Without people watching, life would be pretty dull and empty of many innovations that we come to rely on. Just take the humble masking tape.

In the 1920’s Richard Drew, an engineer at 3M was watching workers at a car assembly plant use his company’s sandpaper. At the time, everybody was after a two-tone car (the roaring 20’s am I right!?) and Drew noticed that the workers were struggling to use newspaper to shield parts of the car when the second colour was applied. Watching this struggle sparked an idea… and that idea was masking tape.

This type of observation could now be called ethnography, the act of observing people in a specific environment to understand their experiences, perspectives and everyday practices. Ethnography is the primary research tool for Anthropologists but can also be used by brands and businesses to better understand their audiences.

Understanding audiences

Ethnography allows you to get under the surface of things that people struggle to explain. We used digital ethnography for TikTok to uncover a number of pain points that needed addressing for the 18-34 target audience. We found that not only did people struggle to understand the app, but many thought it wasn’t ‘for them’. To increase relevance, we created a campaign that focused on three key areas the audience regularly talked about: Fashion, Health & Fitness and Food. We had content created for each vertical, identified influencers and used relevant channels and environments to appeal to them.

Solving big problems

Burglary and robbery is a big problem in the UK, costing Britain around £9.5 billion a year. ​To try and tackle this mammoth issue, the home office conducted ethnographic research with the very people that create the problem: offenders. The research found that offenders often thought their victims were so careless that they deserved to be robbed. This insight inspired the campaign , “Don’t advertise your stuff to thieves”, encouraging potential victims to be more aware of their own behaviour and take effective preventative measures. During the campaign, the UK recorded 698,000 fewer crimes saving to the taxpayer around £1.3 billion.

Addressing the ‘say do’ gap

Although other research methodologies including focus groups and other types of qualitative research have their benefits, they often come with an unavoidable pitfall: the huge gap between what people say they do vs. what they actually do (the say do gap). Ethnography can fill this gap. When developing a new communications plan, the Lotto conducted ethnographic research to delve deeper into player motivations. The research revealed that although people said they played to win, the thing that many actually enjoyed the most was the play itself; the feeling of anticipation when they buy their ticket, the feeling of excitement when they are about to check the results, etc. This insight was used to inform the creative #pleasenotthem which played on these feelings of anticipation rather than their long used ‘jackpot dreaming’ narrative.

Ethnography can get under the surface of claimed behaviour, unearthing actions and reactions that people might not even be aware of themselves. Adding ethnography to your planning can help you better understand your audiences and their experiences. And you never know, you might just use it to invent the next masking tape.

Want to know more? Get in touch with our team today.

Ella Britton - Strategist

Author:Ella Britton - Strategist

Ella studied Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science and got her Masters in Anthropology at SOAS. At Behave, Ella works across a number of FMCG, Entertainment and Travel clients and has worked on a number of exciting new business pitches.