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How Do We Align Behavioural Economics with Social Responsibility?

In Research by Nathan ToLeave a Comment

How might behavioural economics and social sciences help brands align company goals with both profitability and authentic social responsibility? What kinds of innovative research help brands better adapt to a changing multicultural and intergenerational consumer landscape?

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Three contemporary trends have inspired this paper. First, with growing consumer expectations and multicultural segments, companies across various industries (e.g. CPG’s, retail, health, financial etc) face increasing pressure to win, serve, and retain their customers. Second, today’s most financially sustainable companies are increasingly mindful that future growth is maximized by exploiting their existing business while simultaneously exploring innovation, and aligning these objectives with genuine corporate social responsibility (CSR) and measurable results. Third, roughly 77% Americans own a smartphone (95% own some kind of cellphone) 1. This means that the sheer pervasiveness of data that can be collected via handheld technology (and, increasingly, via consumer wearables) continues to grow in reach, access, and innovation on a local and global scale. These realities present intriguing challenges and opportunities for market researchers to co-create innovative research designs that benefit brands, consumers, and make a social impact. Furthermore, brand efforts emphasizing corporate social responsibility may help improve employee engagement and the wellbeing of workplace culture. Such designs can not only leverage the convenience of contemporary/emerging technologies, but also evolve in their theoretically and methodological rigour while aligning with client and researcher objectives, goals and budgets.

Therefore, I propose a visual ethnography design grounded in an interdisciplinary theoretical framework beginning with lenses such as behavioural economics, depth psychology, existential psychology, visual semiotics, cultural theory, and the design’s origins of (applied) anthropology. While visual ethnographies par excellence are not necessarily new in academic or industry contexts, this interdisciplinary approach to its epistemology can strengthen its theoretical and methodological rigour, empower its innovation, and expand its industry applications.

The rest of this working paper will briefly unpack the background, summarize the proposed visual ethnography design, introduce possible applications through a behavioural economics lens, and introduce key research and industry benefits.



By 2019, B2B businesses are expected to spend over $2.1 billion on technology in eCommerce strategies to exploit their existing business while exploring innovation for future growth to keep and attract customers 2. By 2020, improving the experiences of customers is expected to be the key brand differentiator versus product or price. In fact, 86% of B2B customers are willing to pay for a better customer experience 3. For business customers, the expectations are unsurprisingly entangled with their life contexts and socioeconomic situations. For some, it may be living paycheck to paycheck, resulting in selective buying habits for lower-income consumers. For others, it may be multicultural millennials seeking excellent customer service experiences from technology companies, socially responsible and ethical fashion brand, or consumer packaged goods (CPG’s) that promote health and wellness. These realities present challenges for brands needing to effectively position themselves in changing customer segments. For market researchers/consultants, part of the challenge arises from not only keeping up with these trends, but also designing research tools that can help clients “stand out”. More comprehensive insights and actionable strategies are needed to help brands amidst a shifting market landscape that cannot rely on traditional consumer growth alone 4.

Brands benefiting most from market research are becoming increasingly mindful of consumers’ positive and negative associations to their brand. This knowledge owes much to the growth of the behavioural economics lens and its practical insights into the negative bias of consumers, the unconscious associations underlying seemingly irrational choices and the actionable strategies that can be implemented to “prime” or “nudge” consumers towards more favourable options.

Pragmatically, the proposed design framework supports existing research designs and tools in market research consultancies with a focus on research by Ipsos (e.g. Ipsos’ “Life Moments” tool, “Censydium” and “SAM”). The benefits of this approach include: 1) results and findings can leverage behavioural economics applications (e.g. priming, nudging) to build stronger positive brand associations that align with a company’s goals, strategy, and corporate social responsibility (CSR) objectives 5, 2) the design offers a flexible and adaptable tool that can be complemented or enhanced with other tools and methods (e.g. follow-up interviews and Implicit Reaction Timer; day-in-life ethnography; eye-tracking; consumer EEG’s and biometric wearables), producing multiple forms of data that can be further analyzed qualitatively and/or quantitatively, 3) actionable multicultural insights and applications globally and locally.

