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Business Design, Consumer Understanding, Human Centered Design, Service Design

How Can Customers Better Target Their Companies?

Boston 07.30.12, 06:16PM by Brian Gillespie

I remember a 2004 Fast Company article (“Every Move You Make,” by Linda Tischler) that discussed how marketing agencies were employing anthropologists and ethnographers to better understand what consumers do, rather than what they say they do. The story was told through the experience of Ogilvy & Mather’s ethnography group and their lead corporate ethnographer as the team investigated the behaviors of people drinking in bars. Though the term wasn’t new to me at the time, and certainly will not be new to many people, it was the first time I really “heard” the words corporate ethnography. It struck me that it sounded more like the conducting of ethnography of corporations and not what it was, the corporate-led research by a company of its customers…which led me to want to turn corporate ethnography on its head.

What if corporate ethnography was actually research conducted by customers into the behaviors of companies in order to better understand what businesses deliver, rather than what they say they’re delivering? What if the purpose was to enable customers to address the unmet goals and needs of company stakeholders? This research could channel a business’s behavior toward a positive customer experience, one that would be determined by the customer’s influence on the company rather than the company’s influence on the customer.

There are already signs of a change toward more customer-influenced design. Social media has enabled customers to take a more active role in brand dialogue, changing what was previously a one-way conversation from brand to consumer (epitomized by the 30-second TV spot) into a consumer-to-consumer brand dialogue (manifested in the sharing of thoughts, images, advice, feedback and experiences by one consumer to others). The content of the conversations and the overall sentiment being expressed are already drivers for behavioral change within companies: If I check into a major brand hotel in a major metropolis and tweet that I am unhappy with my room, hotel management might quickly respond to ensure my stay is not a disappointment. (This is only a singular behavior change, not a company wide one…but it’s a start.)

In addition, customers are increasingly involved in the creation of the very products and services they may be in the market to buy. Brands such as Starbuck’s (My Starbuck’s Idea), adidas (online custom shoe design tool), Threadless (community-driven product selection) and BMW (Co-Creation Lab) are just some of the companies embracing open innovation. Co-design/co-creation and participatory design are early indicators of customers engaging as partners in a process; it gets them involved as equals in determining their marketplace destiny. While some of these open innovation scenarios are customer-driven, most are still initiated at the invitation of the company. Customers are not walking in and leading the charge—yet.

We need to create a new field of customer ethnography (or “corporate relationship management”) that will be the proactive study and gathering of data and insights on corporate culture by networked consumers. This will allow customers to better understand what motivates their companies and what behaviors influence their companies’ products and services, and will likely result in bringing new customer-influenced products and services to market.

Can we imagine a day when customers have the tools to proactively influence the behavior of company stakeholders? A day when the conversation is two-way, allowing consumers to understand and influence the behaviors of companies? Is there a digital innovation in the future that puts customers behind the wheel in leading the design and marketing of sustainable, meaningful, useful, useable products, services and information? Will current social media outlets be transformed into the future tools of customer-driven relationship management?

I’m open to hearing your ideas.


  1. Matt says:

    I can most certainly imagine a day when the conversation is two-way, and it is likely closer than we think. Doc Searls has spent a significant amount of time building the Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) movement, and he has written extensively about it (particularly in a new book called “The Intention Economy”). I imagine that customer ethnography with be a big part of VRM systems, but at some point, companies will be forced to become open, transparent and focused on communicating the real value they are delivering, thus rendering it unnecessary.

    The best review/overview of “The Intention Economy” and VRM was written by John Hagel and can be found here:

  2. Ed Milano says:

    Excuse the inside chatter from another Continuum person, but I like this idea and think companies like Communispace,, are edging into this model. Our two companies together empaneled over a thousand consumers in the Colorblind project which gave consumers a chance to share whether they noticed and valued, or didn’t value at all, the various sustainability efforts of corporations.

  3. Hi, I think your site might be having browser compatibility issues. When I look at your website in Safari, it looks fine but when opening in Internet Explorer, it has some overlapping. I just wanted to give you a quick heads up! Other then that, fantastic blog!

  4. Brian Gillespie says:

    Matt – thanks for the additional insights and link. Very interesting.
    Ed – a lot of my previous colleagues now work at Communispace. Would love to find an opportunity to work with them again. A very interesting company.

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