Understanding Your Consumers Through Video: Video Ethnography for Brand Research in China
By SARAH KIRBY Ethnographer
Video ethnography is the process of recording in-depth interviews in the context of participants’ natural,
Ethnographers go wherever people go, and do whatever they do: they watch them surf the internet at
home, commute to work on the subway, or even go to nightclubs with their friends. They look through their
family photo albums and hang out with them in the kitchen while they make dinner. Conducting interviews
in respondents’ natural environments both helps to relax them, allowing for more in-depth, thoughtful
answers, and provides ethnographers with essential contextual information about their daily lives.
Ethnographic research is a collaborative endeavor. Respondents are powerful, knowledgeable agents who
both shape and are shaped by their communities and environments. They are the experts in the situation;
ethnographers enter the field with open minds, wanting to learn from them.
Consumers Through Video:
Video Ethnography for
Brand Research in China
6 Video Ethnography fou Brand Research in China 7 Video Ethnography fou Brand Research in China
Though video ethnography has been around since the
beginning of film, it is only recently that brands have
realized what a useful tool it can be to get an up-close
look at their consumers. Video ethnography showcases
how individuals live with the category, how it fulfills their
needs, and how codes play out in context.
The output of the research project, an evocative,
compelling ethnographic film, leaves stakeholders with a
deep understanding of how their brand fits into ordinary
peoples’ personal narratives and daily lives.
For example, one of the world’s largest fashion
distributors wanted to understand fast-fashion
consumers across China. Ethnographers conducted 36 in-
home interviews in 18 cities across China, raiding closets
and watching TV with respondents, exploring everything
from how they go about their morning routines to major
aspects of their lifestyles, cultures, and values.
Ethnographers learned that fashion trends are an
important part of Chinese consumers’ narratives of
modernity (i.e. “I am a modern woman because I keep up
with trends”). After analysis, ethnographers held a half-
day workshop with clients to explore ways to transform
consumer insights into branding actions and identify
opportunities for future research.
VIDEO ETHNOGRAPHY FOR BRANDS
Film has the bandwidth to include individuals’ personal
stories while also illustrating meaningful patterns that
translate into actionable results for the brand.
What is video ethnography?
For example, a website offering inexpensive student flights and vacation deals wants to enter the Chinese market.
First, they need to understand major themes related to the category of “travel” and explore language and imagery
linked to travel in Chinese students’ minds.
Ethnographers spend time with students in their day-to-day environments, asking insightful questions about the role
travel plays in their daily lives. They uncover major themes, vocabulary, and imagery related to the travel category
that can be used in the brand’s communication material. They also discover that travel is being used as a new form of
symbolic capital; travel stories are integrated into both emerging and traditional narratives of success. Well-traveled
students are seen as ambitious and successful among adults, while they are seen as adventurous and brave among
their peers. The website used this information to develop a communication platform that would appeal to Chinese
8 Video Ethnography fou Brand Research in China 9 Video Ethnography fou Brand Research in China
Understand Chinese Youth
The post-80s generation was the first generation born
after Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform began in 1978.
As these reforms included the one child policy, China’s
post-80s generation is also the world’s first generation
consisting of mostly only children.
The one child policy coupled with the overwhelmingly
sudden introduction of foreign brands previously
unavailable in China has resulted in a new generation
of eager consumers who both shape and are shaped
by how new brands adapt to fit the needs of the
Chinese market. The post-80s generation’s investment
in consumerism makes the prospect of researcher-
respondent collaboration and co-creation even more
intriguing and productive.
With ubiquitous smartphone use among the post-90s
generation, more and more youth have basic experience
with video production and sharing. This makes the
video diary element of ethnography even more feasible
and intriguing. Through video diaries, respondents are
recognized as knowledgeable experts and are allowed
to speak for themselves and lead the research. This
involvement makes them more invested in the project,
leading to more compelling footage with descriptive
responses and evocative, engaging stories.
VIDEO ETHNOGRAPHY FOR THE CHINESE MARKET
There are two major reasons why video ethnography is a particularly relevant research
methodology for the Chinese market: consumerism and use of digital among Chinese youth and
China’s booming luxury market.
The internet is a vital form of communication and self-
expression among the post-90s generation. Through
our video ethnography and focus group project on how
Chinese teens use digital, we discovered that,
Digital is giving Chinese
teens new ways to express
themselves as individuals
and build their identity.
Understand Chinese Luxury Market
With the rapid improvement of economic conditions in
China in recent years, the luxury market has exploded
onto the scene. 2013 promises to be a turning point in the
evolution of China’s luxury market because of the rise of
lower tier cities and the explosion of e-commerce.
Swift economic growth is quickly changing the way that
people live in China. Ethnographers are eager to dig in,
going into people’s homes to analyze how their lifestyles
are changing. Video ethnography can shed light on how
luxury brands are shaping and being shaped by Chinese
consumers every day.
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As the Chinese market grows ever more competitive,
brands that are set to benefit from cultural trends and
seek collaborative relationships with their consumers
will continue to gain influence. Video ethnography is
an unparalleled methodology for brands that seek an
in-depth look at how their consumers incorporate the
brand category into their daily lives.
Brands are beginning to discover the value of
video ethnography, and, at the end of the day,
brands that leverage this tool are left with a
crystal clear vision of how to cater to their
Banks, Marcus; Morphy, Howard (Hrsg.): Rethinking Visual Anthropology.
New Haven: Yale University Press 1999. ISBN 978-0300078541
Barbash, Ilisa and Lucien Taylor. Cross-cultural Filmmaking: A Handbook
for Making Documentary and Ethnographic Films and Videos. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1997.
Grimshaw, Anna. The Ethnographer’s Eye: Ways of Seeing in Modern
Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
MacDougall, David. Transcultural Cinema. Princeton: Princeton University
Ruby, Jay. Picturing Culture: Essays on Film and Anthropology. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2000, ISBN 978-0-226-73099-8.
For example, a luxury jewelry brand wanted to test their
new retail concept for the Chinese market. They wanted
a holistic understanding of luxury consumers in Shanghai,
including their motivations, shopping behaviors,
and the reasons behind their reactions to the new
concept. Labbrand’s ethnographers went into the field,
accompany respondents and their friends on luxury
shopping trips and conducting in-home interviews in
order to understand consumers’ behavior in the context
of their daily lives.
Using anthropological theory to analyze data, the
research team discovers five key motivations behind
respondents’ desire to buy luxury products as a way
to lift one’s image, and as a reward for oneself. These
motivations are ways by which Chinese values such
as guanxi and saving face are blending with the
consumerism of the New China.
Labbrand Enterprise Management Consulting (Shanghai) Co., Ltd.
M50 Creative Industries Park
Building 7 Unit 202, 50 Moganshan Road Shanghai 200060 China
Labbrand is the leading China-based branding consultancy that provides market and consumer
research, brand strategy, and creative services to develop and manage successful brands. With
headquarters in Shanghai M50 Creative Industries Park and featuring an international team
of market research and branding experts, Labbrand combines creative and scientific methods
to inspire, guide, measure and create local and global branding practices.
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