Most companies obsessively generate statistics about their products and those of their competitors. Sometimes, however, market intelligence derived from publicly available information is not enough. Those who desire a deeper understanding of their market potential and share - those out to predict purchase behavior and customer satisfaction - practice what the Japanese call genchi genbutsu: "going to the source."
If you want to know what consumers think, ask them.
It sounds simple enough. There are, however, at least three ways of going about this.
There's observational research, like the Fisher-Price Play Lab where designers watch children play with new toys. There's experimental research, wherein McDonald's introduces a new sandwich at one price in one city, and at another price in another city. And there's survey research, in which customers and potential customers are asked questions about their knowledge, attitudes, preferences, and buying behavior.
When marketing research goes international, the problems multiply quickly. Whereas domestic researchers deal with fairly homogenous markets within a single country, international researchers can be faced with summing up attitudes across different countries, in markets of wildly differing levels of economic development, cultures, customs, and buying patterns.
Language is the most obvious obstacle. For example, questionnaires must be prepared in one language and then translated into the languages of each country researched. Responses then must be translated back into the original language for analysis and interpretation. This adds to research costs and increases the risks of error.
Translating a questionnaire from one language to another is anything but easy. Many idioms, phrases, and statements mean different things in different cultures. Marketing professors Philip Kotler and Gary Armstrong cite the example of a Danish executive who advised, "Have a different translator put back into English, what you've translated from English.
"You'll get the shock of your life.
"I remember (an example in which) 'out of sight, out of mind' became 'invisible things are insane'" (Principles of Marketing, Philip Kotler & Gary Armstrong, Pearson Education, 2006).
Even people who are accustomed to market research and understand its benefits may be averse to freely providing information. This reticence is even more common in countries where market research is not common. Cultural attitudes can also play a role in this. Write Kotler and Armstrong, "In many Latin American countries, people may feel embarrassed to talk with researchers about their choices of shampoo, deodorant, or other personal-care products.
"Similarly, in most Muslim countries, mixed-gender focus groups are taboo, as is videotaping female-only focus groups."
Of course, the usual problems with accuracy, present in domestic marketing research, also apply internationally. People more interested in a subject are more inclined to respond (self-selection bias). In an attempt to appear more knowledgeable, educated, or wealthy than they are, they may falsify their answers, consciously or unconsciously, and even in an attempt to please the interviewer. Kotler and Armstrong recount a study of tea consumption in India in which, to seem well off, more than seventy percent of middle-income respondents claimed that they used one of several national brands. However, the researchers had good reason to doubt these results – more than sixty percent of the tea sold in India is unbranded generic tea.
The irony is that, in many foreign markets, primary data is absolutely vital because of the questionable validity and comparability of secondary data. In countries where corruption is more prevalent, for example, it may be difficult to get accurate secondary data about newspaper circulation figures, magazine subscriptions, and the popularity of television programs.
The differences between cultures and thus potential marketing pitfalls mean that global companies have little choice but to engage their consumers across the globe. Although the costs and problems associated with international research may be high, the costs of not doing it – in terms of missed opportunities and mistakes – might be even higher. Once recognized, many of the problems associated with international marketing research can be overcome or avoided.