Rather than putting an exclusive focus on the quantitative data of market research, businesses need to explore the possibilities of qualitative consumer research, which can help better define the actual needs of their customers.
When we talk about the design process, we often imagine it as creative expression that will be utilized in a final product: be it a beer bottle, a chair, a website, or a smartphone application. Designers take their clients’ various wishes and values into consideration, and commence with the crafting of a product’s image. However, we often overlook the fact that people use these products in their everyday lives. Even more so, we neglect to acknowledge that the same product can be used in a rich variety of ways across different societies. Talking about the use of Facebook in different parts of the world, anthropologist Daniel Miller (2016) gave a nice example that considers the issue of privacy on social networks. While this is a burning issue for us in the West, Miller notes that for people in certain parts of India, this might be the first encounter with the concept of privacy.
In short, this fairly represents what we as anthropologists have been doing since the dawn of our discipline: bringing different cultural perspectives to the forefront, and showing that cultural and social practices can be constructed in a variety of ways across the globe, but also within our own societies. Ideas of gender, kinship, material value, or consumption of everyday goods can be perceived quite differently among different socio-cultural groups. Even perceptions of ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ have been proven to be far from universal, showing that what we perceive as irrational behavior may be quite rational from the perspective of those who practice it, in a way that might be very hard for us to grasp. Nevertheless, through observation of (and participation in) practices of others, we may gain powerful insight. Not only into the meaning of the practice for individuals and communities, but also into a completely new viewpoint on issues that we are interested in.
And here I would like to turn to the position of anthropology in the business environment. Many articles have been already written on application of anthropological methods in customer research. Yet paradoxically, they mostly keep dwelling in the safe zone of anthropological journals, intended for other anthropologists, and written in a form that is only understandable for someone with a background in academia. To be fair, there are a few notable exceptions, like a rather interesting article in Harvard Business Review by Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen: “Anthropologist walks into a bar” (2014). In the article, Madsbjerg and Rasmussen point out that it is precisely the qualitative research, stemming from the ethnographic fieldwork, which provides the necessary insight into the use of consumer goods, unlike the omnipresent quantitative methods of marketing research.
Now, one might ask how we can support the justification of qualitative research as more appropriate than quantitative? Let us say, for example, that a certain peanut butter brand wants to know how they can win a larger share of the market in Netherlands. The executives turn to their marketing department, brand experts and creative consultants. They, in turn, make plans for the market research, which is usually done through phone or online surveys on a large-scale sample. The questions are usually formed with multiple-choice answers. When results start pouring in, researchers organize responses into categories and start drawing conclusions. The whole process seems pretty straightforward and logical. However, there are a few problems with this method. First, the survey limits the space for the expression of opinion. Second, questions may steer respondents in certain directions. Third, and most importantly, we have no guarantee that respondents gave their honest opinions. After all, we really have no idea how many different ways peanut butter can be used or consumed, and we certainly aren’t likely to uncover them all with standard questions. This all usually leads to rather vague results that do not offer any sound insights into uses and expectations of the product in question. At this point, a post-modern business entity, otherwise known as a consultant, can jump in and propose solutions, ideas and concepts. However, a consultant’s input is mostly not informed by any kind of research or professional expertise. It usually stems from personal experience and ‘hunches’. As a result, most of the time we end up with a product that is made under the pressure of ‘popular demand’, and only lasts until the novelty wears off.
On the other hand, the ethnographic approach, which is native for anthropologists, has a rather different modus operandi. If we send out ethnographers directly to consumers, they will be able to spend time with them, talk to them about their everyday lives, their daily needs, and most importantly, observe the use of products in their households or work environment. That is where the key insights appear, which can later be discussed with the executives. Careful listening, and showing empathy for everyday concerns of an average consumer, may provide rather important insights into their needs. And together with observations of daily practices, it may reveal important patterns of consumer behavior. As a result, designers are now in a position to create an informed product, which fits the actual needs of a customer. In other words, through spending time with consumers, listening to their stories and participating in their activities, we obtain a truly human perspective of the user experience: one which is based on empathy, understanding, and most importantly, the personal experience of others. It’s how we might discover, for example, that certain demographics use the peanut butter in question far more often in recipes than on sandwiches.
Banning the bandwagon
More and more customer-oriented business are realizing the benefits of qualitative consumer research. Intel, one of the most famous technology giants, already has a long-standing practice of employing anthropologists to obtain a better grasp of technology usage from the perspective of individuals and social groups across the globe. LEGO, as Madsbjerg and Rasmussen point out, obtained invaluable insights from anthropologists who researched the way children and their parents used LEGO blocks in their homes. These observations confirmed that traditional marketing research and consultancy – which suggested the constant need to develop new toys to keep up with ‘popular demand’ – had failed. Anthropologists showed the executives that LEGO should target those who love LEGO blocks for what they are. That children were, in fact, still entertained by the prospect of construction. This shows that it takes a more human approach to the customer for a company to realize the truth. We must stop treating customers as blindly impulsive purchasers who are stirred by the conjured-up trends. That is often not the case.
Most of us have witnessed the promise of a neoliberal economical explosion and excitement from the beginning of the nineties. The phenomenon also brought with it a myriad of, dare I say, postmodern professions, such as PR representatives, advertising gurus, trend watchers, and various types of consultants. Some of you will probably remember the BBC TV show Absolutely Fabulous (1992), and the star and creator Jennifer Saunders. She tried to portray this phenomenon and the ‘money for nothing’ mentality of her main character Eddie: a PR manager and a creative consultant. All these professions, which are highly involved in the construction of the market offer and the creation of the brand image, are based on offering ‘creative solutions’ – however problematic it is to define this term. They’re selling a ‘hunch’ about what a future trend might be and what customers and public will ‘buy into’. However, I am afraid that limited experience, a hunch, and personal creativity alone are not enough to determine what customer needs are. Today, businesses can continue to behave like Eddie, who by following her hunches and urges hits her head against the wall when she needs to make herself present in the publicity sphere. They can endlessly switch from trend to trend, which almost never gives any lasting results. I think that an alternative from a fresher perspective is to create a joint effort of creative professionals with their business experience, and anthropologists with their ethnographic research methods, to bring an entirely new level of customer understanding, and lastly, product orientation.
We, as human beings, are contingent products of a variety of social, cultural and biological influences. Our sense of self, our identities, as well as our needs and desires, are constructed through a complex interplay of subject positions that we occupy through life. In less demanding terms, our experiences of our societies, cultures, gender ideals, as well as our social and economical background, greatly influence the way we act as individuals, social actors and consumers. Thus our personal stories are long and rather complicated. And while someone, who has never met us before, may attempt to bring up a conclusion about us based solely on their intuition and subjective experience, making a shot in dark and a potential hit, it is still a disregard to our story and only conjures up vague realisations of what we might want from life, others people, or a consumer brand for that matter. Just as we might take offence at this, we have to understand that in order to make any sound realisation of someone else's needs, we need to make a step closer, really get to know them, and try to understand the world through their eyes.
This article was recently published on Marketingfacts
About the author
Nebojša Savić is a socio-cultural anthropologist. His research interests include consumer culture, sexuality, and gender identity issues in post-socialist countries in Eastern Europe.
Dynamic Design Magazine
This article is part of our Dynamic Design Magazine, Spring 2019.
Download the complete magazine here. Do you want to continue the conversation about this article? Or are you interested in receiving a print edition of the magazine? Reach out to Mirabeau's Creative Director Henk Haaima.