Walking in their shoes: the power of ethnography in consumer conversations

Go beyond surveys and statistics to get closer to consumers. Ethnography can be a powerful method to connect internal stakeholders with the people that matter most.

A woman carrying a shopping basket in the grocery store talking to a female employee.
A woman carrying a shopping basket in the grocery store talking to a female employee.

Sandra Ferris

09 May 2024

4 min read


Ever wondered how your consumer’s morning routine looks, how they use your product on-the-go, or how their environment has an impact on the decisions they make? Simply asking them will not give you the answers. You need to (digitally or in real life) step into their homes, follow them into the bustling streets of a city or the cosy corners of a coffee shop—all in the pursuit of understanding why people do what they do. It’s about going beyond surveys and statistics, getting close to consumers to delve deep into the heart of human behaviour.

In one of our recent blogs, we discuss this idea of consumer closeness and three strategies for building this within your organisation – missions, challenges and consumer conversations. For this blog, I will be diving deeper into the third strategy of consumer conversations, and how ethnographies can be a powerful method to bring the people that matter the most to your business growth closer to internal stakeholders.


What is ethnography?

Before we dive into how ethnography can be leveraged to strengthen your consumer closeness strategy, let’s first level-set on what ethnography is. Adapted from anthropology, ethnography is the study of culture. In consumer research, it seeks to observe consumers in their everyday lives, often in their homes or workplaces, to gain insights into their habits, preferences, and decision-making processes. Ethnography typically involves techniques such as participant observation, where researchers actively engage with and observe consumers, and contextual inquiry, where researchers interview consumers in their natural settings to understand the context surrounding their behaviours and choices.

In her book “Practical Ethnography”, Sam Lander articulates two important reasons why ethnography is so powerful in consumer research:

  • It allows you to conduct research in-context – seeing things as they are happening in the moment and in real life.
  • It allows you to put yourself in your customers’ shoes, or what is known as the emic perspective.

The emic perspective refers to the insider’s perspective, or the perspective that comes from within the culture where the project is situated. Imagine a grocery store aiming to enhance its layout for optimal customer experience. While traditional approaches may focus solely on inventory management or pricing tactics, adopting the emic perspective delves into the intricacies of shoppers’ preferences, tastes and the significance they attach to each product. This nuanced understanding, derived from the customers’ viewpoint, unveils hidden opportunities for layout refinement that resonate deeply with their needs and desires.

Ethnography allows us to go a step further than other methods of qualitative research by immersing in a person’s lived experience and gain that deeper understanding that is so necessary in our current environment.


What are the benefits of ethnography?

I’m sure you’ve heard of the saying “if only I could be a fly on the wall…”. Well, ethnography allows you to be just that. Rather than asking what people would do in a hypothetical scenario, or observing a manufactured situation, gathering insights through ethnography allows you to gather real in-the-moment behaviours. Here are some of the many benefits:

  • Get closer to the consumer in their natural environment. Not only are people more comfortable in their own environment, but they are more likely to do what they naturally would do in that environment. Or what we like to call, their moment of truth. We want to see what they really do, not what they say they do (which are sometimes different things).
  • Observe, look around the environment, be nosey. This might be my favourite part of ethnographic research! We get to be nosey and ask about the things we see that they don’t think to tell us about. We’re all creatures of habit and often don’t even think about what we do and why we do it, until someone observes and sees something interesting. That’s what ethnography allows us to do and ask about.
  • Experience things as your consumers would. Letting people guide you through their world can be so enlightening and allows us to better understand them as humans, but also as consumers of products and services. All consumer likely experience products and services very differently, and it’s important to understand that.


Bringing ethnography to life at your organisation

If your organisation does not leverage ethnography in its usual methodology toolbox, you might be thinking, when could or should this be applied? And how exactly would this trickle up to consumer understanding and empathy building?

Simply put, ethnography is a great methodology when you are looking to understand people on a deeper level and are willing to make the investment. For example, it could help when you or your stakeholders are very different from your consumers and have a hard time relating. Or perhaps when you’re not entirely sure on how your product or service is being used by consumers, or even when you just don’t feel as personally connected to consumers as you’d like to be.

Because of the immersive nature of ethnographic research, this methodology does come along with considerations such as:

  • Higher investment (relative to other qualitative research approaches)
  • Lower sample size (with the trade-off being deeper understanding)
  • Lower direct stakeholder engagement per session (compared to the backroom of a focus group, for example)

But if the above considerations can work for your organisation, you stand to grow that much closer to the people you serve and drive positive impact from the insights gained.


The power of ethnography to better understand family dining

A practical example of how this came to life for one of our clients is a national pizza chain that came to us wanting to better understand families’ experience with ordering carryout pizza. To truly immerse ourselves in this eating occasion, we conducted dinner-time ethnographies and observed the entire evening with families, starting from how they decide on dinner, to ordering, pickup, eating and clean up.

To be as realistic as possible, we allowed participants to choose their session time to coincide with their actual dinner time. We had the whole family participate to understand the true family dynamics (which, as you can imagine, was interesting, fun, and sometimes a little loud and crazy!). Through observation and natural conversation, we were able to understand how decisions are made and the family interactions throughout the evening.

As it was logistically not possible to have every key stakeholder physically present for each ethnography, we designed the deliverables to ensure they felt a part of the experience as if they were on-site with us. To achieve that, a professional videographer was present throughout the ethnographies, and we were able to create an immersive summary video reel to share with internal stakeholders. By creating this video deliverable, the brand was able to share learnings across the organisation to cultivate deep-rooted customer empathy and understanding. In addition to video deliverables, there are various ways that organisations can replicate ethnographies for internal stakeholders to continue their learning like immersive spaces.

While other quantitative or qualitative research methods allow you to gain valuable and impactful insights, ethnography stands out as one of the most effective ways of gaining an authentic view into consumer conversations. By actively participating in and observing a person’s real-life experiences, you uncover insights that traditional methods often miss. Because consumers today have vastly different experiences, getting closer to your consumers is foundational for whatever your strategic objectives you have.



Ready to do what matters?

Let’s connect