Visual Ethnography, An Interdisciplinary Lens & Research Design:

Applied in market research contexts, visual ethnography data can be powerfully leveraged and adaptable if grounded inclusively beyond its anthropological roots with a rigorous, interdisciplinary theoretical lens extended by fields such as (non-exhaustively): behavioural economics, existential psychology, depth psychology, visual semiotics and cultural theory. For example, it’s important to explore the subjective consumer reflections of meaning, personal identity and multicultural context while identifying consumer biases towards negative information. Doing so identifies why behavioural economics can be so beneficial, offering opportunities for priming, nudging and re-positioning brand associations 6. Ultimately, this deepens brand relationships with customers.

Contemporary visual ethnographic methods commonly involve photographic snapshots (or short videos) taken by the consumer. For example, Ipsos utilized a form of visual ethnography for an eye care brand with their Life Moments tool, as a rapid research alternative to their “Day in the Life” ethnographic approach 7. By collecting photos captured via consumers’ mobile phones alongside reflective captions, within 1 week, Ipsos collected 350 life moments, with 10 consumers per market across 3 countries 8.

Example of a Visual Ethnography:

To illustrate what the initial data from a visual ethnography might look like, here is an excerpted sample I gathered as part of my research consultation for an independent magazine publisher. In the full instructions, I used specific language (e.g. your “story”, “culture around you”) that might appeal to the participant segment (e.g. highly educated, middle class, possess anthropology degrees). For instance, I asked them to do the following tasks:

  • Curate 5 existing photos from own albums that embody “your story”
  • Photograph 5 new photos of the “culture around you”
  • Create photo captions for all 10 photos
  • Keep a brief journal reflecting on above with minimum 2 entries.

Collected data include images, photo captions, and journal reflections. Questions can be revised to be more language appropriate as per customer segmentation and cultural context of the demographic market.

Example 1. : Photos + Captions (from Participant 1)
Image of bar counter with bottles of alcohol along the wall

Figure 1: Image courtesy of Participant 1

Photo Caption by Participant 1: “Gearing up for the evening rush, this is where I go to think. Yes, there’s a lot of booze. And cigar smoke. There’s also the embodiment of what a bar signifies – a confidant, a place to explore raw human interaction, a space between work and home.”

Image of a Brony in convention centre lobby

Figure 2: Image courtesy of Participant 1

Photo Caption by Participant 1: “Brony Fest 2016 and the a great example of the need people have to embrace counter culture within counterculture. Accountant by day, My Little Pony character by night.”

Example 2. : Photos + Captions (from Participant 2)
Image of laundry mat

Figure 3: Image via participant 2

Photo Caption by Participant 2: “I live…in a mostly poor Spanish neighborhood. The laundry mat is hub of activity,reflecting the true face of middle to low income families. While we may all be in the same socio-economic class, the experiences that brought us here are very different.

Journal Reflection by Participant 2:
“For photos of my culture, I really just wanted to capture daily life. I typically find myself in locations throughout the city, and wanted to point out that within a week a person can travel throughout the city for activities, while crossing economic borders that often separate people by race and ethnicity.”

Multiple sets of data can be “crystallized” together and analyzed from the visual ethnography:

a) Photographic Image itself: “cosplay of ‘My little pony’”
b) Participant’s caption of the picture: e.g. (In Ex.1 of Bar): “…explore raw
human interaction”; “space between work and home”.
c) Participant’s journaled reflections
d) Researcher’s reflexivity: own descriptions/interpretations

Analyzing and codifying this data can be done through a process called “charting content” 9. This involves a type of thematic analysis that describes the content of what is in the photo, such as Aspects (e.g. “cosplaying as ‘My little pony’ character”; role of teacher, human warmth, noise, nature), Actions (e.g. teaching class, cosplaying, drinking at the bar, doing laundry), and Objects/Artifacts (e.g. newspaper, Shinto Shrine) 10.

