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5.4.1 The 'Success' of Ethnographic Praxis: An Example

There are numerous famous examples of the use of ethnographic approaches that are hailed as great successes in the business scene. One of the best known might be the example of P&G's marketing in Mexico (Lafley and Charan 2008). [1] I describe here a Japanese company's 'success' using ethnography. The top junior sports shoes brand SYUNSOKU developed by Achilles Corporation was launched in May 2003 with the concept of 'delivering high performance on sports days'. The main feature of their shoes is asymmetrical soles with more spikes on the left side of the sole that bears the weight in track events, allowing the runner to maintain speed by gripping hard even on corners where speed tends to drop. Approximately six million pairs of these shoes are sold a year (Ikematsu 2011). It is said that the development of the shoes was based on long-term 'ethnographic observation' at sports day events held at primary schools, and the key to their success lay in their ethnographic approach which found hidden needs that customers themselves were unaware of.

However, at the time of the shoes launch in 2003, the term 'ethnography' was unheard of among Japanese corporations. This was prior to ethnography becoming popular in Japan. An article in a business magazine showed that they had been advertising to the public while linking their success with 'ethnography' which subsequently gained popularity in Japan. In other words, they sought to retrospectively fashion a narrative in which the success of their R&D was grounded in ethnography. According to their R&D team, 'they unconsciously exercised an ethnographic approach without knowing the term' (Ikematsu 2011).

The brochure of a marketing research company – where I conducted interviews with researchers in Tokyo – remarks that they offer ethnography as a repertoire of research since 2000. But as is made clear in my interview with two researchers of the company, it is only quite recently that they started to use the term 'ethnography'. Before, they employed the term 'jissa' (physical inspection) or 'home visit'. Now they call all on-site research projects which had been carried out for more than 15 years 'ethnography'.

Ethnography, which is said to be connected to anthropology, can be an authoritative source for advertising depending on the context. However, the social sciences (anthropology included) do indirectly affect business trends in Japan. The trends set by major firms overseas which use methodologies of social sciences directly affect Japanese firms. The Japanese business magazines immediately report and translate articles about the trends in the Euro-American sphere, with minimal time lag. An article titled 'Here's Why Companies Are Desperate to Hire Anthropologists' (Baer 2014) recounts that business researchers who have a Ph.D. in anthropology are hired and active in the business scene in Euro-America. Articles in this vein may well exert influence on the Japanese business trend.

  • [1] In 2002, P&G launched two programs: 'Livin' It' and 'Workin' It'. By spending time with lowerincome Mexican households, P&G researchers gained insights. Lower-income Mexican women take laundry very seriously. They cannot afford to buy many new clothes very often, but they take great pride in ensuring that their family is turned out well. Sending your children to school in clean, ironed, bright clothing is a visible sign of being a good mother. Mexican women spend more time on laundry than on the rest of housework. 'No problem if all this is just a matter of pressing a button every once in a while. But it's no joke if you have to walk half a mile or more to get water' (Lafley and Charan 2008: 39). With this insight, P&G came up with Downy Single Rinse which reduced the six-step process to three: wash, add softener and rinse.
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