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Living a Qualitative Lifestyle with Ethnographic Research

Feb 7, 2013 12:16:00 AM

By Julie Meyer Asp, Sr. Project Director, Hansa GCR.

I get paid to meet up with people I don’t know. I set up these rendezvous at bars and restaurants, coffee shops and boutiques, and sometimes at people’s homes. These brief encounters give me amazing insight into people. And they should: I am an in-field qualitative researcher.

Encounters with Reality

Ethnographic Market Research ImageRecently, my encounters changed my team’s and my client’s assumptions about a new product that bridges the world between personal accessory and technological device. The change started during a meeting with a 35 year-old male (an early adopter of technology) at the fine jewelry department in Bloomingdale’s.

This tech-savvy guy didn’t shop with a list of specs or buy his “only brand” as he’d told me in our previous conversations. He started the way I had expected; he picked up and carefully reviewed all of the products. That continued until one sparkled and glittered in just the right way. I could see it in his eyes; he’d found the right one. He’d fallen in love. He bought with his heart. And he loves the product he bought.

Almost all of the men I met with on this series of shop-alongs were similarly drawn to something heart-driven during this point in the purchase cycle. When they saw the product—the right product – what they’d said earlier didn’t matter.

This ethnographic insight revealed potential purchase drivers and pitfalls at the point of purchase—some of which my client could address before a consumer enters a store. From these shopping trips my team created a checklist of possible communications and design areas that would reinforce the new product and its brand before the point of purchase.

Adding some Anthropology to Marketing Methodology

Our ethnographic approach added richness and complexity that traditional research methods do not always reveal. For researchers accustomed to quantitative surveys and conversations viewed through one-way glass, there is something profound about observing respondents in their natural habitats, where they live, work and play.

In my experience, respondents are often surprised at the end of a shop-along when we play back things they said in the initial survey or pre-shopping interview. I’ve heard “Wow, I did say that, didn’t I?” in one form or another many times. In traditional forms of qualitative and quantitative research, contradictions like this rarely surface.

These respondents are realizing their actual behavior during the shopping experience didn’t line up with what they said they would do when thinking about it ahead of time in a more detached, purely cognitive way. That’s why it’s so valuable to do an ethnographic check as a part of the fact base for making customer and marketing decisions, including new product launches, customer experience design/redesign, in-store marketing communications, floor staff sales training, etc.

While it's not associated with the typical marketing approach, ethnographic research is still very much research. The participants are carefully recruited and each encounter is well documented. There is also far more to this work than purposeful observation. A full cycle with a respondent typically includes:

  • An initial survey
  • A pre-shopping interview
  • Communication during the experience
  • An immediate post-shopping debrief
  • At least one follow-up conversation   

Ethnographic explorations of customers like this custom shop-along project give us a view of consumers in their real worlds where they are influenced by their senses (sights, smells, sounds) as well as by their interactions with people (and, in some situations, devices and machines). The results add context to why they prefer one product over another, or choose to pay more for a brand, or simply to understand what factors of brand loyalty ring true at the cash register. The goal is to suspend our assumptions at minimum, but also to add richness and complexity to our understanding of customers. Often our ethnographic market research goes beyond just adding richness but actually validates our traditional research findings.

Combining Different Research Methods

We all know, but sometimes we forget—we must view every point in the purchase cycle to gain a full understanding of how customers actually make their decisions and how they feel about those decisions afterward.  

Consider getting a full-picture review of your customers. Are you making assumptions? Can you include both deep quantitative analyses and deep ethnographic analyses of respondents to better understand them?  Combining different research methods often is the best way to get the full story. Consider following a quantitative survey focused on behaviors and attitudes with deep qualitative research to test assumptions and further understand why customers are motivated.


About the Author: Julie Meyer Asp is the Senior Product Director at Hansa GCR. If you would like to discuss this article with Julie, please feel free to contact her by email at

Hansa GCR is a full-service market research agency that prides itself on understanding the customer voice and translating that voice into winning strategies. It offers best-in-class, qualitative and quantitative research in areas relating to Customer Relationship Equity, Brand Strategy, Market Assessment, Sustainability and "Green" Insights, Product/Process Innovation, and Emerging Market Entry. For further information about Hansa GCR, please visit, contact, or call +1 503.241.8036.

Hansa Marketing Services and Hansa GCR are part of R K SWAMY HANSA, an emerging global group with 1,100+ professionals offering Creative Communication, Market Research, Data Analytics, Brand Consulting, and Interactive Services.

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