WHAT IS VIDEO ETHNOGRAPHY?
Video ethnography is the process of recording in-depth interviews in the context of participants’ natural, everyday settings.
Ethnographers go wherever people go, and do whatever they do: they watch them surf the internet at home, commute to work on the subway, or even go to nightclubs with their friends. They look through their family photo albums and hang out with them in the kitchen while they make dinner. Conducting interviews in respondents’ natural environments both helps to relax them, allowing for more in-depth, thoughtful answers, and provides ethnographers with essential contextual information about their daily lives.
Ethnographic research is a collaborative endeavor. Respondents are powerful, knowledgeable agents who both shape and are shaped by their communities and environments. They are the experts in the situation; ethnographers enter the field with open minds, wanting to learn from them.
For example, a website offering inexpensive student flights and vacation deals wants to enter the Chinese market. First, they need to understand major themes related to the category of “travel” and explore language and imagery linked to travel in Chinese students’ minds.
Ethnographers spend time with students in their day-to-day environments, asking insightful questions about the role travel plays in their daily lives. They uncover major themes, vocabulary, and imagery related to the travel category that can be used in the brand’s communication material. They also discover that travel is being used as a new form of symbolic capital; travel stories are integrated into both emerging and traditional narratives of success. Well-traveled students are seen as ambitious and successful among adults, while they are seen as adventurous and brave among their peers. The website used this information to develop a communication platform that would appeal to Chinese students.
VIDEO ETHNOGRAPHY FOR BRANDS
Though video ethnography has been around since the beginning of film, it is only recently that brands have realized what a useful tool it can be to get an up-close look at their consumers. Video ethnography showcases how individuals live with the category, how it fulfills their needs, and how codes play out in context.
The output of the research project, an evocative, compelling ethnographic film, leaves stakeholders with a deep understanding of how their brand fits into ordinary peoples’ personal narratives and daily lives. Film has the bandwidth to include individuals’ personal stories while also illustrating meaningful patterns that translate into actionable results for the brand.
For example, one of the world’s largest fashion distributors wanted to understand fast-fashion consumers across China. Ethnographers conducted 36 in-home interviews in 18 cities across China, raiding closets and watching TV with respondents, exploring everything from how they go about their morning routines to major aspects of their lifestyles, cultures, and values.
Ethnographers learned that fashion trends are an important part of Chinese consumers’ narratives of modernity (i.e. “I am a modern woman because I keep up with trends”). After analysis, ethnographers held a half-day workshop with clients to explore ways to transform consumer insights into branding actions and identify opportunities for future research.
VIDEO ETHNOGRAPHY FOR THE CHINESE MARKET
There are two major reasons why video ethnography is a particularly relevant research methodology for the Chinese market: consumerism and use of digital among Chinese youth and China’s booming luxury market.
Understand Chinese Youth
The post-80s generation was the first generation born after Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform began in 1978. As these reforms included the one child policy, China’s post-80s generation is also the world’s first generation consisting of mostly only children.
The one child policy coupled with the overwhelmingly sudden introduction of foreign brands previously unavailable in China has resulted in a new generation of eager consumers who both shape and are shaped by how new brands adapt to fit the needs of the Chinese market. The post-80s generation’s investment in consumerism makes the prospect of researcher-respondent collaboration and co-creation even more intriguing and productive.
The internet is a vital form of communication and self-expression among the post-90s generation. Through our video ethnography and focus group project on how Chinese teens use digital, we discovered that, “digital is giving Chinese teens new ways to express themselves as individuals and build their identity.”
With ubiquitous smartphone use among the post-90s generation, more and more youth have basic experience with video production and sharing. This makes the video diary element of ethnography even more feasible and intriguing. Through video diaries, respondents are recognized as knowledgeable experts and are allowed to speak for themselves and lead the research. This involvement makes them more invested in the project, leading to more compelling footage with descriptive responses and evocative, engaging stories.
In September 2012, Labbrand was invited to present a video report about how teens use digital at Social Media Week. The research team employed video ethnography in order to tackle the broad question of how mobile technology is used among post-90s individuals in China. We discussed daily use of digital with teens in the context of their natural environments. Teens described how digital impacted their lives from what they do when they get up in the morning to their understanding of their individual roles in China’s rapidly changing society. They also used their smartphones to create short video diaries, documenting their use of digital throughout the day and interviewing their friends about how they use mobile technology to express themselves.
From this process, we gained an in-depth understanding of larger structures that influence how teens use digital, such as family relations, reciprocity and exchange, and the interplay of power, knowledge, and discourse. Ethnographers presented their ethnographic film at Social Media Week, facilitating further discourse among Chinese teens.
Understand Chinese Luxury Market
With the rapid improvement of economic conditions in China in recent years, the luxury market has exploded onto the scene. 2013 promises to be a turning point in the evolution of China’s luxury market because of the rise of lower tier cities and the explosion of e-commerce.
Swift economic growth is quickly changing the way that people live in China. Ethnographers are eager to dig in, going into people’s homes to analyze how their lifestyles are changing. Video ethnography can shed light on how luxury brands are shaping and being shaped by Chinese consumers every day.
For example, a luxury jewelry brand wanted to test their new retail concept for the Chinese market. They wanted a holistic understanding of luxury consumers in Shanghai, including their motivations, shopping behaviors, and the reasons behind their reactions to the new concept. Labbrand’s ethnographers went into the field, accompany respondents and their friends on luxury shopping trips and conducting in-home interviews in order to understand consumers’ behavior in the context of their daily lives.
Using anthropological theory to analyze data, the research team discovers five key motivations behind respondents’ desire to buy luxury products as a way to lift one’s image, and as a reward for oneself. These motivations are ways by which Chinese values such as guanxi and saving face are blending with the consumerism of the New China. With an understanding of their motivations and shopping behavior, ethnographers explain the reasoning behind their various reactions to the new retail concept.
As the Chinese market grows ever more competitive, brands that are set to benefit from cultural trends and seek collaborative relationships with their consumers will continue to gain influence. Video ethnography is an unparalleled methodology for brands that seek an in-depth look at how their consumers incorporate the brand category into their daily lives. Brands are beginning to discover the value of video ethnography, and, at the end of the day, brands that leverage this tool are left with a crystal clear vision of how to cater to their consumers.
Banks, Marcus; Morphy, Howard (Hrsg.): Rethinking Visual Anthropology. New Haven: Yale University Press 1999. ISBN 978-0300078541
Barbash, Ilisa and Lucien Taylor. Cross-cultural Filmmaking: A Handbook for Making Documentary and Ethnographic Films and Videos. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Grimshaw, Anna. The Ethnographer’s Eye: Ways of Seeing in Modern Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
MacDougall, David. Transcultural Cinema. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.
Ruby, Jay. Picturing Culture: Essays on Film and Anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000, ISBN 978-0-226-73099-8.
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