Would you consider it unethical to give a sizable donation to the PTA in exchange for members of the organization to test a product that is slated to be launched? That’s what the marketing director for Bissell, Erich Pagel, did when he was faced with conducting market research on a new cleaning machine in just one month.
Pagel had no room to maneuver in his market research budget. He could not afford to conduct traditional focus groups with all their attendant travel costs. And considering this market research was essentially a product test, hands-on consumer feedback was essential. A large-scale quantitative market research project was out of the question, both in terms of his budget constraints and the practical aspect of putting the new cleaning machine to work on floors in the homes of consumers.
Twenty PTA parents took the Steam Gun home and put it to use. They kept a diary over the two week period that Pagel turned them loose with the new cleaning machine. After two or three weeks, Pagel visited the PTA parent-testers in their homes and observed them interacting with the Steam Gun. Pagel gained important insights about the product potential and about what consumers saw as the strengths and weaknesses of the Steam Gun.
At this time, circa 1997, American consumers did not hold much faith in steam cleaning. The PTA parent-product testers wanted to know how they could use chemicals with the Steam Gun. Take-away number one: Europeans are more interested in steam cleaning; Americans are more interested in cleaning with chemicals. Americans would need to be educated on the whole concept of cleaning with just very hot water. The actionable consumer insight? Come up with a USA-friendly product name.
The product name Steam Gun was a problem from another perspective, as well. Youngsters – particularly boys – took to the Steam Gun for all the wrong reasons. It seems that the boys viewed the Steam Gun as a perfect weapon for annihilating their siblings – particularly younger siblings, particularly sisters. One memorable observation demonstrated the inherent problem with the concept. Picture the older sibling in en guarde position, warning the younger sibling, Freeze, or I’ll melt your face off!
But the Steam Gun - when not pointed at siblings - proved to be an extremely accurate weapon against dirt and germs. Serious house-cleaners pointed the Steam Gun at hard-to-reach spots and blasted away at grime and soap scum, to good effect. Take-away number two: Too many brush attachments confused the Steam Gun operators. The actionable consumer insight? Color code the tools to the task.
The Steam Gun became Steam N’ Clean. An infomercial (remember that these were prevalent before everyone made videos on everything) was produced that showed women cleaning their homes with the Steam N’ Clean. The infomercial voice-overs emphasized the importance of using super-hot steam to rid a household of filth and germs. For three years, this infomercial aired on widely different cable networks such as the Comedy Channel and HGTV.
When Does an Ethnographic Approach to Market Research Work Best?
Ethnographic research approaches are quite adaptable, but that doesn’t mean that they are applicable to every market research need. When can you go the shoestring research way?
- When business risk is low.
- When the product category is well-known.
- When differences across markets or regions are minimal.
- When access to special consumer types are not necessary.
- When the product category is not recently new.
The reason an ethnographic approach works so well, according to John Winsor, who is the founder of Radar Communication and an expert in observational research, is that it focuses on listening outside the walls of the company..If you are interested in how to conduct ethnographic research on your own, why not bring up the topic in the market research forum?
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