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  • James Frohlich

Marketing Coffee with an Assist from "Netnographers"

I recently came across a fascinating piece by anthropologist Robert Kozinets on what he called "netnography," or internet-based ethnography.

Ethnography is typically something anthropologists do in person. They immerse themselves in the lives of another group, taking detailed notes on everything they see, hear, and experience.

In this instance, however, Kozinets immersed himself in the online world of coffee connoisseurs. More specifically, he closely read, coded and analyzed the text of discussions between enthusiastic coffee aficionados.

By studying these exchanges in depth, Kozinets learned how coffee connoisseurs had constructed a unique identity that was different and opposed to that of "ordinary" Starbucks customers.

Although Starbucks was itself created to offer a more distinctive experience, the chain has expanded too far, too fast to retain its distinctive credentials. With a Starbucks outlet now in almost every Target in the land, what kind of unique experience can it hope to offer?

In the years since Starbucks was created, devoted coffee-drinkers have taken the discussion much further, building ever more intricate worlds of taste, preferences, and products.

To some Americans, a Starbucks grandé may still be an overly expensive way of accessing caffeine, but to the expert coffee drinker, the pedestrian grandé has deteriorated into an uninspiring, mass-produced knockoff.

Using Kozinets' net-based research, a savvy marketing firm could devise a suite of bundled coffee-related products such as beans, cups, coffee makers and even clothing.

The ethnographic component of this marketing effort would be crucial, as even the most statistically representative of surveys could not know what to ask about in the first place.

In this case, survey research would follow up on insights gleaned from ethnography. First, however, market researchers would have to carefully read the online conversations to know which products, tastes and preferences to ask about. Qualitative "netnographic" research, in this instance, would precede any kind of large-N quantitative analysis.

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote long ago that ever-finer distinctions between categories of otherwise similar-looking things is a precondition for "good taste."

The more individuals distinguish between different types of coffee, the more expert they become.

And the more expert they become, the more willing they will be to pay for the products they know are distinctive.

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