A Conversation with Dr. Norman Stolzoff, founder of Ethnographic Insight, Inc.

Dr-Norman-StolzoffHere’s the multi-million dollar question – What does the consumer want? Until recently, market researchers have relied on traditional methods like focus groups and surveys to understand the mind of the consumer. But after decades of looking at quantitative data, forward-thinking decision makers instinctively know there has to be a better way.

There is a better way – ethnography. Ethnography provides executives with a real-world understanding of consumer preferences, motivations, and needs by examining the environments consumers inhabit and the socio-cultural influences on their behaviors. Such insights translate into innovation and strategic business opportunities, including increased competitive advantage and improved customer loyalty.

Dr. Norman Stolzoff, founder of Ethnographic Insight, is an accomplished anthropologist who has envisioned how ethnography can transform the way businesses do research.


Q: Ethnography is a relatively new market research tool. There are a variety of traditional ways to accumulate market research data. Why should an executive consider using ethnography and what barriers are there to implementing ethnographic techniques within the corporate structure?

Dr. Stolzoff: Everyone wants to hear the voice of the consumer. If you ask any CEO of a Fortune 500 company, they know it’s vitally important. The life or death of their company depends on it. But their ability to actually listen is extremely challenged given all the noise they have to deal with. That’s where Ethnographic Insight can step in and filter out the noise so the consumer’s message can be heard.

As members of our own culture we are often blinded by that culture. That phenomenon is referred to as ethnocentrism. I talk about companies having corporate-centrism. They’re immersed in their own culture and their own everyday understanding of what they do. That’s necessary and good for them to be effective at their job. But corporate-centrism also clouds their ability to see their customers in a way that’s true to those customers’ points of view.

Ethnographic Insight is the bridge — the interpreter or the translator. We go out into the unknown and bring the research subjects’ point of view back to the corporation. Their product or service has a real meaning for the customer. It is not the same meaning that the company has for that product. So Ethnographic Insight is trying to understand the ecology of where that product or service lives for real people and their lives. I feel by faithfully communicating the real world of the consumer there’s the ability to help the corporation meet the consumers’ needs in a clear and meaningful way. Consumers are tired of being manipulated by advertising and marketing. People are tired of being over messaged. They want to be talked to in a straight way. And what we do allows companies to do that.

Q: The corporate decision maker is bombarded with an explosion of people who claim to do ethnographic research. How can market research executives differentiate between the real thing and the poseur?

Dr. Norman Stolzoff: Since there’s no governing body, anyone who calls themselves an ethnographer is an ethnographer. Because ethnography is a hot field right now, people want to get into it. Companies who want to incorporate ethnography into their approach have to be careful about checking the credentials of who they are hiring.

I’ve been studying anthropology and engaging in ethnography for 25 years. I have a B.A. in anthropology from Stanford University. I did my Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of California, Davis, and I have a long, extensive engagement with the academic side of anthropology. I taught the discipline for six years, including courses at San Francisco State. I was a visiting professor at Bowdoin College in Maine where I taught anthropology for two years. It was around that time that I was inspired to explore what anthropology could do outside the campus. While I was a Senior Research Fellow at the University of California, Irvine, I worked for CRITO – the Center for Research on Information Technology and Organizations – which was funded by the National Science Foundation as a consortium between the university and 12 corporate sponsors, including Canon, HP, Microsoft, and Whirlpool. I was hired to be the director of a three-country study on new information technology in the home. It was while doing that project that I saw the potential of combining my academic background and years of field work, with the modern, applied corporate approach to using ethnography. I first started applying ethnography to the corporate environment while I was at King, Brown and Partners where I was Director of Qualitative Research. It was there while I was doing work on smart home technology for Whirlpool that I was realized that there was an unfulfilled appetite for ethnographic research adapted to the corporate world.

It was at that time, 2001, that I founded Ethnographic Insight.

Q: There have been decades of documented successes that have resulted from the more traditional methods of market research. Does partnering with Ethnographic Insight mean that marketing executives have to jettison everything they’ve come to rely upon?

Dr. Norman Stolzoff: I’d like to make it clear that partnering with Ethnographic Insight does not mean that corporate marketing research executives have to stop doing what they’ve traditionally done. They don’t have to do anything differently, but they have to be open to thinking differently. Any time you’re bringing in information that’s foreign, it’s just like an immune system. There are antibodies that try to block that information from coming in. At first, our information might be seen as disruptive, because it is hard to process and requires a lot of rethinking of assumptions. But once a corporate manager starts to really hear the true voice of the consumer the possibility for game changing insights emerges.

There’s also some initial discomfort on the corporation’s end that ethnographic research does not rely heavily on focus groups. I’d like to explain why. I look at what we do as having a tool kit. And there’s the right tool for the job. So focus groups are very useful if they are applied to the right question or the right job. My problem with focus groups is when they are misapplied or they’re done poorly. Focus groups can be applied correctly. And Ethnographic Insight has come up with some creative ways to use focus groups that provide excellent results. We like to do focus groups in conjunction with other techniques. When you want group discussion, they’re great because that’s what they’re meant for. If you want to know how one person thinks about something or how one person does something, focus groups are not good because they’re just not suited for that. The amount of depth you can get from an individual when you have a group discussion is limited. So, for instance, if you have a focus group that is 2 hours and you have 8 to 10 people, you’re just going to get 15 minutes with each person, if that. If you have an hour with one person you’ve already quadrupled the depth of information.


This has been one part of a continuing series of conversations with Dr. Stolzoff examining the complexities of modern corporate culture and consumer behavior. If you’ve got questions or comments, Dr. Norman Stolzoff can be contacted at (360) 325-8166 or at info@ethno-insight.com.