Big brands turning to Big Brother

Questionnaires and focus groups aren’t enought – now companies are having volunteers filmed for days on end to see what makes customers really tick, finds Stephen Hoare

Teenagers around the world could soon be sporting a new range of Doc Martens trainers with coloured laces and a long tongue that pulls out of the shoe. Channel 4 viewers might find more of their favourite kind of programmes. And impatient ice-cream lovers could soon find that their favourite brand of tub ice-cream defrosts straight from the freezer.

Innovation is the norm in our fickle, fast-moving consumer culture. But launching new products or repositioning faded brands is increasingly the subject of scientific scrutiny.

As development costs escalate so do the risks of a commercial failure. Global brands want to make sure their products succeed across national boundaries and are turning for help to a new kind of market testing — ethnographic research.

In less than a decade ethnographic research — detailed observations of the day-to-day behaviours of a small sample from a target group of consumers to shed light on how they use, choose or buy products — has established itself alongside consumer surveys and focus groups as a leading tool of market research.

Siamack Salari, boss of one firm specialising in this field called EverydayLives, explains ethnographic research as social anthropology meets the internet. Salari’s researchers follow paid volunteers for days filming their every move with a hand-held camcorder in order to uncover hidden truths about the way they lead their lives.

Some time, usually towards the end of the first day, the novelty of being filmed will wear off and unselfconscious behaviours will start to emerge. The best insights come when people are feeling relaxed and off their guard. Hours and hours of video are analysed for key behaviours before being finally edited down to around an hour of film that can be played back to the subject and shared with the client.

To research any given product, a sample is constructed usually of no more than six individuals or households each of which is filmed for two to three days. Then, as Salari explains, the hard work begins — analysing and interpreting behaviours.

Film has the advantage over questionnaires because the camera doesn’t lie. People are often unaware of how they appear feeding the cat, for example, or chatting with other family members, or shopping in a supermarket aisle.

Salari explains: “What the subject didn’t do or nearly did can often reveal far more about their inner motives than what is happening on the surface. If you ask me how often do I make coffee I would say ‘every day’. But if you were to film me then you might find that quite often I help myself to my wife’s tea in the morning. Even though I have a percolator and ground coffee at the ready, I am usually too lazy to make myself a cup.”

The discussion between researcher and subject is used to generate insights which Salari calls ‘co-discoveries’. Salari’s spare-time activity — making and posting video blogs on YouTube — reveals a disarming lack of inhibition about sharing his own private moments over the worldwide web.

“I’m a great YouTube junky. I’d spend every minute of my life on YouTube — it’s my way of demonstrating to people who I am. I film myself talking to my three-year-old on my knee — just having everyday conversations. I have had dozens of fathers send me clips and sharing their own observations of their children. It’s a whole community I didn’t know existed.”

Describing his own brand of ethnography as “observational research with common sense and lateral thinking thrown in”, Salari points out that only this type of qualitative research offers unexpected insights.

While supermarkets mine data from micro-chipped loyalty cards to segment markets and target special offers, this kind of number-crunching misses the bigger picture of how products are chosen and how they could be improved.

Salari points out: “Ethnographic research is always agenda-less. It’s totally opposed to other forms of research and its big benefit is that it generates insights. It uncovers things you didn’t know you didn’t know about.”

Ethnographic research is widely endorsed and has gained in popularity through word of mouth. EverydayLives mostly researches fast-moving consumer brands for companies such as Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, Pedigree and GlaxoSmithKline. It has conducted research for new products to be launched in Russia, Poland, Latin America and Africa.

London Business School even devotes its latest MBA core module — discovering entrepreneurial opportunities — to expounding the principles of ethnographic research, and MBA students borrow heavily on these skills in their business start-up competition.

John Mullins, assistant professor of entrepreneurship at LBS, says: “We use only ethnographic and qualitative research — in-depth observation — because a long list of the best and biggest companies are doing it to discover real customer insights and to satisfy their needs.”

Such insight does not come cheap, however. According to Salari, an observational survey would cost in the region of £4,000-£6,000 per household

. Normally a minimum of six households would participate. Sometimes ethnographic research suggests small changes that can make the difference between a product succeeding in its market or falling flat.

One of Salari’s earliest commissions was to critique Oxo’s long-running TV advertising campaign. He found, not surprisingly, that times had moved on since the idealised housewife Katie and her shared family mealtimes were first conceived back in the early Sixties.

“I forget what happened to Katie,” he says, “but food advertising is now more likely to involve noisy argumentative families or children grabbing a bite to eat in front of the telly.”

On the Dr Martens assignment, Salari and his team started by questioning youth buying patterns. The client brief was: how are young people using fashion brands in their everyday lives? Why, for example, have Nike trainers, baseball caps and hoodies become so embedded in youth culture?

Salari says: “We wanted to find out what is it about a product that makes it iconic.” Salari’s young researchers fanned out to the east and west coasts of America, Japan, Europe and beyond. They found individuals who conformed to Dr Martens’ target market and followed paid volunteers for several days shooting hours and hours of their daily routine with a hand-held digital camera.

At the end of it 180 hours were edited down to just one hour of highlights with an analysis and commentary and shown to Dr Martens’ marketing and product development people. What emerged? Teenagers preferred fashions that allowed them to customise the item of clothing and take ownership of it, such as wearing a cap the wrong way round or pulling the tongue of a pair of trainers out from behind the laces.

Salari says: “Iconic products had one thing in common: they had something distinctive — a label or a style — that made wearers stand out as part of a tribe.” He adds: “I didn’t design a new pair of Dr Martens, but we ended up with a series of abstract observations which could be translated into tangible product ideas.” Such as coloured shoe laces, possibly.

The five golden rules of ethnographic research


  • Ensure you have a hypothesis to test. Come at research with beliefs rather than questions. This forces the client to really think.


  • Avoid telling households what the research project is about (until the end) because you don’t want to influence them into showing you the behaviours they think you want to see.


  • Don’t interview the subjects until the end of the filming. You don’t want to disrupt naturally occurring events, conversations and decisions by asking them to explain their behaviour to you. You want to explore.


  • By the end of the project the subject should know as much about the researcher as the researcher knows about the subject. This helps people to feel relaxed and builds trust


  • Ensure the client is fully involved in the process. Do not wait to present findings to the client at the end of the process. Encourage them to work with you and to take ownership of any insights and discoveries.
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