Applied Anthropology: Ethnography and Market Research

Written by Therese Padilla

Anthropology is, in part, the study of cultures and cultural change. It deploys methodology and scholarship to record and understand the evolution of human societies. Ethnography is a specific method of data collection and analysis within anthropology. Most anthropologists understand the principles of ethnography, but ethnographers are the experts — well-versed in technique and focused on identifying the reasons behind a social group’s behavior.

By observing ordinary human activity — in naturally occurring settings — and applying social meanings, an ethnographer can develop studies and strategies for analyzing and influencing consumer behavior and incorporating their feedback. Ethnographic studies are interested in the subject’s perspective. In a study designed to analyze a shopping center’s traffic patterns, for instance, an ethnographer seeks to determine why people travel the way they do. From this data, they can derive strategies for maximizing a particular storefront’s exposure and funneling traffic to the store.

Focus groups and interviews

Viewed from the outside, an ethnography interview or focus group may look much the same as traditional marketing versions. They both gather data, but ethnographers seek more than an opinion. They want to examine and understand the context for a subject’s choices and preferences — and like PMs, give the customer a voice in product development. Ethnographers typically record subject interactions for transcription and further analysis of verbal, nonverbal, and setting clues.

Interviews are designed to reveal insights on broad trends and draw conclusions from the specific details of both verbal and nonverbal communication. An ethnographer seeks a holistic understanding of the big picture: Why do customers prefer this product over another in the context of their lives? Whereas a traditional marketing focus group might ask: Do customers like green or blue better for a product’s logo?

Ethnography in business

A poorly designed ethnographic study is worse than no study at all. In product development, inaccurate, or incomplete, information does more harm than good. To learn enough about their subject — the business, brand, product line, and target markets — to design a useful study, an ethnographer requires time to research and understand. In essence, designing a study begins with its own internal ethnographic exercise.

In business, an ethnographer addresses questions of strategy, public perception, and consumer behavior. Answering these questions with any degree of accuracy requires a professional approach, and professional ethnographers pay close attention to detail to build studies in concert with other professionals — namely, product managers (PMs).

Clarity and precision — regarding what data is needed from whom — are essential to crafting a study which produces relevant, actionable data. Drawing conclusions about a product’s ideal target customer is different from deciding how to target sales at a specific demographic. The PM approaches study development with a comprehensive understanding of what they need to know and collaborates with an ethnographer to design the study and refine it according to evolving needs. Close communication is critical throughout this process. Prior to implementation, a final review of the study’s parameters confirms its goals align with the strategic needs of the PM and the product development team.

Ethnography in action

Ethnography is a lengthy process, and companies should be wary of any service promising quick study results. Professional ethnographers are highly educated in the processes and proper procedures required to study contemporary social groups. They ask questions and design studies to account for numerous cultural factors, including social environment, values, upbringing, age, and other relevant demographics. Accounting for the effect of their own interaction with study subjects — in interviews, focus groups, etc. — is one mark of a professional ethnographer.

Designing and completing a solid ethnographic study may take months, but the result is thorough market research and a detailed analysis. Business ethnographers apply the data they gather from studies, interviews, and focus groups to draw conclusions about target markets and outline strategies for aligning product and brand with market preferences.

Implementing ethnography

How can a PM implement ethnography to enhance product development? Begin by understanding the data and — taking a cue from ethnography — its context. Asking why is just as important as knowing what. A report which recommends abandoning a product line isn’t useful, but one which advises shifting a product’s target customer in favor of another, more receptive market, prescribes action, and gives data-driven reasons for it, is an invaluable tool for practical application.

Experts can answer the questions you have and identify the ones you forgot to ask. Ethnographers are people experts. From researching a company’s strategy to building target market studies and highlighting blind spots, a professional ethnographer delivers essential information and practical guidance for product development and success. And a professional PM implements ethnographic data to turn previous unknowns into the action steps of a comprehensive, strategic product management plan.

Learn more about the benefits of applied anthropology and ethnography for professional product and brand managers at

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About the author

Therese Padilla