• Willow Schleich

The Art & Science of Ethnographic Marketing Research

Updated: Apr 15, 2019

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“There is no better way to get closer to the consumer… than by using ethnography as a bridge.” —John F. Sherry Jr. (1995, 15)

Ethnography is not new to marketing research. Today, most companies who invest in marketing research have had some experience with ‘ethnography’ and many have fully incorporated the approach into their ongoing research programs. In this, the era of big data, it is as important as ever to understand the value of ethnography for companies in the product and service business.

This article considers the art and science of ethnographic marketing research: the ‘science’ includes the specific set of methods that are utilized and their execution and the ‘art’ includes how a particular suite of ethnographic methods is selected as part of a customized research design and how the data, once collected, are interpreted through the lens of culture and society.

What is ethnographic marketing research?

Anthropology is the study of people and culture. An anthropologist’s job is to make sense of and systematically describe a single, contemporary culture; ethnography is the methodology and perspective they use including participant-observation, open-ended interviews, objectology, and writing detailed field notes. An anthropologist tries to to understand another culture from the point of view of members of that culture.

Translated to the marketing research industry, an ethnographic approach can deal with and make sense of the complexity and segmentation of contemporary life as it plays out in patterns of consumption and consumption activities. In a nutshell, ethnographic marketing research is a vehicle for gaining insight into what, how, and why people consume and the sociality of consumer behaviour. It allows marketing researchers to observe the consumer demonstrating a relationship with a brand in cultural context.

In ethnographic marketing research, the ultimate quest is for insights into the sociality of consumer behaviour - things like the hierarchy of cultural values consumers subscribe to, how the brand acts as a marker of social relationships, consumption as an expression of consumer taste and style, and how brands help consumers construct concepts of themselves and of the cultural world they live in. Often, this interpretive process feels like a bit of a fishing expedition because the researcher isn’t always sure what they will catch in the net of data and there is an inherent openness to unanticipated needles of insight in the proverbial haystack.

Can anyone do ethnographic marketing research?

You don’t have to be an anthropologist to be good at ethnographic marketing research, but it helps. In theory, anyone can systematically execute a specific set of ethnographic methods and this approach can provide opportunities for advertising agencies and clients working with research suppliers to get directly involved in data collection.

What is ‘the field’ and how long to spend there?

'The field' in ethnographic marketing research terms is anywhere brand decisions are made and/or consumer behaviour occurs, not a focus group facility, which is a quasi-controlled environment. The field can be almost anywhere consumers are: home, car dealership, shopping mall, nightclub, vehicle, campground, movie theatre, workplace, etc.

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Traditional ethnographic ‘fieldwork’ is intense, long-term research conducted among a community of people. However, marketing researchers rarely have more than a few weeks or a couple of months from brief to debrief. Effective research can be done with a shorter period of time in the field if the researcher is already familiar with the culture or community being studied (Bernard 2002, 329).

Depending on the objectives, ethnographic marketing research designs will propose spending three plus hours, half days, whole days, or longer with participants. That’s because it takes some time to develop rapport with participants and even longer to fade into the background enough that naturalistic consumer behaviour will emerge. If the research objective is to understand daily usage behaviours, for example, spending just two hours observing is not going to provide the answers.

How do you find research participants and how many do you need?

Participants can be found through traditional recruiting methods similar to how focus group respondents are found. Snowball sampling is another common ethnographic recruiting method that involves one participant leading a researcher to others from his or her social network who may share similar brand or category usage. Since rapport has already been developed, more can be asked of participants (e.g. attending a dinner party, spending a weekend observing media consumption in the home, probing deeply about their affluent lifestyle, etc.).

Participants in ethnographic marketing research are paid more for their time than focus group respondents because the ‘ask’ is more intrusive (i.e. they have to be okay with researchers looking through the cupboards in their home, hanging out with them during Sunday football on TV, driving with them, etc.).

