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American Breakfast & the Mother-in-Law: How an Anthropologist Created Go-Gurt
Today anthropologists are helping firms gain deeper insights about their customers through the observations and story-telling methods found in ethnography.
This case study describes how one anthropologist discovered new ways of thinking about food consumption in the morning.
Our story begins at the front door of the Kelly residence.
It is 6:30AM and it is barely light.
Tom, a designer and I, the anthropologist, stand at the front of a suburban home in northern California.
With us we carry over stuffed bags filled with video cameras, film, batteries, tape recorders, paper and pens.
We are about to have breakfast with a family we have never met.
The Kellys are one of several families that were visited as part of the Breakfast Study. While this case study describes the visit to the Kelly home, the discoveries we made during this visit are representative of all the visits.
I shift the bag I carry onto my other arm, knock on the door and wait.
Tom looks at me and mutters,
“I can’t believe we’re doing this. What a way to make a living.”
The door opens into a dark empty hall. Tom and I look down to see the silent up turned face of a smiling four-year old.
A voice echoes from the kitchen.
“Come on in. We’ve been expecting you.” And then she adds, “Close the door, Jack.”
Jack pushes the door shut and runs ahead of us down the hall and into the kitchen. We follow.
Soon, Tom and I are sipping coffee at the kitchen table engaged in small talk with Mom and Jack’s older brother Kevin, age six.
Jack has left us in favor of the family TV that is booming away in the living room.
Mom is leading the conversation and we let her talk.
“Well, I’m not sure I have anything more to tell anyone. “If you want, I’ll tell you what I told the people at the focus group.”
Mom takes out a package of whole grain waffles and puts a couple in the toaster.
“I only feed my kids whole grain, nutritious food.”
“It gives them a good start to the day.” Mom tells us. “I know Kevin does better on his tests when I make sure he’s has a good breakfast. Want some waffles?” She smiles.
Tom and I shake our heads no. I certainly didn’t feel like having a waffle at, what was it now, 6:45? As Mom talks she moves rapidly around the kitchen.
Mom takes a banana from a bowl.
She gets some yogurt from the fridge, packing lunch for the boys. The toaster pops up and Mom puts the waffles on plates and butters them while she tells us about her day.
“My husband left just before you got here. He never eats breakfast. I think he grabs something at a 7-11 later on. But I make sure the kids eat. Jack, get in here and eat your waffle.”
Mom interrupts to call the four year old.
Jack pays absolutely no attention to her and continues to watch the cartoons on TV.
Mom smiles at us and puts a plate of waffles in front of Kevin.
“Jack’s in daycare. I drop him off first, then I take Kevin to school. He’s in the first grade. I’m usually out of here by 7 or 7:15. It’s so early for them but what can I do? My husband has to be at work pretty early so its up to me to take the kids to school before I go to work.”
We make our first “discovery.”
While Mom was telling us about the nutritious lunch, she had just made for her two sons; Kevin left the table. He returned with a bowl of red, whiteand blue sugar pebble crisp cereal and milk. Meanwhile Mom was showing us how she got her kids to eat fresh fruit by mixing it into the kid’s yogurt. She paid no attention to Kevin as he ate his cereal.
“Where did you get that?” I ask Kevin pointing to the cereal.
“From the cabinet, of course,” he tells me with a puzzled look. He knows I saw him get the cereal.
“How is it?” I ask.
“It makes the milk turn blue.”
Kevin stirs the cereal in his bowl to demonstrate. The milk is really turning blue.
“Pretty cool,” I note. “Did your Mom buy this for you?”
Kevin looks at me. “Not her. My Dad, he likes it too.”
Mom comes over to the table and begins taking things to the sink.
“Oh that.” She points to the cereal. “His father buys that.”
She explains as she picks up Kevin’s waffle and eats it licking the syrup off her fingers.
She heads to the dishwasher with Kevin’s empty dish and Jack’s uneaten waffle.
“Jack are you ready to go?”
She shouts at the living room as she shoves Jack’s waffle down the garbage disposal. Jack appears with a blanket wrapped around him. During the time we were with the Kelly family, we never did see Jack eat anything.
Mom hands him his lunch container and says,
“Here, take this and get in the car. You too Kevin.” Mom picks up her car keys.
“Well that’s about it,” she tells us.
Tom and I slowly begin to pack up our equipment.
We were bidding our good-byes when the phone rang. Mom ran to the counter and picked it up.
“I’m late,” she informs the caller. “Yeah, whole grain waffles, juice, milk. Hey, I’ve got to go. Talk to you this afternoon.”
She hangs up and turned to Tom and me.
“My mother-in-law,” she explains. “Calls almost every morning to see if the kids have had a good breakfast.
“My mother-in-law thinks I should stay home with the kids.”
“She doesn’t think I have time to feed them good food when we’re always on the run. What does she know?”
“In her day she fed her kids (my husband being one of them) bacon and eggs in the morning: cholesterol. Just goes to show you!”
“Hey, I’m watching out for my kids. I’m a good Mom.”
We continued to follow various Kelly members in the following days.
We drove with Dad on his way to work stopping at a 7-11 for coffee and a banana.
He told us about Saturday morning breakfast with Kevin and about shopping with his kids, buying cereal like the “stuff he ate when he was a kid.”
We also arrange to observe at Jack’s daycare.
The day we visited Jack’s daycare, the kids were playing outside.
We found Jack sitting on the grass near the edge of the playground area.
“Hey, Jack, remember us?”
I asked walking over to where he sat. Jack nodded.
“What are you doing over here anyway?”
“Eating my lunch.”
Jack looked at first Tom then me.
“I got hungry.”
What We Learned About Families & Breakfast
Moms, dads, and relatives all share the belief that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but they differ about what a “good” breakfast is:
A successful new food in this market, had to meet the needs of all of these family members.
The healthy, fun, breakfast alternative, Go-Gurt, brought in $37 million in sales in its first year despite limited distribution and was featured in Newsweek. As one California mom commented in the Newsweek article, “My Kid Thinks She’s Eating a Popsicle for Breakfast, But It’s Better For Her” (Newsweek October 11, 1999).
The Anthropologist in This Story
Susan Squires, Ph.D. is a former Director of GVO Interaction, and a senior social scientist with over ten years of professional ethnographic research experience. She has conducted research in corporate settings, health and human service agencies, communities, and in schools throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia. Her endeavors have brought her to the attention of Fast Company, Le Nouvel Observateur, USA Today, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Toronto’s Globe and Mail, the News Journal and Christian Science Monitor.
Her book, Creating Breakthrough Ideas, was published in 2001.