Alternative strategies of thematic analysis from other epistemological lenses (e.g. research literature on diversity, class, power, and society) 11, could code themes such as counterculture, rest between work and home, working class, peace, and sanctuary. If desired, adding a lens of analysis through visual semiotics (e.g. via academic literature, or perhaps Ipsos’ BrandLife) can also offer additional research insights (e.g. drivers of each segment, motivations) 12.

The images also offer very brief glimpses of both middle-class to upper middle class professionals (e.g. possess a car to drive, consuming cigars and alcohol at bar) and a glimpse of how low income families live in the cultural context of the participant studied.

Applications: Behavioural Economics and Social Responsibility

One application through behaviour economics would be to prime positive brand associations with the emotional resonance of social purpose/responsibility. For instance, one Ipsos Views paper examining the behavioural lens explains how Persil, a UK laundry detergent, initiated a brand re-positioning campaign (e.g. #dirtisgood) to associates their brand with a broader social purpose, specifically the need for children to have more free time, which is crucial for childhood development 13. Leisure time and play have been well-documented in resiliency, educational and developmental psychology 14. For the brand, an effort integrating behavioural economics creates emotional resonance for customers by priming positive memory associations that are intertwined with deeply meaningful and important life priorities (e.g. parenting, family, children).

A hypothetical strategy that could extend from their real campaign could further benefit the company’s so-called triple bottom line (e.g. profit, purpose, people) by doing several things: create a new or connected campaign through TV, ads, online, promotions etc, that associates Persil as a brand that cares not only about the free time of children (in wealthier middle-class families), but especially wants to improve the free leisure time of potentially at-risk children living in inner-city or lower-income neighbourhoods.

Careful, thoughtful strategy in coordination with ground-level community groups and organizations could better effectively deliver this campaign. For instance, corporate social responsibility initiatives from Persil could partner with non-profits in those low income neighbourhoods and university research labs specializing in educational technology and apps for children. Collaborations could then develop Persil-branded apps, serious games or even printed children’s activity workbooks through well-researched, strategic nudges through a behavioural economics approach. Doing so could empower children towards more diverse and developmentally beneficial forms of free and leisure time. In addition, such collaborations could positively shape consumer behavior while simultaneously benefitting the profitability, social responsibility and stronger brand positioning of brands 15. Specifically, brands can see results such as meaningful, positive emotions about Persil within the memories of consumers and their emotional associations.

Admittedly, I have taken some liberty to expand the hypothetical scenario from what Persil has notably accomplished in their CSR campaign. Ultimately, interdisciplinary research designs that advocate for social responsibility within their grounding theoretical framework may offer intriguing new possibilities for researchers and consultants. In fact, it also positions us with opportunities to help brands align their business objectives with social responsibility purposes in a strategy that simultaneously exploits their existing business goals while exploring innovation for future growth 16.

Benefits, Value and Future Directions:

1. Strengthens Brand Associations & Brand Communication:

The potential of developing a research framework for market research that integrates visual ethnography data alongside behavioural economics, various psychological theories, visual semiotics, cultural theory, etc, opens up interesting dialogues of present benefits and future directions. For brands, it empowers them to leverage priming and nudging applications for not only business and revenue growth, but genuine social impact campaigns that can satisfy growing customer expectations and create deep, meaningful memory associations that can improve customer loyalty 17.

2. Flexible Integrations with Other Research Tools + More Data:

Of course, this research design can be flexibly adapted, fully capable of being used alongside other qualitative methods (e.g. day in the life ethnography), biometrics, eye-tracking, projective tests, GSR’s, neuroscience tools and other quantitative or qualitative approaches. If more immersive interviews or ethnographies are necessary, it may be advantageous to leverage the Implicit Reaction Timer (IRT) to gather additional data and insights through a behavioural economics approach, measuring unconscious associations in comparison to direct stated responses of participants/consumers 18. Other, unifying theoretical frameworks in addition to a behavioural economics lens can also be integrated also (E.g. SAM) 19.

3. Multicultural Applications Globally and Locally.

Visual ethnography also opens different ways of engaging data that can provide multicultural applications across segments in different countries, and in multicultural families within North American contexts 20.

