Category Archives: market research

A Perspective On The Context Of Millennial Brand Engagement From the AMA

I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel hosted by my company, Northstar Research Partners, for a discussion on Millennials at a meeting of the Toronto chapter of the AMA.
Below is a clip from that event where I am responding to a conversation about Millennials as consumers and the importance of brands having a dialogue.  It was such an interesting conversation and I was delighted to share the stage with Nicole Galluci from Boom Marketing and Greg Ambrose from Coca Cola Canada.


Macroforces And Changes In Global Consumer Culture: Mass Urbanization

Normal, crowded street in Bombay.

Normal, crowded street in Bombay. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a part of my day-to-day and that of the Chief Culture Officer at Northstar Research, we stay pretty keenly focused on the macroforces that are shaping the world and what that means for humans and consumer culture.
We always encourage our clients and our internal teams to ask three big questions:

“What’s going on out there?”

“Does it matter to us?”

“If so, what are we going to do about it?”

These are pretty basic questions but also pretty big questions.  And in order to really grasp the magnitude of the task it’s important to start with a solid foundation of understanding based on the big picture.

At Northstar, we have focused on 7 big-picture macroforces.   To start off, I would like to talk about one that has been a topic of interest among several of my clients lately:  Mass Urbanization

  • Today, half the world’s population (i.e. 3 billion) lives in urban areas.
  • Three million people move to cities in the developing world every week – mostly from subsistence farms (OECD 2010).
  • Global urban populations will grow by nearly 2 billion in the next 20 years, and by 2050, about 70% of the world’s population will be in cities in the developing world (Nielsen 2011).

So, what does that mean for consumer-focused brands?  Well, for starters it means taking a look at how your organization defines “urban”.  Chances are that conception is skewed by a fairly ethnocentric, western context.  What we view as the realities and lifestyle impact of urban living in the developed world is likely very different from the reality of urbanization as it is evolving, especially in emerging markets.

America and the developed world’s concept of “urban” is rooted in an ethnocentric perspective based on a very specific sociocultural trajectory

From our western point of view, we see Urban life as having a very distinct cultural context:
  • Melting Pot Cities:  a multi-ethnic collection of citizens from diverse backgrounds and geographies who are all both challenged and enriched by one another’s presence
  • Distinct racial divides between the haves and have-nots (in America specifically): in particular, urban “ghetto” culture is characterized by African American and Hispanic minorities
  • A more class-warfare driven concept of street culture and youth culture in particular:  e.g., Rap / Hip-Hop music, street art and graffiti, and celebration of athletic prowess  like Basketball as a “golden ticket” to upward mobility

Bit if you look at the more likely cultural realities of  the mass-migrants to urban areas from a more rural and disconnected upbringing in emerging markets, there is a distinct difference.  In particular, you see a stronger cultural tension between that geography’s deep culture and the culture that is more timely, topical and surface level

New urbanites in emerging markets are likely:

  • Carrying with them internalized “deep culture” from an upbringing steeped in centuries old traditions:  such as deeply held spiritual traditions and family centric values in Eastern cultures
  • Following an accelerated learning curve (compared to the historical trajectory experienced in the developed world)and urban acculturation path: due to the rapid spread of globalization / capitalism and augmented by the proliferation and adoption of communication technology.  People can see both the pros and cons of how capitalism and rapid growth has affected human culture for better or worse…and they are adjusting their consumer behavior according to that information and their assessment of their personal priorities
  •   Experiencing a far more homogeneous ethnic context than in the developed world:  like in India or Asia where most people in urban centers “look alike”  and come from regions with similar socio-political realities and far  more similar (although diverse)  spiritual and cultural traditions

So, that’s a peek at what is “going on out there” from a mass urbanization perspective.  And every company that markets a global brand…especially those with a perceived urban target, should answer in the affirmative to “does it matter to us?”

