Ethnographic Stories for Market Learning

Julien Cayla and Eric J. Arnould, 2013, 13-100

In rapidly changing and complex market environments, ethnography offers a unique way to understand markets. In this report, authors Julien Cayla and Eric Arnould seek to better understand how ethnography can be implemented in corporate environments and contributes to market learning.

Their research design combines in-depth analysis of two companies—an American financial institution and a consumer goods company—with a cross-sectional study of ethnographic projects in several industries, countries, and strategic contexts. Overall, they conducted semi-structured interviews with 35 executives over a period of 18 months in seven different countries.

Their findings offer insights to marketers about the role of ethnography in several critical business domains.

First, ethnographic stories can help explain the granular, multidimensional nature of consumer lives, so that managers are better able to comprehend the dilemmas and tensions that are inherent in people’s experience of the market.

Second, ethnographic stories produce research that stimulates organizational creativity, in part because these stories give access to other worlds, facilitating the work of imagination.

Third, as boundary objects, ethnographic stories help organizational members to negotiate their understanding of the market and to discuss strategic directions around issues of product development, communication, and other aspects of the marketing mix. In addition, ethnographic stories can help managers gather ideas about new market opportunities in different spheres of customers’ lives.

Finally, because they are especially well suited to disrupt organizational paradigms, ethnographic stories can help organizations develop new strategic foundations. Ethnography has a key role to play in helping challenge prevailing assumptions and facilitate a firm’s strategic re-orientation.

The development of ethnographic research needs to complement other market learning processes that focus on abstract models and the testing of hypotheses. The increasing complexity of the marketplace will require new research approaches that combine the breadth of big data analytics with the depth of understanding that ethnographic storytelling provides.

Julien Cayla is Assistant Professor of Marketing at Nanyang Business School, Singapore, Visiting Professor at Euromed Management, Marseille, and Research Fellow at the Institute for Asian Consumer Insight in Singapore. Eric J. Arnould is Professor of Marketing, University of Bath and Visiting Adjunct Professor, Southern Denmark University, Odense, Denmark.


In addition to MSI, the authors want to acknowledge the Australian School of Business at the University of New South Wales, which provided the initial grant for this research, and the University of Bath, for their support. We also want to thank Patricia Sunderland, Rita Denny, Robin Beers, Avi Shankar, Michael Griffiths, Andrew Brown, Ko deRuyter, Adrian Payne, and Edward McQuarrie for providing constructive feedback and crucial assistance at various stages of this project.

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Business Insights from Consumer Culture
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