Ethnography is focused on providing a better understanding of the context of the customer , something that could have saved myself and others a great deal of time earlier in our careers. Which, as we’ll see, is ironic because many businesses regard ethnography itself as time-consuming and costly.

The Wrong Research Methodology

To appreciate the role of ethnography in creating brand experience, it’s important to first consider how research impacts marketing and design.

At the start of the 20th Century, when advertising moved to the forefront of marketing thinking, there was an explosion of research methodologies. The thinking of Jung, Freud, and other psychologists, applied to why people behave as they do, became prevalent, and was popularised by Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, and its focus on unconscious bias and the reasons people do things.

Today, we have a vast spectrum of methodologies at our disposal. Attitudinal approaches through to Behavioural. Encompassing everything from interviews and surveys, through to eye-tracking.

This has led to a corresponding growth in the use of data as a source of insights, alongside the gathering of behavioural data and the desire in businesses to harness that. There are good reasons for this. It feels robust, you can’t argue with a statistic, it’s based on fact, and it’s rational.

We’ve also seen a drive to speed and agility in the form of digital transformation, businesses being more agile, quick to reach an answer, and action-oriented. This is causing ruptures in the marketing world with some critics including Nadya Powell, the former managing director of ad agency Sunshine, pointing to the obsession with data and speed shaping an advertising business that is no longer able to create culture-defining creativity as it did in the past. Part of what causes this is the fact that fast data orientated research can help you answer specific questions but it rarely helps you identify the right questions to ask in the first place.

We can be smug about the use of research in the design world, because a large part of design thinking is all about starting with human needs, getting under the skin of customers before defining the problem. But the reality is different, we’re regularly experiencing a desire for speed from clients, and then the research gets cut back. So empathising with customers is often limited to desk research and minimal qualitative research. Research budgets are then spent at the back end of the process to test designs built on very shallow consumer insight.

The research methodologies that generate this quick, surface understanding is problematic. When, as practitioners, we try to empathise we often tend to think about consumers’ emotional and attitudinal state rather than the context and their behaviours. But the evidence suggests that the context and behaviours of the past predict more closely the behaviours of the future than do people’s attitudes and emotions. And, in some research, people lie. Often for the right reasons: they want to give you an answer they think you want to hear, but they’re often post-rationalising and not always telling the truth.

Anthropology To The Rescue

We’ve seen growth in the use of anthropologists in tech companies, as they attempt to understand how people will behave in future. A prominent example is Dr Genevieve Bell, Professor at Australian National University, who also works with Intel as a Senior Fellow in its New Technology Group, helping the tech firm predict people’s future behaviour. Microsoft, Google, and Ford are all also investing in anthropology.

A key anthropological methodology increasingly used is ethnography. This can be described as a search for context. Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, identified as the father of ethnography following his studies of the people on islands in the Western Pacific, demonstrated a belief in participating in culture, talking to individuals. He believed the researcher’s role was to “grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realise his vision of the world.”

Today, ethnography involves three key facets:

Participant Observation – spending real time with individuals to gain insight

Thick Description – a term coined by American anthropologist Clifford Geertz to mean describing everything you see. Observing the entire context, and the themes, and then synthesising them.

Triangulation – Going through the process of cross-referencing and synthesising multiple sources of data.

This can be a time-consuming and detailed process. Participatory observation is especially vital because, as Geertz said, every individual is immeshed in a web of meaning based on the culture they grew up in. Ethnography strives to understand that context and the surrounding web of meaning.


Three case studies bring to life the impact of ethnography in marketing and design.


In Ghana, Guinness made the decision to increase the size of its bottles. However, despite drinkers receiving better value, Guinness saw sales decline as a result. The brand asked itself “why?” Was it to do with health issues, people worried about consuming more calories? Then Guinness commissioned ethnographic studies and took the time to understand the context and its drinkers’ needs. From watching people drink the product in situ (bars and nightclubs) it soon became apparent that beers sold in smaller bottles carry a suggestion that the beer is more potent, and that it was seen as more manly to drink from the smaller bottle. Guinness went back to the smaller bottle and sales rose.

World Health Organisation

The World Health Organisation’s use of ethnography, to understand sexual health issues and use of contraception among young women in India, led to the observation that the grandmother was the person in the influencer group of young women that decided what was taboo or stigmatised. The focus of the WHO’s training on sexual health was then placed not on the daughters or granddaughters in the family group but the matriarchs, the grandmothers.

The AA

Closer to home, The AA has created an app for its sales people at motorway service stations, an important source of customer acquisition for the company. The sales force previously used physical information in the form of binders, the move to an app brought greater control for the AA and a better experience for the customer. But before the app was delivered, time was spent with the sales people and it was observed that there were different types of selling to be reflected in the design and experience of the new app. For instance, some sales people started with customer needs and then product benefits, some were the other way around. The design team made sure the app allowed the sales person to define the journey, something that wouldn’t have done had the time not been spent observing them.

A Beginner’s Guide – So, How To Do It

After the brief introduction to ethnography and the case studies, here’s a quick-fire guide to using it in your marketing and design activity:

  1. Unpack your biases.
    We’re all incredibly subjective; there’s a web of meaning around all of us. So, when you observe other individuals, unpack your implicit biases because these inform the questions you ask , and lead to avenues that might not be relevant to the people you’re researching.
  2. Talk to experts.
    An “insight” that’s surprising and interesting to you might be commonplace to people who have engaged with that customer group or product area for years. So going to experts is worthwhile – they could be hairdressers if you’re exploring the haircare market, or professional anthropologists. They’ll share the understanding they have and you’ll avoid getting excited about something that’s already common knowledge or irrelevant.
  3. Capture everything.
    When starting a project, use triangulation of all your approaches to capture everything that’s appropriate.
  4. Look wider.
    Often we talk only to a group of people a product or service is focused on, but it’s important to capture the views of their whole network, of the wider group who could influence them. Ideas and behaviours are contagious so do what you can to reflect this.


To conclude, the value of ethnography to brands is explained well in a quote from Batman: “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” Understanding the context surrounding people and observing what really affects their behaviour gets us further under their skin that analysing their emotions and attitudes.