© Jurica Koletić

Decoding human behaviour with ethnographic methods at STURM und DRANG

Discovering the unconscious

Human interaction in the world of business, that’s a difficult thing. On the one hand, there are the companies that decide for a standardized type of customer relationship by acting comparably emotionless, in order to control recommendations for action and touchpoint management as efficiently as possible. On the other hand, companies need to address the irrational side of human beings with their far more unconscious and inconsistent decisions. Even though we are not consciously aware, we are carrying fields of tension in ourselves which lead to the fact that a large difference develops between what we say, what we think – and how we act finally.

Every one of us is familiar with these situations: We have all been fighting out these small inner conflicts before, for example when aiming to do “good” things, e.g. preventing the destruction of the rainforest by purchasing sustainably produced goods. But after a long office day, we enjoy the convenience and full product range of normal supermarkets. Ethnographic approaches help us to understand these areas of ambiguity and to develop appropriate “human strategies”. In my trendletter, I offer insights into our methodological toolkit and show why ethnography is currently much in vogue.

#1 How do we work with ethnography?

My colleague Inga Nandzik gives an insight into her latest project and how she puts ethnography into practice:

For a client in the pharmaceutical industry, the aim was to gain a deeper understanding of the beliefs and goals of a target group in relation to a product category. We wanted to understand how they express themselves in behaviour and decisions. The findings were to be used to sharpen brand positioning and brand presence. To this end, we supplemented the more classical ethnographic approach of ‘in-home visits’ with ‘mobile self-ethnography’. Over ten days, the participants documented their experiences and personal perspectives through written contributions, photos, films and video statements. This approach allowed us to scale the ‘time’ with the participants and dive into their real-life contexts, at home, on the road, at the POS. The combination of diary-like self-observation, as well as indirect and creative questions, made it possible to identify the central moments of the consumer experience and the corresponding ‘jobs to be done’ for product and brand. Complemented by a semiotic analysis of the category, the results led to the finalisation of the repositioning, a specific campaign briefing to the agency and the development of a Consumer Journey for the alignment of marketing measures.

#2 Getting in touch – our ethnographic toolkit

In order to decode the hidden patterns of behaviour and interaction of consumers, we at STURM und DRANG draw on the scientifically established patterns of ethnographic research and translate them anew. We use the observation and analysis processes of interactionist ethnography with its focus on precisely these human behavioural patterns. When we conduct ethnographic research, we dedicate ourselves to the social practices, i.e. mechanisms, symbolisms or language games that people have negotiated in their dealings with others. The sociologist Michael Dellwing speaks of research that constructs an “order of practices”. It offers the opportunity to decipher a lived normality of the respective group – in this case, this can be certain customer bases, purchasing situations, but also company working groups, departments or even an entire corporate structure.

What do our ethnographic methods look like in practice? I present some of our proven formats.

In-home interviews are based on the classical method of participant observation. We visit people in their private environment and thus participate in their world. In addition to classic interview conversations, we go on a house safari with the participant, for example, play around in situations, stick on relevant things and places in the home and even involve other family members. In-Homes are interactive, playful and offer us the opportunity to generate insights that would never be visible in a laboratory atmosphere. We have documented such an approach in our project about the future of kitchens here.

In work-alongs, we accompany employees to their workplace. This approach is often combined with in-homes or individual interviews. It is based on ethnographic methods that require observation of the environment, behaviour (interactions) and other relevant things (disturbances, irritations, etc.). In this way, we get to know the processes and structures that usually do not arise in simple conversations.

Online communities are closed digital platforms on which lead users (participants recruited by us with cultural “pioneer thinking”), employees or experts (Delphi) work together on various issues. For this purpose, we moderate and, usually over a closed period of time, provide daily changing creative tasks, which are fulfilled by the participants. Tasks can be, for example, collections on digital pinboards, self-created image collages or discussion rooms that function like typical social media channels. Community participants are invited to illustrate their contributions with self-created image and video material. This allows us to creatively generate deep insights, test concepts and develop ideas together.

#3 Deep Insights through Ethnography

Ethnography can hence offer a real added value – because as one of my favourite quotes puts it:

People don’t think how they feel, don’t say what they think and don’t do what they say.” David Ogilvy

We are observing it every single day and in all our projects: humans are highly irrational beings. We are convinced, that you can’t avoid ethnographic methods if you take customer-centricity seriously. And we are not alone with this opinion: Ethnography is currently experiencing an upswing, as the Research & Results journal confirms. This is also due to the complexity of identities and individual values, which are constantly in flux. In this way, ethnographic face-to-face methods can provide in-depth insights that lead to a genuine understanding of complex target groups. Here you can find the article online (in German).