In 2006 a major European brewing company was faced with falling bar and pub sales and, despite muscular market research and competitive analysis, couldn’t figure out why. Customers liked its core product, a standard lager, and store sales were up. But something wasn’t clicking in bars, and aggressive promotions weren’t helping. What was wrong?
Having exhausted conventional research approaches, the brewing company commissioned a team of social anthropologists to visit a dozen bars in the UK and Finland to find out.
The anthropologists approached the project as if they were studying an unfamiliar tribe in Borneo. They immersed themselves in the life of the bars, simply observing the owners, staff, and regulars without any hypothesis about what they might find. They returned with 150 hours of ethnographic video, several thousand still photographs, and hundreds of pages of field notes. Over the ensuing weeks a team of managers from the brewery sifted through the raw data together with the anthropologists, searching for themes.
In time, patterns emerged. Although the brewery had thought that bar owners valued its promotional materials—coasters, stickers, T-shirts, and so on—in fact those items were at best underused, at worst treated with derision (in one bar, a researcher found them crammed inside a cupboard and labeled “box of crap”). The team also discovered that female servers felt trapped in their jobs and resented having to be flirtatious, an experience they referred to as being “hot pantsed.” What’s more, they knew very little about the brewery’s products and didn’t want to know any more—and yet they were a primary channel for sales.
These findings and others led to a sharp shift in how the brewery approached pubs and bars. Instead of bombarding them with one-size-fits-all promotional materials, it began customizing items for different types of bars and bar owners. It trained its salespeople to understand each bar owner better and invented a tool to help owners organize sales campaigns. It created in-workplace “academies” to train waitstaff about its brands and won over female servers by providing taxi service for employees who worked late. After two years the brewery’s pub and bar sales rebounded, and both sales and market share continue to grow.