International Market Research

What is International Qual research?

During my nearly 20 year career as an International qual researcher in the UK and Spain, I sometimes got the impression that some could see International research as “being the same as domestic research, only “on a bigger scale”….which could not be further from reality!

Specialism and experience are essential in design, conduct, analysis and interpretation. In any decision we need to be culturally sensitive and we can’t simply apply a Spanish (or UK or French) methodology everywhere. For instance, when thinking of carrying out interviews with younger people or women.

Efficacy in the qualitative process translates into a drive for comparability on an international scale. Having said that, strict comparability runs the risk of producing standardised research and losing key creative insight.

On the one hand, we are on an international mission: our client has global aims and objectives that we need to keep in mind during all the process. And on the other hand, we need to understand the local context.

Fostering creativity, particularly in strategy and advertising development, calls for an environment that:

  • Should allow new ideas to “get through”, yet provides sufficient comparability: it’s about fashioning the process
  • And should allow the understanding of different cultures: it’s about understanding the framework

So, in an ideal world an international researcher should “be there”: immerging themselves in the local context and work hand in hand with the local researchers / moderator to really dig into local culture, go beyond the surface so as to gain specific insight for each country.

Sensitivity to local consumers and market conditions are needed for the interpretation of research findings:

  • “Glocalisation”: combining global (objectives) and local (differences) do not constitute obstacles but opportunities to improve the client’s offer.
  • Language: Taglines, for instance, English words encapsulating different meanings, some of which can be lost in translation, so it is better to be involved in preparation of stimulus material from the beginning.
  • Cultural references: for example, the colour red means danger and caution in the Middle East vs. good luck, long life and happiness in Eastern / Asian cultures!
  • Religion
  • Consumption and behaviour patterns: For instance, Tea vs. Coffee countries; Butter vs. (olive) Oil countries, etc.
  • Legislative: For example, when Red Bull was launched, its formula had to be modified in France as Taurine was not legally allowed.
  • Marketing and advertising literacy: This definitely has an impact on how consumers respond to creative executions. Let’s take countries like the US, Australia or Germany: There they can get to the core concept of advertising strategy and they can go beyond executional elements. It’s not about giving them only a product description but also showing them how relevant it can be to their lifestyle and values. And at the other end of the spectrum we may find countries like China where takeout is more literal i.e., they take more things at face value, so communication has to convey more basic and educational messages: what the product is and what it does. And it should be aspirational too (importance of status), yet relevant to local context.

At the end of the day, it’s about thinking global but acting local, because the marketplace and the market research industry can be so different between countries. So knowledge of the stereotypical differences helps…as it can help a lot when it comes to analysis & interpretation of the research findings across different countries. For instance, a quiet German response is not necessarily negative, and in Japan, it’s impolite to criticise. So, if you show respondents an ad or a new product concept or whatever it may be, people will nod all the time, even if they don’t like it, which can be very confusing for us Westerners.

Therefore, it is crucial to get ongoing feedback and communication with the local moderator because they know their market well and they can always shed light on any question we may have. It is also worth highlighting that speaking the local market language is also a big bonus for an international researcher, as it enables them to really get a real feel for what and how respondents say or feel in their own words. Because in some instances a lot of very valuable information can be “lost in translation”….

We should never underestimate the fact that people’s attitude to life, values and lifestyle can vary immensely. On the one hand, you’ve got countries that are more pragmatic, and think more rationally (e.g. Germany, Japan / Asia, Eastern Europe) and on the other, countries which are more feeling based, free flowing, that is, it’s not frowned upon to show feelings and emotions (e.g. France, Spain, Italy, South America)

Secondly, with reference to what was just explained about different levels of advertising literacy, there can be differences in terms of marketing emancipation. So in countries like Europe and the USA, consumers naturally employ words like segmentation, targeting, etc. Whereas in Asia, it’s a relatively newer science, so it’s not that they’re not interested, it’s just that they are a bit behind in terms of knowledge and awareness, so the industry needs educating.

Next, moderating styles can vary a lot too. So in countries where long warmups are needed, people are more serious. The role of the moderator is really to encourage and guide people in a relaxed way. However, in countries like Argentina, Spain or Italy, people tend to be too talkative in groups, which can be really anarchic so the moderator really has to be in control, and therefore people can be told to shut up if needs be.

Similarly, when we use projective techniques, we mustn’t forget that in some countries (Northern Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia and the USA to a certain extent) people are less spontaneously creative and can find it hard to go beyond rationality. So they tend to see projectives more as a task to do, hence the importance to warm them up well with a series of quick exercises, using analogies for example, i.e. if this brand were a car / animal / country, what kind of car / animal / country would it be...etc. before doing a guided fantasy or brand fingerprint. In other countries (France, South America and Southern Europe), people are more spontaneously creative, they express themselves very easily and they enjoy the fantasy elements. So projectives are more like a game to them, a pleasure even!

However, in more rational countries, visual techniques can often overcome verbal reticence, which is why collages tend to work well everywhere.

Talking about visuals, it is very important to make sure that they’re suited to every single market, as far as cultural references are concerned (representation of wealth, class, romance, etc.). The choice of visuals (cityscapes, brands, etc.)  and characters (ethnicity, class, fashion, etc.).  Also must be relevant so that people can identify with them. And sensitivity to possible offence is crucial – especially religious (women smoking, dress codes, relationship codes, etc.). For instance, in Japan sexiness is unappealing and being demure is preferred.

So in the end…International research is definitely NOT the same as national “on a bigger scale”. And in my view, the best chance of “getting it right” depends on knowing how to fashion the process as well as understanding the framework: Sense and Sensitivity

Angélique Facondini

Senior International Qualitative Research Specialist