#headerNav nav .active a:visited, #sidecarNav nav .active a:visited{ color: #000000 !important; }

How well do you know the backstory?

If you want your widget to be chosen, you must further the story line or resolve the dilemma.

I don't buy it that consumers make impulsive decisions. They make quick decisions. They make habitual decisions. They make decisions with very little thought. And they make emotional decisions. But calling it impulse leads people to believe it is a random purchase. There is always a story behind the decision. You must find that story. Then you must fit your product into the narrative in a way that helps the story unfold as the buyer hopes.

Still have questions about the value of consumer ethnography?

My line of work has always been a bit perplexing to people. It is part of the fun of being in such a niche profession. I fantasize that it makes me a bit more like the Dos Equis man—the most interesting man in the world.

Ethnographer Brad Bennett Still confused

Recently I was telling a friend about the many homes I’ve been in and wide array of people I’ve met. Their first comment was, “Wow, you must have some crazy stories.” Yes, I do.

Then they asked, “Do companies really pay you to do research like that? What do they do with it?!”

Yes, they really do pay me. Why? Because it makes them exponentially smarter about their consumer. And the smarter they are about their consumer, the more they can grow their business.

Just like my friends, Marketers and Consumer Insight folks sometimes struggle to understand the value of ethnography. After all, they already know a lot about their consumers. They have survey data, purchasing data, social media data, demographic data, trend data and on and on. They know a lot.

I worked for one of the largest food companies in the world before becoming an ethnographer. I had access to all of that data. I poured over reams of tabled information, thrilled by what I learned about our consumers. But something was missing—something in the white spaces between columns of data.

Not quite human

The learning from the data was like having a perfect skeletal depiction of our consumers, but there was too much blank space. It was not a person. I could not tell what held them together. I could not tell, at a deep level, what caused them to act the way they did. I was baffled by things they did that misaligned with what I expected. My skeletal understanding lacked connective tissue, skin and, most critically, a heart.

Having a deep understanding of humans is critical in business and in life. We would never pick our friends, new hires or spouses based only on their CV or resume, a reference and their social media story. We need to look in their eyes, spend time getting to know them, and observe how they navigate life. Why would we not want that same level of understanding about our consumers—the people most critical to our business success?

Much more than numbers

Skeptics of ethnography often point to the small number of consumers we interview—often only 8, 12 or 20 people. Ethnography is not quantitative research. That is a fair point. Ethnography does not amass volumes of data from thousands of people. That’s not the goal.

We are looking for inner thought processes, subtle behaviors often unknown to the consumer, connections that could never be self-reported and explanations for what we see in quantitative data. 

Over and over I see my clients experience a series of epiphanies as they spend time with consumers. The skeleton of data takes on tissue, muscle, and skin. It begins to make sense. And with a heart, it comes to life.

Want progress? Two paths. You choose.

Most everyone wants to move forward. They want to become a better person. They want to improve their lives. They want to help others improve their lives.

Ethnographer Brad Bennett Yeasayer

I see the desire for progress in my work with consumers. I spend time in their homes and join them on their shopping trips. I see and hear about the little and big steps they take to move forward.

I also see the desire for progress in my clients. They ride with me as we travel from home to home over the course of days. I learn about their families, career goals and ways they hope to help their company and customers.

But progress is hard.

As leadership expert John Maxwell says, “Everything worthwhile is uphill.”

I notice some people progress quickly. I see and hear about the trail they leave behind as they clamber up their hill. I notice others are stuck—looking up rather than moving up. Certainly uncontrollable life circumstances come into play, but there is something wonderful about those making more progress.

Some are Naysayers, some are Yeasayers.

Yeasayers are the ones moving forward. They have extra hope and determination and a twinkle in their smile. Ironically, their momentum means they hit more hurdles than those standing still. Even if Yeasayers’ movement is slowed or stalled, they know they will find the way ahead. They will progress.

We can easily point to the true Yeasayers and Naysayers in our lives. It is a trait that defines them. But most of us are not one or the other. We are all shades of gray and yellow—overcast and sunshine—and sometimes one path is much easier than the other.

Some might think Yeasayers are just yes-women and yes-men, who believe any idea is a good one. They are not. They often say no to things that impede their progress.

Yeasayers are yes-we-will-women and men.

Benjamin Franklin was a Yeasayer. And Martin Luther King Jr. too. Melinda Gates is a Yeasayer and so is Elon Musk. My grandma was a Yeasayer and my father-in-law is too. Almost all of my “innovation” clients are Yeasayers.

It is a choice.

Yeasayer or Naysayer? Which are you choosing today? And tomorrow?

Is anyone else confused by the decisions others are making these days?

Ethnographer Brad Bennett - Why finder

Sometimes in my ethnographic interviews with consumers I find myself shocked at the behavior I observe. It is hard to imagine why people do what they do.

I bet you experience this as well—with your boss, coworkers, client or customers.

How could they possibly have that point of view? Why are they so far behind in their thinking? How can they be so off base? Don’t they know the internet (or my client) has an answer for that?

These questions that sweep through our minds are judgements. They are not questions that prompt curiosity or further exploration. They close our minds.

But I thought I was open minded…

It happens in a flash. I have found I am often unaware it has happened until it manifests as smugness, self-righteousness, or indignation. Thud. Mind closed.

We bring a subtle yet significant assumption to this type of thinking that needs to be challenged. The assumption is that we all started this race with our toes equally at the starting line and some people just haven’t given it their best effort.

But could it be they started a few steps behind us or maybe many steps behind us? Maybe they were never shown the starting line or taught how to race. Maybe they started too fast and had to walk or something crossed their path that knocked them down. Or maybe they weren’t given the abilities that we were.

Why-finder shuts off

I am preoccupied with why people do what they do. It is my occupation and my hobby. When I sense in myself a twinge of smugness, I become alarmed because I know my why-finder has shut off.

I have developed ways to keep this from happening. For example, I often say to myself, “If I were given their DNA, raised by their parents, in that region and given the same limitations and hardships, I would make the same choices.” It’s true, I would.

When I practice this self-talk, something happens; something more than just sympathy or empathy. Compassion happens. My mind opens, and my heart too. I begin to understand why they do things differently than me and I begin to find ways I can act on their behalf.

Let’s face it, if you are reading this post it is very likely you were given a head start. You started with an advantage—a genetic, geographic, parental, gender, ethnic or race advantage.

When we find ourselves frustrated by the decisions others are making, maybe it is actually our thinking that is off base.  

Experiment: Can one word make a difference?

Lately I’ve been experimenting with one of the world’s most powerful words: Happy.

Here’s how my experiment goes.

Setting: I approach another person. For now just imagine it is the checkout person at Target.

Me: Hi. How are you today? (The setup)

Them: Fine. And you? (Obligatory response)

Me: I’m happy. (Game changer)

They always, always break stride. They look up. They smile, maybe giggle. And then they say:

—    You know? Me too!

—    Nobody has ever said that to me before.

—    That’s cool.

—    Thank you.

It’s guaranteed we both leave the exchange a bit more upbeat. A little bit changed. Yes, happier.

I’m not making my happiness up. Even on my saddest or most discouraging days, I can step into a brief moment of happiness. I’m happy that Target carries my favorite Altoids Arctic Curiously Cool Peppermint mints and I get to go home with them.

Give it a try today—with a clerk, the drive-through person, your boss, your client or a colleague—and let me know what happens.

Any suggestions for another powerful word to experiment with?