Ethnographic Research

Ethnography for market research

Ethnography, in the way we employ it at CarterJMRN in Japan, is an immersive style of interviewing and studying consumers that occurs at the places in which they live their daily lives. Ethnography lives in the family of qualitative research approaches that includes the tried and true methodologies of in-depth interviews and focus groups.

Ethnography at CarterJMRN

In his book The Ethnographic Interview, anthropologist James Spradley explained ethnography in terms of what a researcher seeks: “I want to understand the world from your point of view. I want to know what you know in the way you know it. I want to understand the meaning of your experience, to walk in your shoes, to feel things as you feel them, to explain things as you explain them. Will you become my teacher and help me understand?”

Opportunities for discussion and learning

In contrast to those methodologies in which consumers are invited into purpose-built venues with magic mirrors, ethnographic research can take place anywhere – in retail outlets, restaurants, bars, homes, gyms, convenience stores and other locations. These settings provide an innumerable number of opportunities for discussion and learning far beyond those found in the classic research ‘lab’ as the research is taking place where consumers are utilizing the product. Sessions can last several hours and immersed in the environment, researchers observe and listen to understand preferences, reactions and problems that consumers experience. New technologies further opened up the possibility of virtual ethnography sessions: Conducted online, they require participants to carry out tasks over a period of days or weeks and to report on them in essay style or film or photograph themselves during the task.

You don’t know what you don’t know

 Ethnography truly comes into its own, however, as a tool for early-stage exploratory research that provides a deep foundation of learning upon which other methodologies can build. In a situation where ‘we don’t know what we don’t know’, ethnography provides new avenues for discovering and understanding the parameters of consumer preferences and behavior.

Understanding Japanese consumers

We recommend it when our clients know little about the Japanese consumer context in their given category, or when it is clear they need a much deeper and foundational consumer understanding to resolve the challenge or realise the opportunity they are facing.


There is a significant observational component to the ethnography process. Spending time in a consumer’s environment and actively observing provides a wealth of clues to the needs and priorities of that person and people like them. The observation sparks learning in areas that may be so routine and obvious that they rarely come up in formal focus groups.


For example, work we have done in skincare has shown us that Japanese women go through many more steps than American women do when applying skin products. They “pat” – they do not rub – products onto and into their skin, and their use and perceived role of foam in skin cleansing is completely different to westerners. Their routines and rituals are also heavily influenced by how much space they have to store products.


This information is so habitual, so ‘common-sense’ for them that it may not come up outside of the place it occurs. In a culture like Japan’s where people may not spontaneously proffer information, the environment in which the interview is conducted provides rich cues for a more ranging discussion with the respondent. In the case of skincare, by visiting consumers’ homes and observing them throughout their skincare routine, we could clearly see these nuanced behaviors.

‘A-ha moment’

The value-add of ethnography is especially impactful when our clients accompany us on the interviews. Interestingly, we find our Japanese clients get as much if not more out of the encounters than our international clients. However, it is not uncommon for our international friends to see or hear something during the process that leads to an ‘a-ha’ moment where something seemingly unintuitive that they have been told about the market starts to make sense. During ethnography sessions, consumers tend to be more open and honest in their answers. During one life observation study, researchers found that people washed their hands much less frequently than they told the researchers just before, which surprised both the consumers themselves and our team. Ethnography can be an invaluable tool to find contradictions between what people say they do and what they actually do.

Early stage learning

Without the knowledge that ethnography can bring, it can sometimes be very challenging to understand the results that come from ‘cold’ testing imported marketing propositions and concepts. Disappointing results from the Japan market (which usually requires at least some degree of adaptation) can be avoided by early stage learning that will both help you to adapt your concept and help to place feedback from consumers in context.

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