Applied Ethnography for
business and social innovation
July 1st 2010
The New Barn Studios Collective
Or entrepreneurial ethnographer?
And watch this space...
What is ethnography?
• Ethnography is a branch of anthropology which studies
cultures, and culture, through the experiences of individuals
in everyday life.
• At its heart is the idea of ‘deep hanging out’ – the idea that
to understand a culture you have to immerse yourself in
the experience; by being there and doing it.
• Its commercial value is now well established for gaining a
deep-rooted understanding of the role and value of a
brand, service or product experience in the everyday world
of the consumer.
Lots of people are doing it...
• William Grant & Sons • Public Sector
• Bacardi Martini – HMRC
• Electrolux – Participle (Social Enterprise)
– The Work Foundation
– Local Government Social
– No.10 Downing Street
• Lloyds TSB
• Creative Agencies
– Quickheart Ltd
• M&S Money
• Orange – Tequila
• Vodafone – Michael Wolff
• Research Agencies
• National Rail Enquiries
– Intrepid Consultants
• Boots plc – GfK
The ethnographer’s eye
• Shift from viewing consumption as the
satisfaction of needs to the search for meaning.
• “Product is neutral; usage is social”
(Mary Douglas – The World of Goods)
• Studying the ‘social life of things’ reveals the
implicit meanings and cultural ‘common sense’ of
the objects and transactions of everyday life.
• Participant observation – ‘deep hanging out’ in everyday
life, observing people using money and making decisions
• Long interviews – free flow conversations
• Creative consumer workshops – personal perspectives of
people whose job it is to have a point of view on the world.
• Focus groups – provocative stimulus to get beneath ‘public’
perceptions and tap into subjective insights.
The value of ‘things’
(What I need)
(Why is it valuable to me?) (What I want to feel)
Why the difference between Needs
and Meaning is important:
Nestlé believed that they had For Starbucks, the cup of coffee
extracted maximum value from a itself is only one small part of the
cup of coffee, focussing on the deal. The value of the experience
consumer “need” of excellent is created by the cultural meaning
product delivery. it creates in a consumer’s life.
¢ 8 per cup $4 per cup
Layers and Codes – signifier and
From object to thing
-Technology -Social meaning
-Rational function -Social practices
-cost - Social capital
Meaning = neutral Meaning = Situational
Usage = Social
Shift from looking at what a product ‘does’
to what meaning it ‘creates’
Context: a social life of money
A quick example
“When is an ISA not an ISA?”
A place to create your world of
Entrepreneurs Lifestyle Entrepreneurs
Domestic Entrepreneurs Personal Entrepreneurs
Loan as gift?
Interest as reciprocation?
Cultural catalyst? Cultural medium?
The first ethnographically-inspired whisky
A ‘new world’ Whisky
• Ethnographic Insight
– ‘Whisky is lacks authentic social
currency in public drinking
• Semiotic Insight
– Desire for “remix” of traditional
and modern styles rather than
– Successful launch with acceptance
by both the whisky and style
establishment (Both Kate Moss
and Noel Gallagher profess to
enjoying Monkey Shoulder!).
Packaging Fabric Conditioner as a
meaningful cultural experience
From needs to meaning
• Ethnographic Insight
– Fabric conditioner creates
and maintains social relations
and values of ‘home’ and
• Semiotic Insight
– Generous proportions
emphasise role of FC as ‘gift’
for the home.
A nudge in the right direction...
• Ethnographic insight avoids research being blinkered
by internal cultural ‘truths’ and preconceptions.
• It helps a business understand where it fits in the
everyday life of the consumer (and hence how it is
valued in reality).
• Ethnography expands the scope of analysis of
customers from rational investigation needs to more
subjective and fuzzy exploration of context and
• Grant McCraken
– Chief Culture Officer (latest book)
– Culture and Consumption (I & II)
– The Long Interview
• Zygmunt Bauman
– What chance for ethics in a world of consumers?
– The “Liquid Modernity” Series – Liquid Life, Liquid Love etc
• Viviana Zelizer
– The Social Meaning of Money
– The Purchase of Intimacy
• Keith Hart
– The Memory Bank