That being said, there are more macroforces to consider.  Stay tuned.  But if you are a stakeholder on a global brand to consider what the other macroforces mean and what you’re going to do about it…

Defining The Focus and End Goal of Applying Consumer Anthropology: Companies, Brands and Products

As a part of training and development for Consumer Anthropology at Northstar, I have been putting together a “handbook” / training guide to help researchers (both green and seasoned) understand the role 0f this practice area and how it is applied.

In the spirit of beginning with the end in mind, It was important for me to make sure to include a foundation in philosophy and theory as well as in the definition of those social agents that impact and are impacted by consumers:  The company, the brand and products.

So, I started by taking to the academic publications and then turned loose on LinkedIn, posing the questions to practicing academic and private sector anthropologists.

Here is where I netted out, but of course welcome a continued conversation in the spirit of constant evolution:

A Company is a functional collection of humans within our culture

Company is what Malinowski calls “an institution” in the broader anthropological and sociological sense. It is the basic unit in a socio/cultural system. Its product(s) is its function(s) in and contribution to in a larger system. Since a company is a human institution it could be sole proprietor of an ice cream stand with  three ice cream flavors as the, or Goldman-Sachs, with the financial system of United States of America as its product.

Products are the outputs of human ingenuity and are definitive part of human culture

“As for the term “product,” it is the output of a company. It requires the transformation of raw materials (physical, human, or intellectual) into something that has value in the marketplace”.  – Barry Bainton

“A third part of our definition of culture is “products.” Human thought and behavior often lead to the production of material artifacts or tools. In this people are not alone; other forms of life also make and use simple tools. Birds make nests; some ants use sticks as prods; caged monkeys use sticks to get bananas. But in transmitting knowledge to successive generations so that it becomes cumulative, humans are distinctive. And as human knowledge and technology grow, human tools become increasingly complex, and growing bodies of information stimulate an even more rapid rate of expansion”.   –

A Brand is an IDEA, completely dependent on collective culture’s interaction with and perceptions of products and companies

“A brand is a process of attaching an idea to a product. Decades ago that idea might have been strictly utilitarian: trustworthy, effective, a bargain. Over time, the ideas attached to products have become more elaborate, ambitious and even emotional. This is why, for example, current branding campaigns for beer or fast food often seem to be making some sort of statement about the nature of contemporary manhood. If a product is successfully tied to an idea, branding persuades people — consciously or not — to consume the idea by consuming the product. Even companies like Apple and Nike, while celebrated for the tangible attributes of their products, work hard to associate themselves with abstract notions of nonconformity or achievement. A potent brand becomes a form of identity in shorthand.  – Walker, Rob.  2006.  The Brand Underground.  New York Times, July 30, 2006

A ‘brand’ is much like an ‘imagined community,’ a symbolic cluster that’s partially created by the company & its partners (advertisers, PR) and partially created by the consumer community (both those who invest in the brand and those who avoid it)”. –  Greg Downey, Macquarie University

At the end of our work day, the study of consumer culture involves the study of companies, brands and products alongside thw culture of consumption.  Ultimately, however, the benefactors of that work are also the same objects of study.   It is because all three of these are intensely human in nature and driven by culture.  We explore the context of that culture to bring meaning and meaningful change to the way we do business and the way we “consume” our world.

Context In Professional Sports is Everything: Especially for Marketers!

In a recent post I gave a preview of some perspective I had gotten from some fieldwork we were doing at Northstar on the cultural context of Hockey for Canadians:

The purpose of this work was to prove that, when it comes to reaching sports fans, understanding the context of spectatorship and “fandom” is critical to truly effective media messaging and reach.

You can learn so much by taking the time to incorporate the study of context into any strategic research initiative.  In this case, we were able to use our contextual exploration to not only create a remarkably robust quantitative assessment tool, but to inform the hypotheses that would bring to light some truly new insights.

I am proud of our team and we are proud of this work.  Here are some of the headlines, courtesy of Yahoo Finance:


A Brand Sherpa In The Midst of Hockey Fans in Canada

I have never been a hockey fan.

At least I never made a point to be. But I think that will change for me when it comes to next year’s Stanley Cup.

