Brand owner engagement through consumer observation

By Reach Brands

Ethnographic studies seem to be increasingly banded about as a methodology suited to new product innovation and brand creation. Observing the consumption of product at source is a great way of identifying the positives of using something, as well as the anxieties that they throw in their wake!



As anthropologists we understand the importance of participant observation and the rich insights that result from spending sustained periods of time with consumers in their environments. However, in a climate where budgets are being squeezed more than ever, how can brand owners engage more readily with this? It is more important now, more than ever, for us to identify ways of placing brand owners in the field with the anthropologist.

This idea is not without its critics but if clear ground rules are established up front, preserving the integrity of the ethnography as well as protecting the respondents, placing brand owners in the field feels like a no brainer despite it not being the ideal!

Key tips:

  • Keep the number of researchers to a minimum of two (including the ethnographer) – accepting that each additional person added to the team will affect the behaviour of the respondents and could easily overwhelm and skew results.
  • Respect the field location – many consumption based studies that uncover rich insights are carried out in people‚Äôs homes, this should not be treated like a viewing facility!
  • Clearly define the role of the client-side observers – training is essential as the role should be more passive and observation based, diarising rather than active questioning throughout the participant observation process.
  • Understand the role of the anthropologist – ethnographies are by nature fairly unstructured and organic, let the ethnographer do the full participant observation role and be open minded about where this could take you.
  • Know when to develop hypothesis further – brand owner/client-side observer and anthropologist should be debating and discussing key themes after each participant observation and not during – ethnography is an inductive process and therefore will develop gently rather than being something that is predetermined.
  • Technology – do not use a camera and/or recording kit that will affect the naturalness of behaviours and be respectful of how a respondent feels personally about the way you capture them.
  • Be true to the individual – do not allow business objectives to cloud participant observation and more importantly, the findings.

It is becoming increasingly important for brand owners to really understand their consumers. Ethnography is an approach that can allow this understanding to happen and, when managed well, can also put the brand owner firmly in the field… A small compromise for ethnographers and a clear win for brand owners!

By Zoe Tuttle, Strategist at Reach
Contact Zoe