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People drink beer during the Race of Beer in Brasilia August 28, 2011.
People drink beer during the Race of Beer in Brasilia August 28, 2011.

Mark Healy

The new buzzword in marketing: Ethnography Add to ...

A client in the food service space has significant market share in one category in the United States, and it wants to push into the No. 1 spot. Some of the work will involve research, ideation and marketing planning.

Because the target consumer in this instance is young males, and because winning in the suburbs is a strong going-in hypothesis, a certain case from the past comes to mind. The client was a distiller and its agency, and the focus of the case was an ethnographic study of male millennials in the burbs. Mainly live-at-homes and frat boys.

The findings in that case were compelling – in some ways shocking – and the lessons, which may apply again in the new assignment, profound:

  • The power of ethnography.
  • The deep-seeded anger and frustration of the suburban young male.
  • The role of roles, and its marketing implications.

First, some definitions.


Often referred to as Gen Y. Experts differ on the exact start of this generation, but the range of birth years is generally accepted as 1977 to 1998. When referring to millennials more specifically, most experts point to the group born post-1990, teens and young adults. Optimistic and confident. They believe everyone should have their own path. They are communicative but not necessarily classically social. They view lifestyle as a right, not a privilege. They are digitally trained. They don’t so much reject rules like Gen Xers, but they see rules as irrelevant.


Ethnography is a hot topic, and it is quickly gaining popularity in marketing research. Merriam-Webster defines ethnography as “the study and systematic recording of human cultures; also: a descriptive work produced from such research.” I like what Brian Hoey, a professor at Marshall, has to say on ethnography. He points out that the term is bandied about – incorrectly – to describe all kinds of qualitative consumer research these days, and that it ultimately:

  • Must be more than observational;
  • Must be comparative;
  • Must use a cultural frame to provide a deep “insider’s point of view.”

Lesson 1: The power of ethnography

In the case for the distiller and its agency, we decided on an ethnographic approach to the research phase for a few reasons.

The first was that traditional research had failed to unearth meaningful insights. I have written on the limitations of traditional research, especially surveys, in the past, namely:

  • Consumers will often rationalize irrational behaviour, after the fact.
  • Consumers have trouble accurately predicting what they will do, out of context.
  • Consumers often don’t understand why they make the decisions they make, since decision making is at least partly – sometimes dominantly – emotional.

Surveys and focus groups can be very effective, if applied in the right circumstances. This was not one of them.

The second was a suspicion that cultural differences between U.S. and Canadian consumers could explain consumption and brand acceptance data.

And the third was a time and budget crunch that forced a “get into the field and figure this out” mentality. We designed an approach that would have me and a team spend a few weeks in the filed observing, interviewing and interacting with consumers for long periods of time in liquor stores, at bars and at house parties.

Although the results of that case are confidential, I can comment on the power of the approach. By focusing on human behaviours of young males, and not on product attributes, much deeper insights on social interactions, norms, habits and points of view on consumerism were surfaced versus what a survey or series of focus groups would have revealed.

A traditional approach would have failed, again. And those views did in fact uncover a “place” for the client’s product in the lives of those young males. The case taught me, in the right circumstances – when needing to deeply understand human behaviour or when needing to “predict the future” – the power of an ethnographic approach.

Sept. 20: Lessons two and three. Look for the next installment on the Report on Small Business home page.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Mark Healy, P.Eng, MBA, is a partner at Satov Consultants – a management consultancy with practice areas in corporate strategy, customer strategy and operations strategy. Mark’s focus areas inside the customer strategy practice include consumer insights, customer experience, innovation and go-to-market strategy. He is a regular speaker and media contributor on topics ranging from marketing to strategy, in telecom, retail and other sectors. Mark is known as much for his penchant for loud socks and a healthy NFL football obsession as he is for his commitment to Ivey and recent Ivey grads. He currently serves as chair of the Ivey Alumni Association board of directors. Mark lives with his wife Charlotte and their bulldog McDuff in Toronto.

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Follow on Twitter: @healymark

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