Feature: Watch and Learn

Frontier Airlines’ fleet of planes, with their tail fins that feature renderings of cats, rabbits and foxes, often draws a crowd of gawkers at Denver International Airport. This phenomenon likely would have gone unnoticed if not for researchers from Sterling-Rice Group, who watched passengers (with their consent) as they made their way around the airport.

While focus groups had shown that customers did associate Frontier with the animals, seeing the joy with which parents pointed out the critters to their kids was particularly revealing. “It didn’t resonate fully until we saw that,” says Rick Sterling, president of the Boulder, Colo., branding agency. “They talked about Frontier’s planes in a playful way, almost like [they were] a teddy bear.”

That finding was parlayed into a TV and print campaign that broke in May out of Ericsson Fina, New York, showing animated versions of Frontier’s animals trading barbs.

Could marketers have crafted a similar campaign through focus group research? Probably not. The crucial nugget was unearthed by observing consumer behavior in a natural environment, a growing discipline known as ethnography that borrows its techniques from the science of anthropology and allows marketers to study consumers in their everyday habitats. As marketers report growing dissatisfaction with the focus group medium, ethnography is looked to by some as a research panacea.

While some companies dabbled with ethnography in the ’80s, the trend took off in the last decade, with a spike in the last five years. Microsoft, MTV, S.C. Johnson and Procter & Gamble, among others, are confirmed converts. In a September study of 60 marketing executives by RoperASW in New York, 54 percent said they had used ethnography in the course of their careers, and 33 percent had used it in the past year.

But in a demanding marketplace that spawns products and campaigns in less time than ever, focus groups are still seen as a tried-and-true way to get lightning-fast responses to new ideas. Marketers’ spending on focus group research is expected to rise 3.8 percent to $1.09 billion this year, according to Inside Research, a Barrington, Ill., industry tracking report.

Detractors say focus groups don’t delve deep enough into the parameters of any given topic and point to a range of ethnography success stories. For example, using ethnography, Whirlpool discovered that many consumers don’t want to wait for their dishwashers to fill up before running the machine. So the company’s Kitchen Aid unit introduced a smaller version earlier this year called Briva.

Back in 1999-2000, Eastman Kodak sought to determine how consumers in the 18-24 demo use disposable cameras. After setting up his video cameras in a college dorm, Bill Abrams, president of the consultancy Housecalls, New York, found that coeds tend to pass the camera around to different people and go in on the cost of developing the film. The camera also recorded one student taking a photo of a sleeping friend. In ads from Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, that broke soon after, Kodak showed similar youth behavior with the camera and included a shot of a kid photographing a sleeping buddy.

Asked whether a focus group would have produced that kind of colorful anecdote, Abrams is adamant. “No way,” he says. “We might have gotten the idea about the group using the camera, but not that.”

Another illustration involves Duracell’s hearing- aid batteries. Videotapes showed that people struggled to remove a tab from the battery, often dropping it in the process. One woman spent 15 minutes trying to remove the tag. Last year Duracell introduced a product with a longer tab, called Easy Tab.

By and large, such findings elude focus groups. “It’s the difference between sitting you in a room and asking about your coffee habits and following you around for a week to see how you really drink coffee,” says Robbie Blinkoff, principal anthropologist and managing partner at Baltimore research firm Context.

The litany of complaints regarding focus groups is familiar: Stronger personalities influence the weaker ones in the group; participants just tell interviewers what they want to hear; to make a living out of participating, “panel whores” misrepresent themselves to get in; and the setting itself is unnatural. And while 95 percent of participants in RoperASW’s study said they had used traditional focus groups during the past year, many were also critical of them.

“The recruiting has to be dead on,” noted Nike Golf marketing manager Sara Killeen in one statement from the report. “When we’ve had nightmares, it was due to the loose recruiting by the research company. It was a complete waste.”

Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy and founder of New York-based behavioral research firm Envirosell, recalls how a package-design firm wowed a focus group with a colorful point-of-purchase display. But the display was lost in a sea of colors when it later appeared at a retail store. “What most of us have realized is that the tools of 20th-century marketing don’t work as well as they used to,” he says. “I wouldn’t suggest that the focus group as a tool is obsolete, but it’s often incorrectly applied.”

Underhill cites a claim that two-thirds of store purchases are spontaneous. “I can stand in the parking lot and ask people about brands, but it’s irrelevant,” he says.

Focus groups rejected ATMs, the Sony Walkman and the Seinfeld pilot—and cheered New Coke. In How Customers Think, Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman notes that 80 percent of new products fail despite their endorsement by focus groups. Even Christine Farber, who runs focus group firm InGather in Denver, admits the method has shortcomings. “Focus groups are more at the beginning than at the end,” she says. “If people are basing decisions off of focus group research, well, you don’t want to go there.”

Defenders say the 80 percent figure does not account for the mass of ideas that the groups reject, which never see the light of day. Moreover, the focus group is usually one of several research methods used to test a product or idea. “It’s still the most cost-effective, quickest, dirtiest way to get information in rapid time on an idea,” says Hayes Roth, marketing vp for consultancy Landor Associates, New York.

