Ethnography for Creative Development: Making the Familiar Strange


Written By: Jim Mott

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Making the Familiar Strange: Ethnography for Creative Development

Creative ethnography in Manila

The idea of using ethnography for creative development is perhaps an unconventional one, but with the right application it has the potential to yield powerful results that can serve to raise the impact of a creative piece without dampening the ideas on which it is founded.

What we are not suggesting here is that ethnography replace traditional approaches. Cautious clients will probably always need the reassurance of familiar methods to push creative through and we accept that focus groups, link-testing etc have their place. However we would suggest the role ethnography has to play in the creative process is quite different from these other approaches.

Simply put, it’s the idea that creative strategy can be best interrogated in the context of people’s actual lives and experiences rather than the artificial environment of focus groups.

The key to using ethnography in creative development is to explore the creative strategy. Ethnographic insight works best when it is used to challenge, inspire and inform the ideas that shape the creative brief. The essence of the creative process is in drawing connections and links that sit beyond the obvious, whilst still remaining true to the situation that is being represented. It is precisely at this level that ethnography operates, delving into the unspoken and the inferred of the everyday and the domestic, ‘making the familiar strange’ and uncovering the hidden assumptions and cultural truths that drive behaviour.

For example our recent work with the creative team behind the new Finish ad  (Reckitt Benckiser), was based on the insight that talking about the products virtues (which ads in this space had been doing for the last 20 years) simply doesn’t work when people are not engaged with the category in the first place.

This thinking gave us the leeway to use ethnography to discover the ‘drama in the domestic’ and find sparks of a cultural life around the dishwasher that could be animated and emphasised in Weiden & Kennedy’s creative work.

Simply talking to people in this context would not have worked as the role of the dishwasher is to sit in the background, unspoken and uncelebrated, almost deliberately under the radar of conscious thought. Traditional focus groups would have delivered exactly the same tired tropes that have dominated dishwasher advertising for the last 25 years, simply because people rarely give their dishwashers much thought. Yet watching behaviour around the dishwasher tells quite a different story.

Dishwasher ethnography
Using ethnography for creative development in dishwashing

For starters we found that it is the most touched device in the kitchen, and is in fact the hub of a huge amount of activity. People may not talk about their dishwashers much but they are using them all the time. The truth that emerged was the dishwasher as ‘the quiet giant’, a silent witness to the social turntable of our busy lives.

This insight gave Reckitt Benckiser the ammunition they needed to both validate and build on their initial hunch. Rather than shutting down their idea, ethnography had grounded it in the real world and given them the fuel to develop it into something truly special.

Whilst ethnography will never deliver the statistical reassurance of A/B testing, or the granular deconstruction of concepts that focus groups can provide, it has the power to offer creative teams something far more valuable. Ethnography for creative development offers solid cultural truths that can serve as the bedrock for category defining inspiration.

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