Ethnographic Consumer Research: A Cultural Marketing Tactic to Enhance Consumer Insight

Guest post by: Dr. David S.B. Butler

Culture influences consumer behavior and should not be overlooked by Digital Marketers (Chaffey 2005). Raw numbers produced by Digital Analytics reports do not account for the subtleties of cultural understanding. “By providing contextual information about consumers, cultural market research sets the stage for strategically targeted marketing, and it is the foundation for online promotional content” (Butler: 2012). Understanding the culture of customers is fundamental to traditional brick and mortar marketing and is equally important online. The culture of online consumers should be embodied in promotional content that is consistent with their cultural expectations.

Culture is the unit of analysis for (and is traditionally studied by) Anthropologists.  Reports designed to explain cultural behavior are known as ethnographies (which are the result of ethnographic research). Conventional ethnographic studies were crafted by Anthropologists who often traveled afar to observe the cultural groups they studied. In the nineteenth and twentieth century, the typical ethnography which involved direct observation of and often times direct participation in cultural activity took around a year of daily data collection. The traditional ethnography process was time-consuming but it was designed that way to minimize bias and maximize understanding of human behavior. Traditional ethnographers lived with members of the culture they were studying and took copious notes about all daily household activities as well as shared, group cultural events. Therefore, through the lens of Anthropology, culture has been explained through an analysis called an ethnographic study (the results of which are called an ethnography).

Today, there are more efficient manifestations of ethnography designed to study consumers in contemporary urban environments and enhance marketing effectiveness by collecting consumer information within a given cultural context. These present-day marketing applications of ethnographic studies are known collectively as Ethnographic Market Research (EMR).  “Ethnographic market research has its roots in the social science discipline of anthropology, where it has long been used to gather information on human societies and cultures” (Burrows: 2014).  Shear explains that “Ethnographic market research (EMR) helps companies understand the consumer in terms of cultural trends, lifestyle factors, attitudes and how social context influences product selection and usage.” (January 2019).

Jones suggests that Ethnography can be applied to “create personas and improve website user experience and usability” (2019). Therefore, it should be noted that, in addition to influencing the creation of consumer personas, ethnography can also be applied toward design and usability studies. The foundation of ethnographic research is a non-biased observation of behavior where and when it normally occurs as a part of everyday life (rather than in a controlled environment such as a laboratory). When conducting EMR, observation of consumer behavior associated with consumption or purchasing behavior transpires where it takes place (normally at a place of business or at one’s residence).  Research studies conducted at a site away from a consumer’s home “…take place wherever the consumer is utilizing the product or service — in a restaurant, store, office or even car. Conducting place-based research allows the researcher to interview and observe as the behavior is carried out and provides an opportunity for follow-up questions as needed” (Shear 2019).

Shear explains that “In-home EMR sessions are similar to on-site events, but are limited to the home environment. They can include one or multiple family members, and often last for several hours. The researcher is immersed in the home environment and observes, asks questions and listens to obtain insight into consumer trends, reactions, problems. Consumers go about solving those product or service-based dilemmas. In-home sessions provide businesses with insight into how to improve products, what new items are needed and how changing needs affect usage.” (2019).

Digital consumer personas are created by evaluating a number of variables that establish groups of consumers based on shared characteristics. One significant element related to deciphering the most accurate consumer personas is accounting for behavior within the culture they represent.  Rather than assuming that consumer behavior influencing the consumption of products and services is the same across cultures, (whether marketing in a multi-cultural society or conducting international marketing) it is better for you and your clients to incorporate cultural insight gained through EMR into your Cultural Marketing strategy.


Jones, Robert, “How Ethnography can help Improve UX” (April 19, 2019)

“Ethnographic Marketing Research: 101” (InterQ, Transformative Consumer Insights Blog)

Burrows, David, “How to use Ethnography for in-depth Consumer Insight” (May 9, 2014)

Butler, David, “Cultural Targeting: The Key to Online Consumer Receptivity” (May 25, 2012)

Chaffey, David (editor), “Internet Marketing: Strategy, Implementation and Practice” (2009), Prentice Hall.

Faulkner, Rebecca and Laurence Parkes, “Why context matters: the power of Ethnography in Design” (September 25, 2018)

Lomas, Fiona, “Understanding the Impact of Culture on Marketing Content” (March 19, 2019)

Shear, Jessica, “What is Ethnographic Research Marketing?” (2019)