Consumers in the Mist

By Ed Cohen | Spring 2011

John Sherry tells a story about a student team in one of his MBA-level Qualitative Marketing Research classes years ago.

The students were investigating the relationship between pets and their owners. After several weeks in the field, they had amassed an enormous amount of interview and observation notes, photographs and video of owners and dogs interacting at dog parks, at the beach, in their homes.

Sherry, who just completed his sixth year teaching the marketing course at Notre Dame after creating it and teaching it for 20 years at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, asked the team members if they had interviewed any dogs yet, which was good for a laugh.

Except he was serious. He told them to go back and interview the dogs.

At the next class, the group had a video showing one of the future MBAs crawling on the floor, putting a microphone in front of a dog as he ate, and asking the pet if he liked his kibble.

From off-camera, the voice of the dog’s owner could be heard replying in classic Astro Jetson cartoon canine dialect, “I really rike my kibble.”

Sherry, Mendoza’s Herrick Professor of Marketing and chair of the marketing department, says the interview continued this way for some time. And the same thing happened in other dog-owning households: Owners routinely projected their thoughts and voices onto their pets. It gave the students an insight into pet-owner relationships, he says, that hadn’t come through in their previous interviews and observations.

And that’s the idea of qualitative marketing research: to discover the hidden meanings, the essence of how consumers feel about and interact with products and services.

It may sound silly, but the approach has been the “methodological darling” of marketing research for about a decade, says Sherry. The reason: It works.

In the first class meeting, he relates some of the success stories:

  • Peering into people’s crowded, disorganized refrigerators gave Coca-Cola the idea for the “fridge pack” package that doubles as a tidy can-dispenser.
  • People brushing their teeth might notice how the modern-day tube of toothpaste subtly sucks the paste back into the spout after a portion is squeezed out. No more caked-on gobs, thanks to qualitative marketing research.
  • Accompanying one’s fiancée to the store to create a wedding registry used to be torture for the typical male. Then Target’s Club Wedd put barcode-scanning price guns into guys’ hands. Now selecting gravy boats and trifle bowls is a blast for grooms-to-be, because they get to shoot them.

One classic example of qualitative marketing research involved spaghetti.

While watching people cook spaghetti in their kitchens, a researcher remarked on how the boiling water would turn cloudy when the pasta was added. People said they noticed the same thing, and they often had “folk theories” about what was happening. Some thought it was a sign their spaghetti was bursting with pasta-y goodness, a positive. Others theorized that the spaghetti’s nutrients were being lost, leaching out into the water, a negative.

Prince-brand spaghetti, which happened to boil up clear, capitalized on the phenomenon by telling consumers that clear water during boiling indicated the nutrients stayed put within the product—“the clear way to better pasta.”

That became an important differentiator and allowed Prince to charge a premium over its competitors, says Sherry.

“That’s not something you could have discovered with a survey.”

That’s why there is no survey work in Qualitative Marketing Research. Over the course of seven weeks, students learn how to talk with consumers and observe and record behavior in consumer “habitats”: homes, offices, restaurants, airports, hotels and elsewhere. The course long ago acquired the nickname “Consumers in the Mist” after the movie “Gorillas in the Mist,” about naturalist Dian Fossey’s experiences studying mountain gorillas in Rwanda.

Working in teams of five or six, the graduate students attempt to discover previously unknown or under-appreciated aspects of products and phenomena. Past topics, which teams choose, have included shoes, wine, cigar bars, paintball, tanning parlors, ice cream, farmer’s markets. In 2010, one group studied “manscaping”—or male grooming—and discovered, among other things, that mothers are often guys’ primary source for information on skin products.

During each class session, students learn a new investigatory technique, and the teams share the fruits of their latest field work: snippets of video, excerpts from transcripts of interviews. Sherry and members of the other teams critique the efforts.

Sometimes students get to see the master ethnographer himself, Sherry, in action, as when he shows video from his award-winning research into the “retail spectacle” of the American Girl Place stores. There he is, shaggy, middle-aged John F. Sherry Jr.—who has three sons and no daughters—asking 8-year-old girls about their dolls in a store with a doll hair salon.

As Sherry explains, being an obvious outsider can be a huge advantage.

“To the extent that you can present yourself as a naïve student of whatever it is you’re trying to study and convince the people you are working with that they are the experts—which they are—then they become very effective teachers,” he says.

One team last year recruited travelers to teach them about luggage. 

At airports and hotels, the team watched how people wheeled and guarded their suitcases. They convinced people to let team members watch them pack. They showed pictures of traveling experiences—someone overpacking a suitcase, a woman trying to heft her carry-on into an overhead compartment—and asked people to tell a story about what was happening, a technique known as a “projective task.”

An astonishing amount of insights resulted. Here’s one: Luggage turns out to have much in common with cars; people care about what the object says about them.

“We interviewed a group of undergraduates who had just returned from a conference,” recalls Charlotte Lux, a professional product designer who was completing her Master of Fine Arts at Notre Dame this past spring. “Some of them said, ‘Oh, I have this duffel bag, but once I get a job, I’m not going to use it because this says I’m a college student. When I get a job, I’ll have some black roller bag.’”

Lux accepted a position with a Chicago consulting firm, IA Collaborative, where her work will include qualitative design research much like what she did in Sherry’s course.

A member of the same team, Brian Sweet, who was completing his MBA this past spring, is joining Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati as an assistant brand manager for two of P&G’s laundry detergent brands, Cheer and Dreft.

He says the experience he gained in class impressed his bosses when he interned with P&G last summer. And he still finds himself practicing what he learned, as when he visits the laundry detergent aisle at a Walmart.

“I’ll just stare at the shelf long enough until someone comes up and kind of strikes up a conversation; that was something [Professor Sherry] used to talk about us doing. I’m a guy, and it’s good when you’re doing this kind of thing if people think you don’t know anything at all about the product. They’ll tell you.”