Sociologist Robert Merton developed the first focus group in 1941, and it has become a standard tool in a marketer’s arsenal. Yet ever since the ’50s, marketers have recognized the need to build on focus group findings. So-called motivation researchers have borrowed techniques from psychology, co-opting the Rorschach test (ink blots), the thematic apperception test (respondents pick photos to express their feelings) and even hypnosis, all of which was documented in Vance Packard’s 1957 best-seller The Hidden Persuaders.

In Housecalls, Abrams formed one of the first firms devoted to ethnography, in 1983. At the time, he was a creative director. After watching PBS’ 1973 series An American Family, which chronicled the travails of the real-life Loud family, he had an epiphany and began videotaping consumers on their home turf. “I was doing it for two years, and someone told me I was an ethnographer,” he says. “I didn’t know what that meant.”

Young & Rubicam, New York, was one of Abrams’ earliest rivals, first venturing into people’s homes to see how they enjoyed Breyer’s ice cream. Now the field is more crowded. In the late ’90s, MTV earned notice for an ethnographic study in which 72 teens were videotaped watching the channel. The network even brought kids to a home in Long Island, N.Y., where bedrooms were made over for the purpose of taping the subjects as they hung out, ate and watched TV. The study revealed, among other things, that viewers preferred MTV’s non-music programming.

Colleen Fahey-Rush, svp of research for MTV’s VH1 and CMT channels, says ethnography also has proved a reliable way to gauge tastes in music. “When people are in a focus group, they might stretch things and say they like all kinds of music, like jazz and opera, but when you go to their homes and in their cars, you see what they really listen to,” she says.

Also in the late ’90s, Procter & Gamble began filming about 80 households around the world to see how each interacted with P&G products. (P&G execs declined to outline the results of that study.)

Microsoft is also a believer, with an internal five-person ethnography department. One recent insight was about how families use its MSN Internet service. One feature lets parents see what sites their kids have visited and for how long; kids are not actually blocked from any sites. Ethnographers found that many parents ignored the feature because it was under the “parental controls” heading. Explains Anne Cohen Kiel, lead designer for Microsoft’s anthropological group, “There’s a huge population of parents who’d see ‘parental controls’ and freak out, saying, ‘I don’t want to control my kids.’ ” In the next version of MSN, the feature will be under a “safety and security” heading.

While some companies, such as Microsoft, handle the research in-house, and agencies including McCann-Erickson and TBWA\ Chiat\Day have their own ethnographers, most of the work is done by third parties like New York’s Housecalls and Qualidata, and Jump Associates in San Mateo, Calif. Context’s Blinkoff says he’s seeing students pursue anthropology degrees specifically to go into marketing. “I don’t think 15 years ago [ethnography] had the support it has now,” says Blinkoff, who wrote his dissertation on hunter-gatherers in Papua, New Guinea.

Of course, anthropologists like Blinkoff don’t consider market research to be true ethnography. Blinkoff calls it “Margaret Mead on speed” for its relatively quick turnaround. “They have months and months,” says Ben Grill, research consultant with Sachs Insight, New York, of traditional ethnographers. “We have a month. It’s not Jane Goodall watching gorillas.”

Or maybe it is about watching gorillas. Underhill says the difference between The Hidden Persuaders era and 2003 is that marketers have gone from leading to following. “They’re all chasing that 800-pound gorilla, the American consumer, wherever they choose to go,” he says.

Not everyone is sold on the technique. “Ethnography does have something to offer in terms of getting out and actually seeing people,” says Judith Langer, director of RoperASW’s Roper/Langer Qualitative division. “But I heard one study revealed that men like barbecuing because it makes them feel macho. Couldn’t you get that from a focus group?”

Indeed, ethnography suffers from many of the same pitfalls as focus groups: The people conducting the study may not be adept at the task; the subjects may not be on the level; and, perhaps most important, the researchers may not know what to do with the reams of data they collect. Ethnography is also more costly, on average, than focus groups. Studies often involve about 21 respondents, who get $75-150 for a one- or two-hour session. Focus groups pay eight or nine people about $75 each.

Meanwhile, firms that conduct focus group studies are starting to address their shortcomings. Within InGather’s 9,000-square-foot complex, for instance, are nine rooms that can simulate anything from a bar to a courtroom (for shadow juries). “If you’re Sony and doing research on PlayStation, why are we putting kids at a conference table? Shouldn’t that kid be slouched in a living room chair?” asks Farber.

If Farber’s methods—which include an idea to re-create an Oprah-type show in one of InGather’s auditoriums—are successful, that may have the curious effect of making the technique less useful. Where’s the edge if everyone is using the same adaptable focus groups and if following consumers around their homes and on their shopping trips is the norm?

But as with any research method, including focus groups, the devil is in the details. “It’s a question of how well you do it,” says Dev Patnaik of Jump Associates. “Are you seeing the world with new eyes, or are you looking at it with the same old blinders on?”