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For research buyers accustomed to more traditional qualitative sessions where 30 or 40 respondents might be interviewed, an ethnographic marketing research proposal that recommends a sample size of 16 may seem a bit thin. The ‘mile wide/inch deep versus inch wide/mile deep’ analogy works well here. In a traditional two-hour focus group with eight respondents, each respondent might get about 10-15 minutes of ‘airtime’. In ethnographic marketing research, each participant gets a significant amount of air time and they are observed in-context in a great amount of detail. Assuming that participants are well-recruited, even a sample size of six can provide a surprising wealth of information.

How do you record what happens in the field?

One could argue that a symbol for ethnographic marketing research is the digital camcorder, or, increasingly, the smartphone. The digital age has revolutionized the data collection process and digital technology has effectively brought participants and insights to life in the presentation boardroom.

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The technological tools of ethnographic market research collection include camcorders, voice recorders, cameras, and smartphones. They do an excellent job of capturing consumer behaviour and demonstrations of dynamics of the brand relationship and can be used in almost any environment where they are allowed (homes, vehicles, retail locations, bars, streets, etc.). Voice recorders are useful in situations where verbatim capture is desired, but video recording isn’t allowed (e.g. in a retail location). Cameras can be a primary or secondary data collection tool (e.g. taking hundreds of photos in-situ and then sorting them and building analysis around the categories created). Mobile ethnography or ‘lifelogging’ is becoming an increasingly popular tool because it allows the researcher a glimpse of life through the participant’s eyes. Nevertheless, digital technology will never completely eliminate taking old fashioned field notes - paper and pen technology.

The videos, images, or audio collected during ethnographic marketing research can be impactfully integrated into client deliverables. The final report could be an ethnographic film or could include video clips (‘visual verbatims’ or short vignettes around a particular theme or finding) or photo collages (collections of images sorted by emergent theme or insight). Another way to deliver findings is by developing participant ‘profiles’ – each profile representing a category of behaviour, a distinct expression of the brand relationship, or some other relevant cultural tendency.

What is the art of ethnographic research analysis?

Decoding the cultural embeddedness of consumer behaviour is the linchpin of ethnographic marketing research. The kinds of ‘anthropological’ questions asked during fieldwork – about social networks, values, identity, ritual, objects, community, etc. – and the direct observation of behaviour that illustrates these cultural concepts – will affect the information collected and the way it is analyzed.

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For example, in a study conducted with affluent owners of different luxury vehicles, the objective was to gain a deeper understanding of who these people are - their values, the way they expressed their social identity through their brand choices, and how they experienced their vehicles as owners and drivers. Researchers spent time with them in their homes, observed their interaction with owners of competitive brands of luxury vehicles, asked about possessions of significance, observed their driving rituals, and discussed how their brand choice acted as a marker of social identity and values.

Researchers framed the interpretation of the data with these same sorts of anthropological concepts which led to insights around definitions of luxury and social identity that differentiated one brand from another. They were then able to translate these culturally situated findings into conclusions and recommendations that are relevant and actionable in informing marketing strategy and communications.


Ethnographic marketing research has become an entrenched and valued approach to understanding consumer behaviour. The research design, the kinds of information sought during fieldwork, the questions asked of the information during analysis, and the final deliverables all influence the outcome, which is concomitantly determined by the specific research objectives, budget, time, and needs for application/action. Ethnographic marketing research should be managed by marketing research professionals who are trained in its science and art.

References Bernard, H. R. 2002. Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Methods, 3rd edition. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.

Sherry Jr., John F. 1995. Contemporary Marketing and Consumer Behavior: an Anthropological Sourcebook. Thousand Oaks: Sage.


A version of this article originally appeared in Vue Magazine (February, 2006) which was the monthly publication of the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association. It was written when the author worked at Plunkett Communication Inc. managing ethnographic marketing research projects – called On-site Insights™.

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