Tea and Crumpets: A Brit’s Reflection on Conducting International Qualitative Research

By Tim Sweeney, SIL Group, Denver, CO, sil@silgroup.com

Research to support international marketing decisions has evolved over the past four decades and must change even more to support firms in the twenty-first century,” write NYU professors C. Samuel Craig and Susan P. Douglas in Conducting International Marketing Research in the Twenty-First Century. The professors go on to say, “There are four key areas where progress must be made. First, international marketing research efforts need to be aligned with market growth opportunities outside the industrialized nations.

“Second, researchers must develop the capability to conduct and coordinate research that spans diverse research environments. Third, international marketing researchers need to develop new creative approaches to probe the cultural underpinnings of behavior. Finally, technological advances need to be incorporated into the research process in order to facilitate and expedite research conducted across the globe.”

This article takes a humorous approach to the areas where progress needs to be made within three categories of international research:

  1. Working within the US for international clients.
  2. Working outside the US for US clients.
  3. Working outside the US for international clients.

Working Within The US For International Clients.

You might want to start with brand issues

If you are conducting research in the US on behalf of a international client, it is likely that you will be working as a subcontractor for a international research agency that is coordinating a multi-country project. As such, you are probably working with colleagues who have prior experience in international research (although they may or may not be that experienced at working in the US). However, their client may not have the same level of international experience, and thus you may have to explain things in more detail.

Cultural Icons: Did Alexander the Great make it to China?

Here’s a fun brand issue that we ran into when working with a European client. Their beverage brand in Europe uses a centaur as their logo. Interestingly, in the United States, their biggest markets are Chinese immigrants and second generation. For context, Chinese mythology includes Tianma, a creature called the “celestial horse” or the “heavenly horse,” and most Chinese had never heard of the centaur in Greek mythology. The American Chinese liked the brand because they assumed the horse-like image was drawn from Chinese mythology. We recommended that our client emphasize the centaur image more prominently in communicating with this segment and to not do anything to dispel the misperception the logo refers to the celestial horse.

Regulatory Differences: Unlike Europe, the US government does not pay forfree universal dental care

We once had a European client who makes expensive dental equipment. They were puzzled over why US dentists were so price conscious and oriented towards the used equipment market. We had to point out that, unlike in Europe where national health services pay for dental care, private insurance coverage for dental care in the US is not common and not extensive. This requires dentists to price their services for a largely self-pay patient base, which in turn makes them cost conscious.

Brand Positioning: Can differ across the pond

The international client may not always appreciate their brand’s position in the US market, especially if it’s incompatible with a desired global brand position. We had a European airline that flies globally and wanted to position itself as a “diverse and multicultural” brand. Americans, by contrast, selected this airline precisely because it was not diverse or multicultural, but rather because they associated it with a more sentimental and stereotypical image of England, the American colonists’ mother country.

Fieldwork Only: Pass or mark it up

If you are working with an overseas agency, they may want to control the research and/or save money by sending their people to the US to conduct the groups and write the report; this reduces the US agency to the status of fieldwork coordinator. If this is not what you want to do, politely tell them that you are not a fieldwork company. If they prefer, you can direct them to a fieldwork directory. If they insist you manage the field, then charge them accordingly.

Translation: We don’t need a translator for the LA Hispanic groups. We’re from Spain.

If the US groups are being conducted in the client’s language, they may feel no need for a translator. However, you may wish to explain that what Catalans speak in Barcelona is different from what Chicanos speak in LA.

Status Conscious Cultures: If you hire a translator, make sure they have equal status to the clients.

Many clients come from highly social-status conscious societies. If you hire one of their nationals in the US to provide translations, make sure they are not perceived as being beneath the client’s social class.

Travel Considerations: Would you fly from London to Tel Aviv and back again in the same day?

Many international clients do not appreciate the size of the United States. I have had clients who wanted to conduct morning groups in New York and afternoon groups the same day in Los Angeles. This, of course, required a quick geography lesson when explaining that this was not possible. Further, the client may not have full knowledge of governmental and regulatory issues that can affect their business.

Travel Logistics: You can arrange all our travel plans too, right?

Client service goes only so far. Inter-national clients may be used to a different level of customer service from their consultants and request that you provide services outside the scope of your professional responsibility. For example, I’ve had clients request that I arrange travel for them. You can suggest travel arrangements, inform them of travel times, distances, time zones, hotels, etc. However, unless you want to be in the travel agency business, politely suggest that they hire a local travel consultant to make their arrangements.

