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Business impact of ethnographic research

Home Visit by Nicolas Nova Creative Commons via Flickr

Leading up to the impending start of my graduate program in anthropology, I have gotten myself involved in an initiative which—based in the Department—will explore ‘real-world’ and sometimes non-academic applications of ethnographic research. While that initiative continues to be mostly under wraps because it is still taking shape, one actual research project is already underway. It is an investigation into retirement among academic physicians, and the institutional and societal impact of the removal of the mandatory retirement age in Ontario in 2006. I am participating as an interested party (not an actual researcher), and because my ultimate interest focuses on the connection between ethnography and business (or perhaps ethnography and ‘advice’ would be a better way to phrase it). Part of the project is to find longer-term funding for our research: we started with a small focus group and are now looking for funding—possibly from a private sector partner—to support about 6 months of ethnographic fieldwork (detailed interviews, participant observation, etc.). We are looking at various funding models, but the current forerunner is Mitacs Accelerate, a graduate internship program offered by a not-for-profit that promotes academic/private sector R&D. A group of us recently presented our idea to the private wealth management division of a major Canadian bank.

Although ethnographic research enjoys a growing awareness in the world of business, there isn’t currently enough understanding of what it is or how it might be useful, even in a sophisticated audience such as ours, which included the head of market research. Research in private sector organizations largely continues to be quantitative and segmentation driven. Any qualitative work, I think, takes place solely under the umbrella of what I would call ‘establishing what customers think by asking them directly’: in surveys and focus groups. Ethnography, on the other hand, continues to be seen as something designers or design agencies do, for the most part as a subordinate step in a larger design or innovation journey. Informal discussions with a variety of sources suggest they all have a strong visual association with ethnography because the typical ‘deliverables’ they have seen were diagrams, collages or other images, suggesting their experiences were more about how designers know to express themselves than of actual ethnographic research results.

At the end of our meeting, we were asked whether we could share some typical reports or papers from previous projects that would illustrate the potential business impact of this kind of research. Because our initiative is new in 2014/15, we didn’t have any previous work to discuss but committed to providing a summary of some typical case studies from other sources. I spent last weekend creating a little summary ‘paper’ of such examples, a task that proved to be easier to promise than actually perform.

On one hand, it would seem pretty straightforward: the media likes the idea of social scientists applying their skills to business (usually in consumer research) because it is titillating to imagine that someone could observe our behaviour and understand our motivations. We are fascinated by the idea of being research subjects and worry about exposing our most closely-held desires and dislikes to the world. Magazines such as the New Yorker and the Atlantic, and newspapers such as the New York Times and the Economist, have prominently featured stories about applied anthropology in recent years. Building on this momentum, the business school world has also caught on: the growing interest in codifying the complexities of innovation into ‘design thinking’ has at least created a kind of fertile intellectual ground for qualitative methods, including ethnography. In the world of business publishing, the book The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems from ReD Associates, a firm that offers consulting services based on the ‘human sciences’ (their umbrella term for anthropology, sociology, psychology and philosophy), has been most impactful.

On the other hand, actual case studies are hard to come by. When I say ‘actual,’ I mean accounts that provide rich details about the business problem, the shape and trajectory of the research, and a clear description of the strategic transformation that took place as a result of the research. The Moment of Clarity (apart from suffering from terribly poor substantive and copy editing throughout) unwittingly establishes a strange pattern: the ‘moment of clarity,’ in each case, becomes a moment of magic. Each case study ends with a very ‘thin’ transition from research insights to business decision, suggesting the answers that sprang from the data were so obvious that further narrative is not required. Magic does not need explaining.

It is clear to me that one of my own research vectors in the next three years or so will be precisely this connection between insight and action. Contextualized differently, this is of course an age-old question of philosophy or theory: how does knowing become doing? In contemporary anthropological theory, only a limited number of writers (at least in my explorations to date) face up to this question, as the academic discipline is, of course, primarily focused on knowledge production.1

I was heartened to discover that there is, in fact, better writing on how to apply ethnographic research to business problems. Most notably, there is an excellent paper by Julien Cayla and Eric Arnould entitled ‘Ethnographic Stories for Market Learning’ (in Journal of Marketing, Vol. 77, July 2013) based on primary ethnographic research the authors conducted with marketers, market researchers, consultants, anthropologists, professional ethnographers, etc. Cayla & Arnould also note that there is a lack of evidence substantiating the ethnographic data gathered and “how such knowledge informs marketing decisions” (Cayla & Arnould 2013, 3). The authors argue that ethnography in business is most impactfully used for gathering narrative data and sequencing it into causal relationships that business decision makers can use to understand the impact of their products or services on real people. In organizations, the stories produced “are valued as effective socialization tools” and become “narrative boundary objects” (p. 7), informing and guiding how businesspeople think about their specific customers by rendering them in more concrete terms than the abstract categories offered by a segmentation study or persona.2

To respond to the original request, I eventually assembled a (very) lightweight paper that summarizes a number of ‘big’ case studies, from The Moment of Clarity and elsewhere. Most leave one yearning for more detail (and that’s not a function of my summarizing!). There are more case studies, of course, notably those in Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter edited by Melissa Cefkin (2009) and Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research by Patricia Sutherland and Rita Denny (2007). Once one looks for descriptions of ethnographic fieldwork in corporate or marketing contexts, there is a rich selection of literature, and much of it is illuminating. The key difference, though, is that most of these either examine corporations or organizations as an academic (or hybrid) research site, or reflect on the inherent strangeness (for academic anthropologists) of doing anthropological work in organizational or industrial contexts.

