly focused research study could ever do.