Managing Deliverables: What’s a 100-page report in Japan? Twice as good as a 50-page report

Expectations of deliverables vary across cultures. Where an American CEO might want a two-page bullet point summary, other cultures value comprehensiveness. Make sure you know what their expectations are. 

Your Client Decision-maker: Nine clients have given input but the only one that matters is the one who hasn’t said a word.

Consensus and collaboration are often a smokescreen for conflict avoidance. Some cultures may appear to value all managers’ input, when in fact there is only one decision maker whose opinion is of any importance.

Unexpected Market Dynamics: “If we are the most exclusive brand in the world, why are we on a discount website?”

Overseas clients may not appreciate the US market dynamics. Unless the manufacturer buys back unsold merchandise, it gets jobbed out to a discounter. That’s how your ultra-exclusive brand, sold only in the finest shops in the world’s most elegant districts, winds up at 80% off in a cheap store in a dodgy section of town. Thus, when the client says they want the groups done with their recent customers, make sure you get the type of customer they really have in mind.

Working Outside the US for US Clients

I thought people in England spoke English?

As George Bernard Shaw said, “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” As any moderator from Brooklyn who has done groups in Mississippi (or any moderator from Mississippi who has done groups in Brooklyn) will tell you, nothing will say “outsider” more than not being understood despite the fact that you are speaking their language. So, don’t do those groups in Glasgow yourself; get a Glaswegian moderator.

A pound for a kilo?

Be aware that the US is the outlier in the world of weights and measures. If you’re doing work in the UK, for example, and a consumer says, “I wouldna give you a pound for a kilo of that,” he or she is saying the price per unit of weight is too expensive.

Let’s save a buck by using a machine translator for the report.

Automated translations are no substitute for having a native speaking, bilingual translator help prepare your report. While Google Translate is good enough for emails and texts, language is local, idiomatic and ever-changing; machine learning may not have kept up.

Do we really need separate groups for men and women?

Even when a focus group topic is gender-neutral, you might need to remind your US clients that not every society expects or wants “boys and girls to play nicely” together. Rely on your local partner to navigate the cultural minefield.

Château Lafite Rothschild? Is that like a big cab or a zin?”

Finally, don’t succumb to American provincialism. If you are going to work overseas, try to be as world-wise as you can. If you don’t speak French, at least learn to say, Je suis désolé, mon français n’est pas très bon.

Working Outside the US For International Clients

A faithful translation may be unreadable

Brand names don’t always work in all languages (the famous example being the Chevrolet Nova which failed in Brazil since “nova” in the vernacular meant “does not go”). Further, one only need read an English language technical manual written by a Chinese manufacturer to appreciate the value of local translation. More fundamental, however, is that a product may be so culturally specific that it defies crossing borders. For example, we worked with an Asian business newspaper that wanted to publish an English language version. The problem was that a translation that tried to stay true to the intent of the original was unreadable. A more readable English version was in fact not a translation, but an entirely different product.

Consider other markets: Go bottom fishing

If you are working for a international client in a market outside the US, it’s likely that you both may have certain preconceptions. Thus, not only must you be open to learning something new, but you must also be able to enlighten your client in the same way. For example, I worked for a European mobile phone company that wanted to enter a South American market. Their expectation was that they would sell high-end products and services to a well-to-do elite. Unfortunately, that segment was both small and well-established with the market leader. Instead, the vast majority in the lower socio-economic classes presented a better entry opportunity. While unit sales revenues would be smaller, the size of the market would more than compensate. The client was reluctant to target this less prestigious segment with “bargain” priced products and services. We had to point out that, like a vessel that’s come late to the fishing grounds, all the high-value, easy-to-catch fish were taken. However, if they were willing to go after the less valuable but more numerous bottom fish, they could still be successful.

The advantage of living in a multicultural society

In conclusion, each scenario for conducting international qualitative research presents its own unique challenges when you are managing a multinational study. Aside from the usual constraints relative to language, time, distance, and currency exchange, the effect of culture and local conditions can impact your ability to conduct and manage a successful project.

Luckily for US researchers, we live in a multicultural society ourselves and so probably have more experience working with culturally and linguistically diverse populations within the US. This may give the US researcher an advantage when dealing with international clients, colleagues, suppliers, and respondents.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply