From big companies to small ethnographic consultancies, researchers are experimenting with new methodologies and techniques to engage with people in the environments that they inhabit organically. Never before have companies had access to so much data on people’s private behaviors.
This big amount of intimate data shows that many times, people report doing things they do not actually do, pointing to the importance of observational research. Traditional ethnography still plays a part in market research—but due to extensive demands on time, ethnographic techniques are being used in many creative ways. A novel approach is what we could call research on wheels, an experimental way to bring research labs closer to the subjects of study. From Google´s research van (road tripping to various locations in the US for the purpose of user research) to small companies setting their offices on trucks to be able to bring their working spaces to the participants and/or clients, each proposal brings a unique approach.
For example, KM Zero Open Innovation Hub, a Spanish research service for the food sector, offers the Meal Revolution testing service for third parties, in the form of a touring gastronomic laboratory. The whole concept of the Meal Revolution emerged from a small pilot research study carried out by our ethnographic research agency Antropologia 2.0 in collaboration with KM Zero, which involved a food truck located in a music festival.
This is the story of that pilot research.
Product Testing at Festival Les Arts
In 2018, an important Spanish company in the food industry developed a new line of prepared frozen products that only need to be heated in an oven before eating. The brand included hamburgers, pizzas, and meatballs, all targeted toward young people who don’t have time to cook. However, previous internal research had shown that in Spain there is still a predominant negative imprint on frozen food, which is perceived as low-quality. That is why the company wanted to test the new products with users in a natural setting before launching them on the market and gather feedback that would allow product improvement. The company decided to purchase a food truck to distribute its products in different places, and at the same time, to hire a team of anthropologists for the qualitative research.
The venue chosen for this first test was a music festival in the city of Valencia, which brought together a large, young audience that loved indie music. The company had three clear objectives: to promote the new brand, to sell the product for the very first time, and to collect feedback from as many users as possible. In order to carry out this testing, they relied on ethnographers from our agency.
The field conditions were challenging; we were interviewing at a music festival attended by large crowds of people, with lots of noise from the concerts, and a predisposition towards alcohol consumption by the potential research participants. In addition to interview protocols focused on obtaining feedback on the product, the packaging and the proposal as a whole, observation protocols were also established to gather insights into the behavior of users during the process of decision-
making. These included behaviors while waiting in the queues, interactions with the brand, and the cooks working inside the food-truck. We timed how long people took to decide; we noted what flows of movement were repeated frequently and the reactions or conversations people had during the tasting.
Two ethnographers captured all of this information. One was exclusively dedicated to engaging with the consumers and conducting the interviews, while the other focused only on observing and taking notes on the dynamics going on around the food-truck.
During the two days of the festival, the ethnographer in charge of the interviews stayed close to the food truck, carrying out more than sixty guerrilla interviews both before and after the purchase and consumption of the product. The objective of the interviews prior to the purchase of the product was to understand what pull factors existed behind the choice to consume in that food truck, as well as to collect thoughts and expectations prior to consumption. Potential interviewees were then asked if they minded if the interview continued at their tables. Most of the people agreed and were happy to give their feedback once they had tried the food.
The food truck ethnography joint project was a big success; large queues of consumers lined up to buy their food and participate in the research. While one might expect people to be annoyed by the questions interfering with their party mood, many expressed gratitude to be able to share their impressions with the ethnographer while enduring the boredom of waiting in line. It was a welcome distraction.
More Challenges and Some
Later at night, due to diminished daylight and an increased number of people attending the festival, we were forced to rethink the strategy of obtaining post-consumer feedback. We decided to use digital techniques, turning the interview protocol into a WhatsApp messages exchange. The ethnographer who was conducting the interviews in the queues captured participant telephone numbers, while the other ethnographer was in
charge of sending the interview protocols through WhatsApp and expanding the collection of user feedback through audio messages.
The users’ emic discourse was collected without the need for the ethnographer to be present, breaking down the barriers of physical and temporal space around the food truck. We consider this improvisation to be tremendously effective at a methodological level, although at the time we were not able to meet all the privacy requirements for data collection.
Overall, the research was a success and the client was very happy with the results. The feedback allowed for the improvement of many deficient aspects of the product including ingredients, format, and presentation. In addition, thanks to pre-consumption data collection, we identified ways in which the food truck could be optimized to make it more attractive on future occasions.
How to Design Your Own
Food Truck Ethnography
Due to its experimental nature, this research had many advantages, but also some limitations. We outline these with the hope that they may be useful for anyone considering a similar project.
- First, the research on wheels formula provides access to people we are interested in speaking with. We do not have to rely on screening and recruiting people, because the ones we need to talk to are right in front of us. In addition, this approach has the benefit of being conducted in the same context where consumption occurs. We don’t have to resort to sterile focus group rooms.
- Second, it is important to point out that this methodology, and specifically the use of digital tools such as WhatsApp, helps overcome sample size limitations. While traditional interviews or focus groups include around ten to twenty people, food-truck ethnography allowed us to obtain data from more than sixty users in two days. Researchers carrying out similar projects in the future should plan for a combination
of face-to-face interviews and digital diary exercises.
- This unconventional approach resulted in significant engagement. Many respondents were pleasantly
surprised and explicitly expressed their interest in being able to participate
in future research related to this product or other research projects in the food sector. Having the contact information of participants (and their consent, of course) allowed us to create a database of key respondents for further steps of the research. As such, one could plan the food truck ethnography as Phase I of a bigger project which could include a second phase with in-depth interviews.
- Finally, the client was happy to promote its brand and sell directly to the consumer, which mitigated the cost of the research.
Despite the advantages relative to the real contexts of consumption, the sample, the subsequent recruitment, and the cost of the research, we must point out that this first approach to food truck ethnography was not exempt from certain limitations that must be addressed in future projects.
- In natural context projects, not everything can be planned, and unexpected turns may appear. One of the main issues to be highlighted is that of ethics relating to user data. As the methodology was changed in the middle of the fieldwork, we were not able to timely incorporate proper confidentiality agreements in relation to data protection. Anthropological ethics as well as GDPR regulations force us to be better prepared. Legal regulations in each country must be considered.
- Another issue we reflected upon at our result presentation was the fact that a festival environment is not necessarily reflective of people’s daily food selection. As we explained to our client, a festival is today’s carnival, a moment when the established cultural order is reversed. This frame was relevant to most of our insights. For example, most of the vegans we spoke to during the music festival complained that their food options were too healthy and that they were looking for something greasy and with lots of toppings and sauces. “Being vegan doesn’t mean I dislike tastes,” explained one of the participants. “Why do they put tomato sauce in my vegan hamburger instead of ketchup?”
- Finally, the fact that users paid for the product brought into play what the economics Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler calls “the endowment effect.” Thaler says people tend to have a more favorable opinion about products if they have paid for them, which can generate a certain distortion in the feedback obtained. Depending on whether one decides to sell the food
or to offer free food samples, the discourse of the participants might be
different (this could actually be the starting point of an experiment within the larger design).
In conclusion, the food truck ethnography was an experiment that points out a different way that research agencies can collaborate with their clients. This project was not exempt from certain field limitations, but it illustrates the potential of running product tests in a more natural environment. We continue to collaborate with KM Zero, having optimized this methodology and extended the scope of the service to branding studies and gastronomic co-creation.