I have been directing a “lets do something interesting” project at Northstar over the past few weeks centered around the idea that professional sports properties and the brands / marketers that support them can build deeper and stronger brand connections by understanding the psycho-social and cultural context of sports spectatorship.

We developed a strategic research model designed to explore that context with qualitative and ethnographic work that would inform a quantitative tool for modeling the “meaning”. 🙂 In choosing where to start, from our office in Toronto, the “no-brainer” came to us….Lets study the context of NHL Hockey in Canada!

Without giving away all the Jewels that the PR people are responsible for, I felt compelled to share some of my nerdy anthropological “Ah- Has”.

For example: There are no Canadian teams left to vie for t the Stanley Cup(arguably the most iconic trophy in professional sports), but do you think that has deterred Canadians from their commitment to loyal viewership? Or a decline in social media chatter among Canadians. No way, Eh! Social media chatter about the NHL during the playoffs was still up by 3-fold compared to regular season.

Why?  this game is no mere recreational activity or time-filling side item for the Canadian populace.  It’s a part of their lifestyle and life blood…a Zietgiest, even.

From the time they are old enough to walk, most Canadians have at least played if not spent countless hours watching brothers, friends or other relatives play.  And this is a sport that represents their adaptation to what can be a pretty cold climate for a good portion of the year.  What do you do when the pond freezes over?  Strap some blades or your feet and show your agility, coordination and team spirit!

And lets also talk about how Canadians perceive the way they are seen as a people by the rest of the world.  It’s no coincidence that American backpacking youth strap Canadian flags on their backs when traveling outside the U.S.  Canada is seen as a fairly neutral, docile, harmless country and culture.  They have a reputation for civility and a mild-mannered disposition.  But lest the world think Canadians can’t be warriors if called to the challenge, take a look at the National Sport of Hockey:  arguably one of the more bloody, full body contact sports that involves both a sharp mind and intensely physical skill set.  It’s almost as though Hockey is Canada’s cultural foil and it provides a sense of unity to a nation that really doesn’t have a common enemy to speak of.

I also learned a good deal about the role of engagement with the NHL brand and the sport among varying life-stages of Canadian fans.  For the younger groups, as an example (and specifically younger males), engagement with the sport is incredibly social at its root:  always watched in small to large groups.  Most of the time out at a bar (maybe there will be girls there?).  Deep engagement in social media, following stats and fantasy sports.  Why?  Cultural currency?  Analytical peacocking to compliment the testosterone fuel.  From trash-texting to out-doing peers on hockey expertise, it’s an age old ritual of finding your place in the social group and positioning yourself for mating rights.  🙂

As mean get more settled into family life-stages they tend to have already narrowed down their social groups and watch most often in private or subdued-settings. They start creating traditions and memories with their kids.  They get more involved in the reality-TV side of non-game-watching engagement:  attempting to empathize with players and teams and find deeper, more meaningful emotional connections to the sport.

And then there are the women.  Sure, Canada over-indexes on hard-core female hockey fans when you compare to female engagement with other professional sports, but there is a distinct difference in the way women engage overall.  For example, if you look at Canadian Moms, the root of their interaction with  NHL hockey is as a social bonding facilitator:  with their families, husbands,, etc.  Having baseline surface knowledge about the sport is often enough to get by, but the engagement  is mostly about curating traditions and memory-making moments for their families…and about showing a commitment to relating to the family and friends that are important to them by actively engaging in their passions.

So what does all this mean for brands who are looking to the NHL as a marketing resource?

First:  if you are going to attempt to meaningfully reach Canadians during hockey season, make sure you have a legitimate right to a point of view on the sport, or the culture of the sport.  Showing a little empathy for the distinct context of Hockey in Canadian life will go a long way in driving respect for your brand

Second:  Dig into the engagement nuances by age and life stage.  There are many distinctions based on demographics and psychographics that, if considered in media planning, can dramatically increase efficiency of a brands marketing spend

Third:  don’t forget the WOMEN!  Even professional men’s hockey / The NHL isn’t just about testosterone and dudes drinking beer.  The Moms are shopping for the groceries and ordering the pizza that will feed their house guests at game time.  They are also the ones taking their kids to hockey practice and strapping on their skates.  There are lots of opportunities to reach women and moms on both a grassroots level and with traditional media.  Empowering Mom to be a her0 and find deeper connections with her families through hockey will potentially facilitate a deeper consumer connection to brands and even deeper fan engagement with the NHL.

