How ethnographic research helped transform a US paint company

Almost all business leaders now acknowledge that they would love to engage in the deep learning that long-term customer observation can foster, but in practice such endeavors are methodically undermined in the fast paced corporate environment, writes ethnographic filmmaker Hal Phillips.

As a result, he says, researchers can find themselves making tradeoffs as their proposals are greenlit by the relevant stakeholders.

Time constraints, money constraints, and ultimately scope constraints – all are the realities of working in most corporate environments. We have to be nimble. We address business problems in a way that satisfies this executive conundrum – by using the principles of ethnography within the constraints we are given.

What’s worse though is that companies “lack a comprehensive humanistic perspective to explain the motivations behind their customers’ behavior. So they come up with the best beliefs that they can – they develop institutional heuristics around their customers that may or may not be a reflection of reality. When these perspectives become ingrained, but yield limited success, we call these “strategic cul de sacs” – a company gets stuck as they circle round and round using the same flawed view of their customers.”

Phillips then goes to explain – in quite insightful detail – how he and his team addressed this double challenge in a project for Benjamin Moore Paint, one of the oldest paint brands in America, with perhaps the most deeply entrenched reputation among skilled painting professionals and designers, and were able “to provide a road out of their strategic cul de sac, a human heartbeat in all of the hard data, and a way to truly internalize the emotions motivating stakeholder behavior.”