The New Science of Marketing Ethnography

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The New Science of Marketing Ethnography

Since the first human beings traded goods in ancient times, the holy grail of business has been to know what the customer wants. No other goal in business has occupied more brains, exhausted more resources, or confounded more leaders.

The most recent trend in the quest to learn from customers is known as ethnography, an offshoot of anthropology that traditionally was used to study remote populations in their natural habitat and learn about how they live. This was typically done in places like the jungles of New Guinea, but now it’s being used in advanced cultures like our own to gain a better understanding of the wants and needs of customers — and it’s turning into big business.

According to PC Magazine,1 Intel is one company that has invested heavily in ethnographic research. Microsoft has also been using ethnographers to identify new markets and to improve its product line.

Various social sciences have been used in business, at least informally, for many decades, going back to studies in the 1930s of how to make workers more productive. But in an age when customers are more and more in control of the transaction, it’s essential to have some way of knowing not only what they want but also how they live. According to BusinessWeek,2 that makes ethnography a perfect tool for market research.

It’s one thing to get a customer to tell you what he wants or how he uses a product. It’s another to watch him in his own home or office and see the subtle nuances that sometimes cannot be articulated. This has led to a boom in the anthropology business. IBM has a dozen such experts on staff.

Steelcase, which makes office furniture, uses a full-time ethnographer to learn how people use its products and to develop new ones. The hottest consulting firms, such as IDEO, Jump Associates, and Doblin Group, are all employing social scientists. This in turn is leading to a revolution in product design.

It used to be that a company would market from the inside out. They would think up a product and then go looking for a market that would buy it. Now researchers go out into the world to discover what the market wants, and then design products to satisfy that demand.

This boom in the ethnography business has also created a boom in the social sciences departments of universities. In addition, business schools and schools that turn out product designers, such as the Illinois Institute of Technology, have begun putting anthropologists on staff. In an interesting twist, a discipline that was once purely academic has migrated into the business world...

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