Ethnography Alone Cannot Generate Transformative Insights

Consumer anthropology offers such refreshing insights into the marketplace, re-humanizing the relationship between people, things and stores in very profound and moving ways. This movement also has helped stores get their noses out of spreadsheet and theories and keep their eye on the customer experience.

Whether in-store or online, this ethnographic sensitivity has positively been leveraged to optimize the present experience or redeem oversights and chokepoints of history. This type of insight begins by taking an objective snapshot of the experience, detaching and seeing how to make them relatively, immediately better.

All of these good things come from the business discipline of consumer ethnography. These changes make customers happier and help drive more sales per square foot (or per pixel): a win-win.

Yet, time and time again, we have seen clients who tried to use a pure consumer ethnographic approach to their innovation programs fail. Why? What happened?

The purpose of innovation and the job of pure ethnography are at odds. The purpose of innovation is to generate new value. You accomplish this objective with foresight, creativity and fresh thinking. The job of ethnography is to give insights about the past or present. Therefore, innovation aims for the future, and ethnography strives to stay rooted into either the past or the present. Simply put, it is a different lens, different way of seeing.

This is why organizations that first try design thinking often end up with mediocre results in a program. They approach the first two phases of the process (empathy and define) with an academically rigorous approach to consumer behavior. This primary field data is potent, but only half of the story.

The other half revolves around a mix of intention, strategic prowess, ambition, business acumen, a growth instinct and the ability to trend cast into the future. The data from secondary sources and indirect competitive trends and the exercises around new channels, new markets and brand elasticity fuel the conversation, insisting that it is well defined, vigorously focused and ultimately measurable.

This other half can be defined as the project (or business) objective. Pure ethnographic work without this other half to temper it lacks a forward thrust needed to truly innovate.

What is needed for a successful innovation program is a mix, a vital intersection of ethnographic field insights with an overarching commercial objective. This marriage of openness to the full context of history and the present moment to delivering new ways to solve old problems under a specific banner is the archway of profundity, a vast pipeline of possible solutions.

Pure ethnography alone will not get you to the point of having a transformative business or organization or a wide-ranging portfolio of value-generating concepts. On the flip side, having a business objective and no deep context of the market also means having a limited sight of vision of the opportunities. Together, at the intersection of human context and market focus, exists the key that unlocks real growth.