“So that the goat doesn’t eat my laundry”

International market research poses challenges. Cultural peculiarities need to be recognized and taken into account at all research stages. This also applies to recruiting participants. Jin Jlussi from Spiegel Institut Mannheim points out where pitfalls may lurk.

Successful international market research often depends on the project manager’s intercultural skills, especially when conducting field research and recruiting participants. If, for example, she wants to find out what a good laundry detergent might be, she should ensure that the participants in her study can relate to the question at hand. Depending on the country, consumers may have very different ideas of what makes a good laundry detergent.

In Germany, for example, it is important to many consumers that their white clothes don’t turn grey in the wash. In South Africa or Brazil, however, some fear the family’s goat may get its teeth on clothes hung out to dry. And in China, socks should not be washed with underwear, as this is considered unhygienic. Such cultural specifics should be defined prior to preparing the methodology, and attention should be paid to these in all phases of market research.

As an international institute operating in over 80 countries, we deal with cultural peculiarities on a daily basis. Over 90 percent of our studies are conducted abroad. Our clients operate internationally or even have their headquarters in another country. It is not uncommon to apply screening criteria, target group definitions, or questionnaires across several countries.

In order to attract participants, it is especially important to recognize cultural specifics in advance and raise awareness of these among the project staff. It is not enough to just have basic knowledge of the market such as the local currency or which measure of length used.

One example is income. People in China do not like to give information about how much money they make, similar to Germans. In some studies, however, income represents an important factor as a certain level of purchasing power may be required for the data set. In Germany, we are able to solve this problem by providing multiple income brackets that the candidates can choose from. In China, however, you have to ask additional screening questions to obtain the information. For example, we ask the subjects where and how they live and what their favorite brands are. In this way, we can estimate their standard of living and assess their income.

The cultural specifics are greater in countries in which a national identity comes from a mix of different ethnic groups, languages, and customs. Project managers must be particularly sensitive, especially if the client expects a representative sample.

For example, South Africa has eleven official languages. In South America, the dialects of Spanish are very different, and one word may have a different meaning from one region to the next. In countries where English is not an official language, it can be hard finding participants with sufficient knowledge of the language. In some regions of the world, such as rainforests, it is difficult or even impossible for market researchers to gain access. Specific customs must be taken into account also when dealing with indigenous peoples.

In Guyana, for example, English is the national language. However, drawing up materials for data collection and planning a study are affected by other factors such as differences in level of education and other social differences, varying customs, or ideas about etiquette.

It also makes a difference if the participants live in urban or rural settings. On top of this, there may be problems such as illiteracy or lack of computer skills. In addition, demographic issues in some regions or for specific sections of the population can lead to stigma. This can be triggered, for example, by asking about ethnicity or the level of education of the participants.

When recruiting in Germany, we have observed that there are great differences in attracting participants and that we have to contact different target groups through various channels. Experience has shown that we can reach most subjects by email. Older generations, however, prefer to be contacted by telephone or even receive an invitation by post. On the other hand, our colleagues in China have found the most effective tool for recruiting to be the app WeChat.

This is also due to a shift in demand towards the Generation Z as the main consumer group in the Chinese market. Our partners in Romance-speaking countries set up appointments on short notice, whenever possible. In Germany, however, subjects prefer to plan in the longer term and seek a binding appointment ahead of time.
An intense look at the target market is therefore essential for successful international market research. At best, it should be linked to sustainable risk management so that market researchers are well equipped for whatever arises.

(Image source: iStock.com/maki_shmaki)