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Beyond the Voice of the Customer: Ethnographic Market Research

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OVERVIEW: Although the importance of integrating the voice of the customer into new product development is almost universally accepted, the techniques used by many organizations to identify customers’ needs have stagnated. The most commonly used techniques, focus groups and surveys (including both interviews and questionnaires), have significant limitations. Customers often struggle to articulate their needs in interviews, and focus groups often generate incremental ideas rather than breakthroughs. Companies in the service sector face an additional challenge, as their customers need to discuss services, which are by their nature intangible. One of the most promising approaches to generating a deeper customer understanding is ethnographic market research, which adopts ideas from ethnography, the set of tools social scientists use to study tribal cultures. These techniques can provide deep customer insights, but their application to new product development is not well studied. We explain the key elements of ethnographic market research, present four cases from the manufacturing and service sectors, and discuss the implications for managers.

Keywords: Ethnographic market research; Market research; New product development; Voice of the customer

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5437/08956308X5504063

Affiliations: is a lecturer in the Centre for Innovative Products and Services (CIPS) at Cranfield School of Management. His executive education, his MBA teaching, and his research focus on the impact of innovation in growth strategies. He spends two-thirds of his time working with executives on customized in-company workshops and has worked in more than 25 countries with managers of over 50 different nationalities. He has also delivered innovation and project and portfolio management lectures at nine other business schools around the world. Chris has a PhD in technology management from Cambridge University, U.K.

Publication date: July 1, 2012

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