In the coming week, we will be closing out the quantitative validation and measurement phase of this study focused on NHL hockey.  We will be preparing a full report that includes highly directive and actionable insights and implications for marketers and brands.

Anyone interested in purchasing this study can contact me directly:

Otherwise, I am eager to hear your reactions.  And eager to bulk up on my sports knowledge for our next study…NFL here I come?

Progressive Sample Selection (PSS): A Methodology for Optimizing Qualitative Insights

Identifying challenges for ethnographic and qualitative approaches

At Northstar research partners, we are committed to the relentless pursuit of progress in the way we approach unearthing Insights that Inspire. With regard to human and cultural insights generation, approaches and methodologies are typically ethnographic in nature. These projects are typically rooted in an anthropological ethos that seeks to explore the rich, cultural context that shapes and influences consumer behavior. They also look at sociological and psychological factors that have an impact on consumerism.

With such a robust and potentially infinite set of variables, sometimes a major challenge is in discerning how to approach data collection so you can both define what constitutes data as well as how to generate it. Another key issue is also related to identifying patterns in the data.

In the majority of ethnographic projects, although a good amount of time might be spent observing context and interacting with participants, often pattern identification is a more intuitive exercise, as participant samples are typically smaller and it’s difficult to quantify context unless significant rigor exits around data classification and data entry / analysis.

And if we look at purely qualitative projects, which typically utilize a more question-response based approach to collecting and contextualizing data, in absence of spending more time with research participants, much richness can be left unearthed under the surface.

And this is not to say that Insights aren’t meaningful if they don’t have large sample sizes and statistical significance. Nor is it to say that there isn’t significant value in understanding patterns from the lowest hanging fruit on the surface.

But, in the space of consumer research, one can observe a fair amount of anxiety on the client side in determining the best type of research for guiding and backing up strategic decisions. Often budgets are stretched and the myth of economies of scale leads to use of a qualitative or quantitative methodologies in a “silo”. Also, while human and cultural insights are absolutely critical for driving business growth that will be sustainable over time, much of the time, the C Suite decision makers need to feel that the research results are driven not just by gut instinct and keen interpretation of surface patterns, but by analytical rigor as well. It is an easy but often-erroneous presumption to make that qualitative analysis is not “rigorous”

Introducing PSS: Progressive Sample Selection
Progressive Sample Selection is a Northstar process that enables us to efficiently select the “best” respondents through a multi-stage qualitative exploration

This qualitative approach begins with tasks assigned to a large sample of candidates.

These tasks completed by this larger pool of candidates produce a broad range of data outputs from which we identify patterns and themes. Next, we query those candidates we deem the best equipped to provide further depth and insight into these identifies phenomena.

While qualitative research typically seeks to uncover in-depth commentary from a specified sample and that is where it ends, Progressive Sample Selection achieves depth and fine-tunes focus throughout the process by both deepening the conversation, but also by progressively selecting those candidates best able to shed light on emerging findings and issues as they arise in the overall investigation.

How does PSS optimize qualitative and ethnographic research?

Progressive Sample selection serves a couple several “masters”.

First, It elevates qualitative research to a broader, ethnographic purview by allowing-in data that is ethnographic in nature, generated by participants.

Second, in the space of qualitative and ethnographic research, it also elevates the quality of the research participant sample in the more in-depth sample…by seeding thoughtfulness / preparation in participants, alleviating peer-generated bias that may happen in a focus group setting by more outspoken participants. It also allows for more in depth screening on creativity and articulateness so the right respondents can be selected for either qualitative or further in-context ethnographic deep dives.