The lack of easily discoverable business case studies is mostly a domain problem: the domain of business has barely begun to embrace the transformative potential of ethnographic research, while the domain of anthropology has for some time now been keenly interested in doing research in business. Each is primarily interested in its own objectives, and the world of business isn’t animated by the need to publish.

I would be very interested to hear from readers who are aware of other descriptions of ethnographic research that has had direct strategic or organizational impact (or who have written up their own). Please add your references to the comments section below.

Here is the full text of the little paper we sent back to our interlocutors from the major Canadian bank.

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Business Impact of Ethnographic Research: Sample Case Study Summaries

Ethnographic Research

The academic discipline of anthropology uses ethnographic fieldwork as its primary method for engaging research participants and gathering data. In contrast to quantitative methods, this approach employs two primary modes of data collection:

  • In-depth, open-ended and semi-structured interview techniques, and
  • Participant-observation, where researchers participate in their subjects’ activities and gather uniquely detailed research data as a result of being directly embedded.

In addition, ethnographic fieldwork also occasionally uses visual means of capturing data (such as photography or video). All three techniques are complementary and are often used in conjunction with one another.

Ethnographic fieldwork—although originally developed in anthropology to study other cultures—is increasingly also used in the other social sciences, such as sociology, and geographically ‘closer to home.’ While ethnography was originally typically practiced by a single researcher embedded in a remote society for long periods at a time, other traditions (e.g. European sociology) use multi-disciplinary research teams to generate rich insights and understand their correlations more rapidly.

Business Impact

There is a growing awareness of the potential for ethnographic research in commercial organizations. Ethnography is typically seen as complementary to quantitative research. Cayla and Arnould trace two primary ways of gaining market insights: paradigmatic learning (segmentation, ‘mental models’) and narrative learning, produced by ethnographic research (2013, 3). They offer a summary of various modes of market learning generated by ethnography:

  • temporality (imposing narrative structure on consumers’ actions to communicate a rich picture of their experiences;
  • revelatory incidents (which may become corporate stories, shorthand for new market insights);
  • granularity (helping marketers understand abstract market generalizations); and
  • emotionality (infusing market learning with emotional resonance) (Cayla and Arnould 2013, 8–9).

They conclude that “ethnographic stories are uniquely able to convey to managers the complexity of customers’ lives and the stress and challenges they have to face in ways that are not only actionable but transformative” (2013, 9).

Cefkin (in Cefkin 2009, 9–17) traces the historical evolution of applied anthropology in contemporary business culture. She notes that to date, mostly design and technology firms have employed in-house ethnographers, often in significant numbers (in 2006, Intel had approximately 24 anthropologists on staff, Microsoft had about 20).

Sample Case Study Summaries

Following are brief summaries of a selection of business case studies where ethnographic research resulted in unlocking unusual or transformational insights which ultimately led to strategy adjustments.


The ethnographic consulting firm ReD Associates has done substantial research for Adidas, the German sport shoe and apparel manufacturer, focusing on a variety of areas in corporate and product strategy. The company had historically focused all its efforts on creating performance sport shoes and apparel, working on the assumption that what was desirable to performance athletes would ultimately also be attractive to consumers. The link between performance athletes and consumers was traditionally established via athlete sponsorships and the associated advertising.

In approximately 2003, it became apparent that Adidas had become unable to successfully market into the ‘fitness’ segment where most of its competitors were growing. ReD Associates examined the problem using a variety of qualitative methods, including ‘subject-generated’ visual ethnography: the firm sent a disposable camera to a number of women and asked them to send a photo of ‘something that made them work out.’ 25 out of 30 respondents sent back a picture of a little black dress (“The Adidas Method” 2013). Adidas decided to reframe how it thinks of its consumers: “After collecting data and analyzing it, the team identified a growing group of people who were highly engaged in sports without self-identifying as athletes” (Madsbjerg and Rasmussen 2014, 147).

Research further revealed that the priorities of these consumers were often significantly different from those of athletes. For example, consumers pursuing a fitness lifestyle expected their clothes and shoes to be aesthetically pleasing—something athletes typically did not care about.

Adidas transformed its product strategy as well as marketing approach and messaging as a result of the ethnographically-informed research.


Genevieve Bell is an anthropologist who focuses on user experience research at Intel Labs, the chipmaker’s research arm. Dr. Bell’s team (about 100 employees) investigates “how people use technology in their homes and in public” (Singer 2014). This is done to help Intel and its customers (technology companies that embed its chips in their products) gain a better and more sophisticated understanding of how people actually use technology in their everyday lives.

