Consumers in the Mist

Mad Ave.'s anthropologists are unearthing our secrets

The 60-ish woman caught on the grainy videotape is sitting on her hotel bed, addressing her husband after a long day spent on the road. "Good job!" she exults. "We beat the s___ out of the front desk and got a terrific room."

No, this wasn't an FBI sting operation. Instead, the couple was part of the latest effort by marketers to figure out what consumers really think about their products. By paying regular folks a nominal fee to let them into their homes, their cars, even their hotel rooms, marketers are hoping to learn the kind of detail that just doesn't emerge from focus groups. Calling it ethnographic or observational research, agencies are sending anthropologists and other trained observers into the field and the screening room to chart the hidden recesses of consumer behavior.

For Best Western International Inc., which last spring paid 25 over-55 couples to tape themselves on cross-country journeys, the effort convinced the hotel chain that it didn't need to boost its standard 10% senior citizen discount. The tapes showed that seniors who talked the hotel clerk into a better deal didn't need the lower price to afford the room; they were after the thrill of the deal. Instead of attracting new customers, bigger discounts would simply allow the old customers to trade up to a fancier dinner down the street somewhere; doing absolutely nothing for Best Western. "The degree of discount clearly isn't what it used to be in importance--and we got that right out of the research," says Tom Dougherty, manager of programs, promotions, and partnerships for the Phoenix-based chain.

The technique is hardly new. Nissan Motor Co., for example, redesigned its Infiniti car in the early 1990s after anthropologists helped it see that Japanese notions of luxury-as-simplicity were very different from Americans' yen for visible opulence. A few years later, Volkswagen's ad agency, Arnold Communications, used the approach to reposition the brand toward active users with its "Drivers wanted" campaign.

These days, plenty of other companies are hiring anthropologists who are trained to observe without changing the outcome. Though often more expensive than traditional focus groups, ethnographic research is quickly becoming a standard agency offering. At Avrett Free & Ginsberg, a midsize New York shop, 9 out of 15 large clients have opted for the service, compared with just a handful a couple of years ago, says director of cultural insights Timothy Malefyt.

It's not hard to see why. As products mature and differences in quality diminish, marketers are anxious to hook into subtle emotional dimensions that might give them an edge. This up-close approach can also help marketers figure out how different ethnic and demographic groups react to their products, especially important in a fragmenting marketplace. "Knowing the individual consumer on an intimate basis has become a necessity. And ethnography is the intimate connection to the consumer," says Bill Abrams, founder of Housecalls, a New York consultancy that worked on the Best Western effort.

Among the latest converts are technology companies that have grown tired of seeing their engineers design products with whiz-bang gimmickry that doesn't always fill an actual consumer need. 3Com Corp. was determined to avoid that trap with Audrey, launched in October, as the first in its Ergo line of Internet appliances. Audrey was supposed to ease access to e-mail, the Internet, and an electronic calendar. To make sure it turned out that way, 3Com spent four months videotaping 64 households in three cities to see exactly how they used existing devices--from pad and paper to PCs--to organize their days. A crucial insight: It took, on average, an hour and 10 minutes between the time consumers decided to use their PCs and the time they actually logged on, meaning PC use was treated as a planned activity. By contrast, they used their Palm handhelds more like a tool, logging on less than 10 seconds after making the decision. Designing Audrey to be more like a tool than an activity became an overriding goal, says Ray Winninger, product development director for Internet appliances.

Ethnographic insights can help even with more humdrum products. By videotaping consumers in the shower, plumbing fixture maker Moen Inc. uncovered safety risks--such as the habit of some women who were shaving their legs of holding on with their free hand to one unit's temperature control. Uncovering such design flaws by simply asking questions is almost impossible. "In many ways, these become unarticulated needs," says Jack Suvak, director of marketing research at the North Olmsted (Ohio)-based manufacturer.

DIGGING DEEP. Indeed, focus groups, though still huge in the research arsenal, have many limitations. Stronger personalities can wield undue influence, and participants often won't admit in public--or may not even recognize--their behavior patterns and motivations. Focus groups, for example, told Best Western that men decide when to pull off the highway and where to stay. The videotapes proved it was usually the women. For some hard-to-reach classes of consumers, any regimented setting may restrict their responsiveness. "If you want to learn about preteens, you have to see them in their natural environment, not a research lab they see as alien," says Hy Mariampolski, president of QualiData Research, a New York-based ethnographic research firm.

Best Western captured such a wealth of customer behavior on tape that it has delayed its marketing plan in order to weave the insights into its core strategy. "The process definitely opened our eyes," says Dougherty. Unfortunately for seniors, that means the rooms won't be getting any cheaper.

By Gerry Khermouch in New York

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