Third, it supports efficient rigor in collection and analysis of qualitative and ethnographic data: providing a structure for data collection and analysis through coding of pre-task responses and outlining of specific data collection-points against each strategic research objective. The rationale: in order to properly scope out a PSS project, you must first identify which data source each specific objective will be covered by and how (pre-task, focus group discussion capture, ethnographic photo capture, etc.)…Allowing for checkpoints for coding data throughout the qualitative process. Also, by letting your research participants be informants from the outset, they are doing the bulk of the initial data generation in the pre-task assignment, which is (by design) the most robust data set. It also, again, allows the research team leader extra exposure to qualifying characteristics of the respondents in order to select the best participants for subsequent stages.

Finally, if the initial sample is large enough, some identified patterns can even be quantified. I like to call this “quantilative” research. With an initial sample of 100 to 200 respondents, one can identify legitimately quantifiable patterns from the pre-tasks, depending on the sample distribution.

A fictional example of PSS in practice

Lets say ACME widgets wants to identify the value and purchase drivers of their long-standing line of wonder-widgets among a couple of consumer segments (from an existing segmentation): one that is a sizeable and loyal customer base and one that is a psychographic fit but somehow not adopting the franchise in the volume ACME hypothesizes they ought to be. The objective of the project is to prioritize product line enhancements, changes and price-tiers that will exceed the expectations of their loyal consumers and get them to buy higher-priced wonder-widgets, as well as to seed relevance and encourage purchase consideration among the prospect group.

The PSS sample might start with 30 participants in each target segment group, in each of 3 priority ACME markets. Each of those 180 participants will be given a week to complete an ethnographic homework assignment that might involve a photo journal of their widget use, a widget-brand collage with accompanying narrative to explain the collage content, etc. From there, the research team would enter data and do an initial analysis to identify patterns, then find a selection of participants who represent those patterns most accurately and / or are the most articulate, thoughtful or diligent in completing their assignment…giving them an elevated right to a point of view on the topic.

The participants identified as “optimal” would then be invited to participate in a focus group discussion…perhaps two groups of 8 participants for each target in each market: just over half of the initial sample. An additional 4 participants (mutually exclusive from the focus group sample) who seem like they would thrive in a more personal deep-dive setting might also be selected to conduct ethnographic immersions in the days following the groups to dig in on identified patterns and bring some more context to the initial findings…perhaps adding a deeper level of findings and insights in the process.

The insights that results from the exploration for ACME widgets would identify both a breadth and depth of insights that can identify meaningful similarities and differences in wonder-widget value drivers and purchase consideration factors. It will not only identify the patterns, but also unearth the meaning behind those patterns that in turn lead to actionable product implications…with brand implications likely to surface as well.

The process can minimally add the project timeline (perhaps a few weeks to a month) but also serves to add significant incremental value to the results and implications.

Want to know more?  Would you like .pdf copy of the “official” whitepaper? Send me an email:

Demystifying Ethnography

From Fuzzy To Focus
As a part of the practice of applying a Consumer Anthropology framework to strategic research, we use ethnographic approaches; those focused on gathering facts generated by social mores and behaviors. The goal is to explore the culture that surrounds and shapes consumer lifestyles and their relationships with brands and products.
Often, in discussions with clients, or even amongst ourselves as strategic research practitioners, ethnography is used as a term or title to efer to a stand-alone research approach that involves in-home interviews, observation of consumers while they are involved in a specific activity, or some other narrow definition of a particular research tool.
This is not unusual. Even seasoned researchers who sell ethnography to their clients sometimes assume that engaging in ethnographic research means using the traditional anthropological approach of participant observation. However, in Consumer Anthropology, participant observation is merely one method for uncovering ethnographic insights. Ethnography in this case (and even more broadly in modern academic research practices) is actually a collection of methodologies that allow us to understand consumer context.
There are a number of ways to collect ethnographic data, with some examples including:
• Response-based group discussions (among strangers, friends or peer groups): this type of data collection is best used to gain input on new topics and in order to develop hypotheses

• Response-based one on one discussions: to get at deeper look at attitudes, values, motivations and behaviors and identify patterns of reactions and actions

• Ethnographic immersion: participant observation, in-situ, and either one on one or among a family or subculture group lasting anywhere from several hours to several days.