In one worldwide research study, Bell investigated the technology and personal items people have in their cars. Car manufacturers now offer integrated and highly complex in-car entertainment and communication systems. But the Intel Labs team suspected that actual usage of these systems was relatively limited, and that drivers still use their personal devices while in the car.

Bell and her team “traveled around the world, examining, logging and photographing the contents of people’s cars” (Singer 2014). This, in conjunction with detailed interviews and observations, resulted in a much more nuanced understanding of how people actually used technology in their cars and led Intel and some of its customers (Jaguar Land Rover and Toyota) to revisit its in-car technology offerings. Now, “[t]he goal is to make built-in technology more seamless and supersede a driver’s reflex to reach for a hand-held device” (Singer 2014).


In the 1990s and 2000s, the iconic Danish toy manufacturer LEGO developed an ever-increasing number of toy sets that provided tie-ins with other popular brands, predominantly from the entertainment industry (e.g. Star Wars). As a result, the nature of the toy sets themselves evolved: in order to achieve the desired resemblance between the LEGO set and the movie (or other brand), the company developed very specific LEGO bricks, and assembling the sets at home required increasingly complex instruction booklets. Despite good test results from focus groups held with both parents and children, the company’s sales were not showing the desired increase. In fact, it was losing market share.

An ethnographic research program was set up to broadly investigate the meaning of toys (including LEGO) and the circumstances of childhood today (time compression, parental ‘curation’ of every moment of every day, etc.) (Madsbjerg and Rasmussen 2014, 117). The research team conducted observation home visits and individual interviews with parents and children.

LEGO’s discoveries were mostly in two areas. First, parents did not really appreciate the significant shift from LEGO in the past (when it consisted of mostly interchangeable blocks and did not come with instruction booklets) to today’s LEGO. Despite the fact that they said they liked the new sets in focus groups, individual conversations revealed that the unfamiliarity of the new sets had reduced their emotional affect towards the product and made them less likely to want to purchase it for their children. Second, where LEGO’s product teams had previously assumed that they had to create toys that minimized the time required to assemble a set (and essentially required parental guidance throughout the process), the ethnographic research data revealed that children are able to invest virtually unlimited time into mastering a skill they truly care about. In addition, the team was able to build insights into the connection between playing and developing mastery in a skill—and that a certain amount of freedom (lack of parental supervision) is instrumental in skill development (Madsbjerg and Rasmussen 2014, 118).

As a result of these discoveries, LEGO changed both its product and marketing strategies to embrace the new discoveries. The product line-up was cut back from 12,900 different sets in 2003 to only 7,000 SKUs today. The company now tries to create products with a “covert sense of danger” (Madsbjerg and Rasmussen 2014, 120) to address children’s need to experience freedom from oversight during play. In addition, the company started outreach programs to user communities, including ‘Adult Fans of LEGO,’ a group of adult enthusiasts.

“American Bank”

“American Bank” (In Cayla and Arnould (2013), the names of consulting clients are masked with generic descriptive names) engaged a team of ethnographic researchers to generate a better understanding of its mobile banking business value proposition (study conducted in 2008). The team focused on the ubiquity of mobile phones in people’s lives. One key insight that was generated—and that surprised executives—was that many people slept with their phones and used them for a series of elaborate activities before getting up in the morning, such as checking their email and checking their bank accounts (Cayla and Arnould 2013, 8).

[…T]he ethnography completely changed [our understanding…]. We realized […] that people had integrated mobile banking into their life. Some of the people we interviewed slept with their phone. […] In that way the ethnography was completely foundational, it helped us completely rethink how we think about our customers but also our value proposition, the way we design the user interface and the whole strategy for mobile banking. (Amy, vice president for mobile banking, American Bank) (Cayla and Arnould 2013, 10)

As a result of the ethnographic research, “American Bank” achieved a new understanding of how to position mobile banking as a lifestyle/convenience focused offering rather than a security feature. The organization adjusted its marketing message accordingly.


  • Cayla, Julien, and Eric Arnould. 2013. “Ethnographic Stories for Market Learning.” Journal of Marketing 77 (4): 1–16.
  • Cefkin, Melissa., ed. 2009. Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter?: Reflections on Research in and of Corporations. Oxford: Berghahn Books.
  • Madsbjerg, Christian, and Mikkel B. Rasmussen. 2014. The Moment of Clarity. Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.
  • Singer, Natasha. 2014. “Intel’s Sharp-Eyed Social Scientist.” The New York Times, February 15.
  • The Adidas Method.” 2013. The Economist, August 24.

  1. Most notable for me have been David A. Westerbrook, Navigators of the Contemporary: Why Ethnography Matters and David Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology

  2. Cayla & Arnould’s paper is rich with primary data quotes and makes a number of intelligent connections, albeit relatively broadly. If you can find a copy of it, it’s really worth reading. There are several ideas in it that they readily acknowledge need further depth exploration, but the conceptual framework is excellent. 

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