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Darla Moore School of Business


Business ethnography gives students deeper insight into customer behavior

June 27, 2016

Ken Erickson, clinical assistant professor in the Department of International Business at the Moore School, recalls the first time he used his anthropological expertise in the business world. It was for Hallmark.

Erickson, who uses anthropology methods to address product design and marketing issues for global and national businesses, was tapped to solve a problem it was having selling Mother’s Day cards. “They invited me in because Mother’s Day cards weren’t selling very well and they said, ‘Ken, we know people still love their mamas. What’s going on with what we’ve got? What’s happening? How would you approach that?’” he says. “I said, well, I guess I would go shopping with people.”

Anthropologists have long worked in the business world to help it gain insights into human behavior to help businesses thrive. In this case, Erickson went to a Hallmark store with an assistant and a camera, and asked a mother and her 15-year-old daughter if he could join their card shopping experience. Three cards in, the daughter reminded her mom about Mama Lita, the grandmother who needed a card. However, none of Hallmark’s messages fit the family’s relationship with her. Mama Lita was a part of the family, but all of the Mother’s Day cards talked about love, and they didn’t much love Mama Lita. “They had to find a card that respected the occasion and said Happy Mother’s Day, but did not say Happy Mother’s Day, you’re the greatest mom ever; Happy Mothers Day, we love you so much; Happy Mothers Day, we couldn’t live without you, because none of those things were true,” he says. “That card represents a relationship in a very important way to people, and of course that was very clear to Hallmark. But the idea that there are all of these other types of mothers, that intense work was needed to find a card to represent those relationships accurately, wasn’t entirely clear to Hallmark.”

That discovery led to the development of a line called Simply Stated — a new category for cards that recognized the relationship, but in a subtler way. It sold 20 percent of the Mother’s Day line of cards the next year and was also incorporated into the Father’s Day line. “If you want to understand what it is to be human somewhere, how do you do that?” Erickson says. “You might do it in a laboratory — experimental stuff — or look at biology.

Or you can go find out what it means to be a person in that place. So an anthropological approach to business starts with that idea of beginning where people are, putting yourself in the place where things happen, and watching, listening and asking questions there.”

This concept of business ethnography, the method anthropologists use to study other groups and how they live their lives, has proven to be a valuable strategy to delve deeper into the relationship between a brand and those who buy or use products. Marketers tend to look at individual perspective through values or data. this approach is achieved by listening, observing and interpreting customers to help businesses better understand their customers’ true aspirations.

“It’s something that allows you to represent other people’s realities in a way that is somehow faithful to that reality,” he says. “this is particularly relevant in international business. If you go to China or Latin America or Brazil, it’s really easy to say, well, we can measure these values. the data represents what people say, but what are they really doing and how do those things relate to each other, and how does that relate — if you’re a business person — to business outcomes?”

Anthropologists are used in business schools, public health and education, and are often a part of the product research arm of large companies. At the Moore School, the goal is to immerse students in different cultures and try to systematize the skills it takes to live and work in a new environment.

Students learn how to question the assumptions that they have about how life is lived and how business is done, allowing them to get closer to other people’s realities.

To put business ethnography into practice, Erickson says each student in country — from Brazil to France, Mexico, Taiwan, China and Germany — is required to choose a business and work to understand it. Students use the business model canvas, which includes the basic components of every business model as a framework, but also incorporates methods of observing, listening, knowing how to do an interview and knowing how to question their assumptions.

“That’s a tall order for some of these students,” he says. “Some business students want to get answers quickly because they’ve been told business moves fast — you’ve got to have your answers ready and get with it. Well that’s good, but let’s double check that you really understand the scene well enough that you’re asking the right questions. We want them to think, ‘Am I throwing my values in here? Am I wearing my American glasses today or am I cleaning off the lenses well enough that I can kind of see the reality.’”

A huge part of learning for international business students is knowing what it feels like and what it takes to live in another country, Erickson said. Moore School students must learn all of the things involved in living overseas, including how to learn a language, how to get the internet or a cellphone, how to get around and how to deal with cultural barriers.

Business ethnography takes those practices a step further for a deeper understanding of the context in which customers would use a product or service, and the meaning it would hold in their lives. “For students who may end up doing business internationally or across some other kind of cultural boundary in the United States, they have to be comfortable not knowing, and knowing that they may not know all the answers,” he says. “There’s a kind of humility you have to develop to successfully engage across any kind of cultural border.”

By Charlene Slaughter