• Narrative Creation: asking consumers to write stories will provide context and language that describe how they relate to a brand, product or category. The trick here is to use this tool with the right target consumers: for obvious reasons, creative types often are better at constructing narratives.

• Ethnographic photos, video diaries or journals: consumer generated photography or videography of their lives that often include stories or narrative will add further texture and insight.

• Metaphor elicitation: having participants create collages of words, pictures and other imagery around a specific topic help participants to think more critically and abstractly. Usually assigned as homework, collages are an interesting way to identify cultural patterns.

It is also important to note that when it comes to sources of ethnographic data collection, we are only limited by our vision! That means that as the world changes and we evolve as researchers, the possibilities are limitless. If it can be observed, it counts as data. So we should always feel free to make customization a top-of-mind option for ethnographic research methodologies.

Why Do We Care?
And, why would we want to study consumer context? What is the value of conducting research that goes outside the sphere of asking consumers for their opinions or to report their attitudes, values and behaviors?
Ethnographic methodologies allow us to collect the context that helps us give meaning to consumer behavior, framing it in the influence of environmental and social factors. The greater the understanding of context and the stronger the collaboration between consumers and marketers (AKA “clients”) the more likely an increasing return on investment (ROI) will result.
This is the central philosophy of Consumer Anthropology and the reason why ethnographic methods are used as part of the “Consumer Context” sphere of the “3 C’s”(see previous blog on this topic).
At the core of the reasons to utilize ethnographic approaches is the desire to compensate for the limitations faced when using siloed approaches to gather insights, such as exclusive use of custom quantitative or qualitative studies. It is important for us to know not only what different types of research techniques can do, but also what they fail to do.
First, traditional quantitative and qualitative studies are very useful for helping develop models that seek to predict consumer behavior and for uncovering attitudes that consumers hold toward brands or products.
There is no opportunity, however, to identify patterns and differentiate between what consumers say and what they actually do, nor is there an ability to understand the impetus for those actions and the cultural influences explaining why certain patterns exist.
And, while qualitative and quantitative methodologies can create opportunities and lines of questioning that go deep, what these approaches often miss is the cultural context for interpreting the results. We don’t want to look at research in a vacuum. We want it tied to real world events, trends, and experiences.
Ethnography is a method of discovery that seeks to compensate for these limitations inherent in traditional qualitative and quantitative research.
Specifically, if in a more strategic focused research initiative (such as defining / segmenting consumer targets, assessing brand health or identifying innovation opportunities) research relies exclusively on what consumers say in a response-based setting, such as focus groups or surveys for insights, they risk missing bigger pieces of the puzzle and leaving holes in the efficacy of their final solution.
In focusing on the lived experience of research participants among other cultural factors, we gain insight into patterns of behavior that allow us as ethnographers to recognize unspoken assumptions, making the invisible visible to both the participants themselves as well as our clients!
Thus, the specifics of a research methodology or set of tools used in a strategic research approach, whether it involves primary or secondary data, matter less than its application. In other words, it is the entirety of the research approaches used that make a project ethnographic; the way they combine to provide understanding and meaning of sociocultural practices is ultimately what is important.
Getting To The Point
Ethnography is not a stand-alone offering that sits in a set of mutually exclusive products we offer to help develop strategic research solutions for our clients. Nor is a research methodology inherently ethnographic just because we are taking the experience off the survey page our out of the focus group facility.
Ethnography is, however, a set of approaches we can use to bring depth and breadth to the solutions we deliver to clients. Strategic research results that have a foundation in the understanding of human and cultural context elevate findings to insights, and elevate the return on investment clients can expect from application of those insights, both in the near and long term.
Ethnography is also a way to truly engage clients as partners in strategic research and “unlock insights that inspire!”

For more information about Northstar Research Partners and / or  our Consumer Anthropology practice area, please feel free to reach out to me directly: