Definition of ethnographic market research

This is a systematic market research observing customers in their own environment using products and services.  This is useful for exploring how existing products and services are used and for spotting opportunities for breakthrough innovations. The key characteristics of ethnographic market research are:

  • In-depth visits to customers’ locations;
  • Collection of multiple types of qualitative data: including videos of product usage, and answers to contextual interviews.  These are interviews conducted in the customer’s environment and asking some prepared questions and some spontaneous ones;
  • Systematic analysis  based on coding (identification of the key issues in qualitative data), looking for contradictions (for example. where a customer says one thing and does another), and identifying the cultural characteristics of the customer segment being investigated.


Through visiting customers in their homes, companies can gain powerful insights into real product requirements. For instance, Panasonic used ethnographic market research to probe requirements for an electric shaver for women.  By recording the grooming behaviour of women in their research, the company was able to develop an ergonomic design with the right colours and style to fit the US market.

This product, named the Lady Shaver, needed to be significantly different to shavers developed for the Japanese market. The in-depth market knowledge generated by ethnographic techniques made it possible to identify the product features that were specific to the US market.

The Japanese market required high gloss white, as this is associated, in that culture, with quality. US women perceived gloss/white as slippery (especially for a product that is sometimes used in the shower) and preferred pastel colours with a rubberised (non slip) finish. Use of rubber surfaces on the product for the US also underlined the waterproof nature of the shaver in the customer’s mind.

Ethnographic market research can also be applied to B2B products and services. [1]

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