By prompting participants from anywhere around the world to capture their own photos, alongside their own commentary and reflections, researchers can code for themes, attributed meanings, and leverage visual semiotics and cultural theory to determine the localized artifacts and aspects that shape the participants’ worldview, perceptions, and conscious motivations. Common themes, unique insights, special cases and diverse outliers will emerge (even within a particular customer segment and group). The natural application is for research of segments in different countries. But multicultural applications are also especially important within North America too. According to Nielson, research indicates that 45% of 75 million millennials (the second largest generation in the US) are considered multicultural (e.g. Asian-American, African American, Hispanics) 21. These growing number of “multicultural millennial” families are looking for brands and “products to enhance and support their connections to culture” 22.

For researchers, this offers clients yet another option to better position their brand to stand out, increase revenue and improve customer loyalty.


Brands that benefit most from market research and research designs are mindful of how their customers continue to evolve in their conscious expectations of the brand itself and in their own unconscious associations of the brand. A theoretically robust application of visual ethnography, informed by behavioural economics, depth psychology, existential psychology, visual semiotics, anthropology, cultural theory, etc, can open new conversations between market researchers, consultants, and businesses that can not only meet growing consumer demands and expectations, but also exploit existing business objectives, explore innovation for future growth, deepen customer relationships, and genuinely advocate for social impact. As market researchers and consultants, there are intriguing opportunities ahead to help brands strategize innovative solutions that empower both company growth and social responsibility, in alignment with business goals and measurable, actionable insights. 23


  1. Pew Research.
  2. Hoar, A & Andy, P (Forrester Research).  “Latest Trends in B2B eCommerce Strategies and Tech Investment”, June 2, 2015 [IRCE Conference Presentation].
  3. Walker Research. White Paper. ; Super Office.
  4. Multicultural Millennials: The Multicultural Effect. January 2017; A Fresh Look at Multicultural Customers. Feb 2, 2016 ;
  5. Misery Loves Companies: Rethinking Social Initiatives by Business. Joshua D. Margolis, James P. Walsh. 2003.
  6. Behavioral Economics and Our Brain’s Predisposition Towards the Negative.
  7. Life Moments Research: A rapid and cost-effective approach to capturing Day in the Life insights.
  8. ibid.
  9. Visual Anthropology: Essential Method and Theory, Fadwa El Guindi. p 227.
  10. ibid.
  11. Foucault, Michel. 1979. Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. New York: Vintage Books. ; Hall, Stuart. 1990. Cultural Identity and Diaspora. Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. Jonathan Rutherford. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 222-237.
  13. Bourgeat, Pascal. Ipsos Views: Is the Behavioural Lens Out of Focus? How to make behaviourwork in CPG, financial services, technology and retail.
  14. Beals, Laura & Bers, Marina Umaschi. 2009. A developmental lens for designing virtual world for children and youths. International Journal of Learning and Media, 1, (1), 51-65; Christensen, Clayton M. & Overdorf, Michael. 2000. “Meeting the Challenge of Disruptive Change” Harvard Business Review, March–April 2000; Kalil, Ariel (2003). Family Resilience and Good Child Outcomes: A Review of the Literature. Wellington: Centre for Social Research Evalution, Ministry of Social Development.
  15. Three Ways the Internet of Things Is Shaping Consumer Behaviour
  16. Harvard Business Review. “The Ambidextrous Organization”. 2004
  17. Rubens, K. A nudge in the green direction. . January 23, 2017.
  18. Ipsos Research. Implicit Reaction Time (IRT) Methodology at Ipsos. ; Ipsos Blog. April 27, 2015.
  19. Bourgeat, Pascal. Ipsos Views: Is the Behavioural Lens Out of Focus? How to make behaviour work in CPG, financial services, technology and retail.
  20. Krase, J. A Visual Approach to Multiculturalism.
  21. Multicultural Millennials: The Multicultural Effect. January 2017; A Fresh Look at Multicultural Customers. Feb 2, 2016 .–the-multiplier-effect.html
  22. ibid.
  23. Harvard Business Review. “The Ambidextrous Organization.” 2004.

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