What You Don't Know About Your Customers Could Fill a Stadium

What makes a brand compelling? Logos, taglines and marketing shape perceptions, but a brand’s essence exists in consumers’ minds. Understanding this reality was Oliver Sweet’s path to leading ethnography studies at global research firm Ipsos MORI.

Ethnography means “writing about people”. By embedding with target groups to observe real behaviors, Sweet uncovers insights surveys miss and debunks assumptions. As he explains, “There can be a discrepancy between what people tell us in a well-intentioned manner, and what they actually end up doing.”

Getting Inside People’s Worlds

Early in Sweet’s career, a youth program struggled despite providing activities they believed would appeal to troublesome teenage boys. Sweet shadowed these boys through their evenings, realising “the reason they were out on the street wasn't because they wanted to play video games, it was because they were essentially following the girls.” Where girls congregated, boys followed in hopes of interacting with them.

The centers expected playing pool and PlayStation would attract boys. However the actual “job to be done” for these boys was facilitating mixed gender socialising. Once centers began programming for girls first, boys engaged more constructively.

Asking the Right Questions

Such insights emerge from open-ended inquiry about people’s lives, not grilling them about products. As Sweet advises, “If you’ve got an agenda — ‘Do you like my product?’ — you often start asking things very quickly” that provide little context. Broad, ethnographic questioning reveals organic needs fulfilling products can occupy.

He details a drinks brand pre-pandemic, where bartenders shaking up cocktails provided entertainment for patrons happy to wait. But post-lockdown, patrons wanted quicker drinks from their tables. Though the company produced premium spirits, without performances, people lost interest in time-intensive cocktails. By embedding with bartenders, the brand gained empathy to remix spirits into faster serves while preserving perceived quality.

Where Brands Actually Live

A brand seems to reside with its owner, protected by managers stewarding logos, recipes and other assets. However, Sweet believes, “A brand exists in the minds of people who buy it.”

He uses Jägermeister - originally a German digestif, now popular as a nightlife shot - to illustrate. Though radically altering traditional consumption occasions, Jägermeister leaned into its new party identity. Neon bar displays and drink machines reinforced folks pounding Jägerbombs were rightful brand ambassadors. Sales exploded by celebrating, not resisting evolved drinker meaning.

For Sweet, consumers anchor brands because “that meaning, I think, is something that we, or entrepreneurs or anyone in the world who’s interested in brands, needs to go and investigate.” Knowing brand perceptions allows responding with relevant products, messaging and experiences.

Staying Grounded

What risks arise when companies only interface remotely? Potentially, Sweet warns, “We’ve gone deeper into our echo chambers” only hearing people resembling leadership. Ethnography breaks bubbles allowing diverse exposure.

For entrepreneurs, Sweet prescribes “the most important thing is just to stay in touch with people, and I think the easiest way to do that...would be to create a small community of super users...and talk to them regularly.” Avoid discussing products overtly, but understand lives holistically through casual dialogue within target segments.

While extensive immersions require special expertise, Sweet encourages entrepreneurs to embed casually themselves. Simple listening, free of checklists, builds bonds revealing true needs. Brands rooted in honesty about others’ realities stand to thrive.

Oliver Sweet
Oliver Sweet
Business anthropologist