At the ESOMAR 3D Digital Dimensions conference in Boston this week, Olga Churkina of Fresh Intelligence Research and Tristan Morris of PepsiCo shared a fascinating mobile ethnography case study which featured a game of Marketing VPs vs. Aliens. And the great news is this gamification technique is accessible to almost anyone from Planet Earth who conducts online surveys.

Tristan represents the voice of the consumer inside the marketing department, and he is “bombarded” with questions about consumers’ interactions with PepsiCo’s food products: Frito Lay snacks and Quaker granola bars and cereals. One question was vexing his team: why, if Tostitos is the second leading snack brand in Canada, does it not sell as well in western Canada as it does in eastern Canada? In the West, Tostitos faced competition from many small brands with just 1% or 2% share nationwide – as a result, these brands were poorly understood.

The challenge with researching snacks is that they are often missing from grocery lists but purchased on impulse. And surveys done afterwards don’t always catch what drove the purchase: while people recall major purchases, they often can’t truly recall when or why they most recently bought a snack. For PepsiCo, true insights need to combine consumer observation with shopper observation. Sadly, on the shopper side, satisfaction with grocery shopping has been declining 15% a year in Canada – shoppers are busier, more budget oriented, and simply enjoying grocery shopping less than in the past.

Tostitos Canada

Tostitos® Restaurant Style Tortilla Chips, Canadian packaging


PepsiCo tasked Fresh Intelligence with answering some key questions:

  • How do consumers view Tostitos in the West?
  • How does this contrast with the view in the East?
  • How do they view Tostitos relative to its low-share competitors?
  • How does the in-store environment or shopping behavior limit Tostitos sales?


While Olga felt that an online survey would assist with answering many of these questions, she was looking for a way to mobilize, entertain and engage respondents to explore the questions in more detail. She decided gamification would help; she used the survey to ask participants if they would opt in to a mobile game.

Fresh Intelligence fielded an online survey to 1,000 respondents, of whom 140 self-selected to play the game. The game was conceived of as mobile ethnography with the participants themselves becoming ethnographers. They could choose to join one of two teams — “Marketing VPs” or “Aliens”:

  • Marketing VPs had to photograph the display of Tostitos and its competitors in stores
  • The Aliens had “no idea how humans consume tortilla chips and should send back photos of humans with tortilla chips.”


Despite fears that respondents might favor one team over another, respondents self-selected 50/50 into the two teams. The result was a nice twist on digital observational research.

The survey completed by participants enabled Olga to profile them in detail and better understand where they were coming from. The ethnography revealed that Tostitos’ low-share competitors – who often they had trouble getting space on shelves in the snack aisle – were instead displayed in deli and produce aisles, where they received a “halo effect” of being more nutritional than they were. In contrast, Tostitos was merchandised in the snack aisle and seen as a snack. Additionally, the “aliens” found that humans consumed tortilla chips with all manner of toppings – cheese, chili, avocado, tomatoes, sour cream, salt and pepper, etc. – but that Tostitos were seen as the chip that went with salsa.

Another key insight was that tortilla chips were consumed as part of a richer experience in the West, which seemed to be “foodier.” The chips were often a key ingredient in a meal, or a special side, not just a snack. They were part of a dining experience, “part of a happy moment.” Again, the position of Tostitos as the chip to dip into salsa was cutting into sales.

PepsiCo is adjusting its merchandising and messaging based on these findings and changing its strategy in Western Canada as a result of this research.

While gamification of research is often seen as time consuming and expensive, the case of Marketing VPs vs. Aliens shows how easily a fun qualitative exercise using smartphone photos can be connected to a traditional online survey. Try it! The resulting insights might be out of this world.

Author Notes:

Jeffrey Henning

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Jeffrey Henning, IPC is a professionally certified researcher and has personally conducted over 1,400 survey research projects. Jeffrey is a member of the Insights Association and the American Association of Public Opinion Researchers. In 2012, he was the inaugural winner of the MRA’s Impact award, which “recognizes an industry professional, team or organization that has demonstrated tremendous vision, leadership, and innovation, within the past year, that has led to advances in the marketing research profession.” In 2022, the Insights Association named him an IPC Laureate. Before founding Researchscape in 2012, Jeffrey co-founded Perseus Development Corporation in 1993, which introduced the first web-survey software, and Vovici in 2006, which pioneered the enterprise-feedback management category. A 35-year veteran of the research industry, he began his career as an industry analyst for an Inc. 500 research firm.