The need for research across national borders grows each year. Improved communications and advancing technology may underpin the international corporate drive to expand into new markets.
However, this can only be successful if companies are able to discover a sophisticated mixture of cultural, socio-economic and market information on precisely how another country may provide a new and appropriate market for their goods and services.
Monika Bhaduri, director of international research at Taylor Nelson AGB, says: “Our main interface is with companies with research problems. They’re looking to move into a new market with their vacuum cleaner or washing-up liquid. They may want to move into Europe or the US or, having been brought up corporately in the West, be looking to expand into a new areas such as the Far East or Latin America.
“Initially they need broad market understanding of factors like size, composition of population and ethnic or religious background. They then need to know what product acceptability they will have. This means finding out about the product category in that country: do men or women tend to buy it, what are the main brands now, how much do they cost, how and how often are they used and replaced? For example, it is important to know that in Spain and Portugal people tend to consume cereal with yogurt rather than milk. Companies must also find out what the new market’s legal and political restraints or requirements are on packaging.”
Interfocus senior market analyst and planner Anne Edwards adds: “Once you have established that there is an opportunity for your category in another country, it is important to ascertain that your proposition is meaningful and relevant. The product may be good but the positioning or name or presentation may be irrelevant, be misunderstood or even give offence.”
There are many well-documented examples of names that don’t work across frontiers. Just two examples from the automotive industry are the Triumph Acclaim, which translates in German as “Sieg Heil” and the Nova, which means “doesn’t go” in Spanish.
Most companies will, of course, need to find out far more complex and strategic information than name and colour preferences in different countries. It may be vital to understand how brand image and brand values vary around the world. Bhaduri points to scotch whisky as a good example of a globally popular product with several significantly distinct brand equities.
She says: “Scotch is consumed globally but bought for many different reasons. You have to communicate the right image for each culture, without of course losing any of the product’s core brand values. The key value for Scotch generally is status.
“In the UK this tends to be underplayed, never brash or in your face. But in Italy the image is more tied to machismo and any Scotch ad would have to show a man with a woman on his arm, and the status the drink confers would be flaunted.
“In Japan, however, the status value is all about going with the majority. It’s not aspirational to be individualistic so the discerning drinker image that might work in the UK is inappropriate.”
And once brands have been established in new markets the research work continues. Performance and perceptions still need to be measured – continually – if brand-owners are to stay ahead of the competition.
Ruth McNeil, marketing director of Research International, says: “There has definitely been a move to more multi-country brand-tracking. With more companies merging and a greater need for brand maintenance we find more clients than ever coming to us and asking us for global brand tracking.”
McNeil says she believes a two-tier research methodology will develop to answer this need: one for places where research is in its infancy and another for more sophisticated markets. “This will mean we can genuinely offer a global service; we can do something – however basic – in any market, but then correlate the data with more sophisticated studies elsewhere.”
For some companies there is a need for deeper customer profiles which give attitudinal and lifestyle information, as well as response to specific products. Research International operates an in-depth qualitative study called Research International Observer (RIO) which attempts to segment specific customer bases across different countries.
McNeil explains: “It is crucial to understand how consumers tick globally. Companies like Shell or Ford must know how customers feel about environmental and economic matters. RIO has been in operation for five years and so far we have looked at teenagers, young adults, the baby-boomer generation and, for this year, men. We launched it because there was a big demand for background knowledge from clients and we thought we should put our money where our mouth was.
“The findings are fascinating. For example, the research on young adults shows that while young people around the world tend to be very brand aware, they relate to brands in quite distinct ways depending on geography. This must materially alter the way you need to approach them.”
RIO’s research into young adults divides them into four broad categories. “Enthusiastic materialists” are optimistic and aspirational and to be found in developing countries and emerging markets like India and Latin America. “Swimmers against the tide,” on the other hand, demonstrate a degree of underlying pessimism and tend to live for the moment, and are likely to be found in southern Europe. In northern Europe, the US and Australasia are the “new realists”, looking for a balance between work and leisure with some underlying pessimism in outlook; and, finally, the “complacent materialists”, defined as passively optimistic and located in Japan.
If the RIO study suggests significant differences between young people, work done for the Financial Times by Bozell Worldwide reveals the existence of a homogeneous breed of business people which Bozell defines as the corporate nation.
Sue Byrne, media director at BJK&E Media – a division of Bozell Worldwide – says: “The research was looking to identify current and potential readers. We wanted a three-dimensional picture of them, showing everything from where they live to what they wear: the whole lifestyle and attitudinal picture.”
The research discovered a corporate nation of people who might operate out of different countries and speak different languages – the research was conducted across the US, Europe and some parts of Asia. But they are joined by their common business experiences and business culture, they conceptualise business practices globally and conduct business multinationally.
When it comes to methodology for conducting international research the current trend is for bringing the strategic heart of the work home to one central location.
Joe Seydel, international research director at Rosslyn Research which is principally involved in business to business research, says: “More businesses are run globally out of a single country than five or six years ago. This means there is often a central buying point for international research.
“In addition, when it comes to business customers you are often talking to small numbers of frontline operators. Plus it’s faster: you can run programmes simultaneously in different countries. Quality standards are more likely to be assured and it’s also easier to compare findings.”
Use of the telephone has contributed to this trend. As Seydel comments: “There has always been a need for centralised research, now telephone technology and facilities have opened the doors to it.”
While as a general rule it is clearly not cost-effective to send researchers across the globe from one central source, there are certain circumstances in which an entirely centrally operated programme can get access to a group of international travellers without leaving the country.
They do, however, have to spend the day at the airport.
Janine Braier is managing director of Define Research & Marketing International, which operates a portfolio of products called Methods on the Move. Methods takes the qualitative research to the respondents, whether they are on a train, in a shop or idling away a couple of hours in an airport departure lounge. Encounters can take the form of in-depth one-to-one interviews or rolling group surveys in which quota-controlled respondents dip in for anything from ten minutes to two hours.
Braier says: “Obviously the more highly specified the target market, the more difficult it is to do research without lists of named customers. But people are often willing to talk as they may have nothing better to do. We can offer a very fast turnaround and we can ask questions to find out what is going on in people’s heads as they stand in the actual environment. We notice emotion and body language, things people would not remember afterwards or else would rationalise after the event.”
At international level, the UK research industry – not always renowned for its ability to seek out new opportunities and respond to them creatively – does seem to be coming up with some innovative solutions. Indeed, as global research grows, the opportunities for the future may grow even greater and UK companies look ideally positioned to develop procedures and methodologies to meet the challenge.