Nearly every company, prior to launching a product or entering a new market (or both) spends some effort on customer research. In fact, some cities (like our hometown of Columbus, Ohio) are studied more than others because they represent a reliable cross-section of tastes, economies, and other (trademarks) of the North American market. Wherever a company sets its gaze, surveys, focus groups, interviews all help vet ideas and give a better understanding of the wants and needs of target customers.
But what if you’re targeting customers beyond American borders?
It’s a great question, and one we answered recently when a major convenience store brand asked for advice on better understanding their international markets. We generated a report for them, which I’ll summarize for you here.
It’s easy to forget that, in this increasingly flat world, understanding cultural nuances is critically important to effective research. Here are five key ideas to keep in mind as you consider an international research methodology. I hope they help you avoid mistakes some companies make by assuming the techniques and investments you make here will yield the same insights far from home.
understand local trends and politics
Before you invest in localized research, take the time to study what’s happening in that region socially, politically, and economically. In the U.S. we take for granted just how stable this nation is — at the end of the day, our two primary political parties aren’t all that different in terms of the day-to-day functioning of the government and the economy. In other nations, however, political leadership can fluctuate wildly — and can influence how people live and buy. What’s happening in our market shouldn’t influence the questions you ask in the target region. Insensitivity can generate negative associations with your brand and cloud your ability to get an accurate read on local needs/wants/tastes.
there’s no substitute for feet-on-the-street expertise
It may be tempting to create a survey in a native language here, purchase a list, and send it out from the comfort of the home office. But you may find that a local research partner can facilitate a more effective outcome. Generally, the closer you are to the source, the more insightful and trustworthy the results. It’s like visiting a city with a knowledgeable local guide versus wandering the street with a guidebook. Localized ethnographic research — interviews in homes, face to face with customers — will generate more nuanced findings. The extra effort you make in establishing a local partner will pay off.
establish realistic research timelines
Not all countries operate on the same timeline we do, nor respond to research tactics similarly. The balance between work and leisure is different in many cultures (often meaning less work, more leisure) and the tools you rely on here for quick-turnaround research — online surveys, for example — may not be as broadly adopted elsewhere. So while your speed to market is compressing, the time to do research in new markets may not align with your goals. This is especially true when comparing emerging vs. industrialized markets. In-person, telephone, groups, and other tactics have different degrees of usage and acceptance across different markets.
translation takes time
And by that, we mean good translation. The ability to interpret and analyze data from diverse sources is extremely important for creating effective recommendations and strategies. Don’t skimp on translation of written, audio, and other forms of feedback. It’s important to manage this expectation: reliable, nuanced translation takes time and it isn’t cheap. But it’s worth the patience and expense. Don’t shy away from local expertise — embrace it. There may be cultural translation beyond the literal. It can help you understand what a response really means. Interpret the results through a local lens.
don’t deny American uniqueness
This may sound counterintuitive, given the above points, but it is also a valid consideration. There is an unquestionable expertise in retail here. So try to keep in mind a balance between local appropriateness — of knowing and understanding the local market — while not burying or denying the uniquely Western point of view we bring to projects.
A Menu of Options
At WD, we organize our international research offering into four primary offerings, which are tailored to each client and location based on the priority of that market.
Secondary Research and Trends Analysis
Why it’s useful: Keeps a finger on the pulse of ever changing market and consumer dynamics
Attitudes, Awareness and Usage Study (AA &U)
Why it’s useful: Establishes a comparative baseline for you vs. competitors and provides a quantitative base for further exploration
Why it’s useful: Gives us the ability to understand cultural context, household dynamics and practices, and family decision making, and helps us understand how shoppers interpret and relate to competitors, in-store environments, and how the retail environment affects shopper decision-making
Targeted Customer Segmentation
Why it’s useful: Allows for exploration of a target audience beyond demographic characteristics in order to more effectively tailor offerings to the most profitable segments