Foreign Policy

A basic building block of packaged goods market research is understanding the idea of the brand. But many of the most dyn-amic – and now most researched – new overseas markets are societies with a history of centralised state control where the concept of the “brand” is either not understood or significantly at odds with our own use.

According to Kate Hamilton, head of research at brand consultancy CLK, a brand name may mean very little to a Russian consumer and command even less loyalty, while the label will be scanned more carefully for the precise factory which manufactured the product. In China, on the other hand, the company says it has not yet succeeded in finding associates who understand the emotional as well as the more rational side to a brand.

Unilever’s experience with brands in Russia, however, would not seem to reflect Hamilton’s. The multinational’s newsletter quotes Bernard Ducros, chairman of the Russian business, as saying: “This is Calvin Klein country. They love brands.”

According to Unilever’s London headquarters, the various national businesses are currently commissioning consumer use and attitude research in its worldwide markets.

Results are scheduled for the summer, but some who have been involved in pitching for the business suggest that Unilever, like other international clients, expects too much in the way of results, too quickly. While Russia and China are treated as any other national market, it is clearly going to take longer to carry out and collate research in these sprawling new territories than in, say, France or Germany.

It may be the size and the underdeveloped nature of these new markets which makes them so exciting for researchers and their clients, but it is precisely these two features which slows the process of understanding them.

Unilever’s marketing department in Shanghai declined to comment on its experiences with market research, saying that any statements relating to the Chinese operation had to come from the chairman himself.

If there are obstacles to setting up and managing Western-oriented research operations in these new markets, let alone communicating effectively with consumers, the willing- ness of respondents in Central and Eastern Europe to co-operate with researchers is less of a problem. “Some four or five years ago people were quite nervous about answering questions, but not so much now,” says Hamilton. “It has relaxed a lot and people have got used to the idea of market research.”

CLK currently works with associates in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Russia.

Taylor Nelson AGB (TNAGB), which recently merged with French market research company Sofres, has had an Impulse consumer research panel running in Russia since August last year. While the UK Impulse research restricts itself to product areas such as confectionery and soft drinks, personal care has been added to the list in the Russian market. And according to Impulse managing director Tim Kidd, Russians make good respondents, with a generally high level of education and a lively interest in market research itself.

“Russians tend to be initially suspicious, inevitably because of the way they have been treated in the past,” says Kidd. “They have also become more mercenary, so you need to give them much more of an incentive to take part in research.”

While there are individuals in new markets – as in established ones – who do not get over those initial suspicions, most will co-operate once they understand that the researcher is not an official, and will not shop them to the tax authorities.

Since the two 1,000-strong samples used by Impulse Russia are collected in Moscow and St Petersburg, telephone research is feasible, says Kidd. While many phones are shared, and network reliability is shaky, some 70 or 80 per cent of these populations do at least have access to a phone.

BMRB has been operating its widely-used TGI (Target Group Index) research in the UK since 1969, but in 1995 was approached by a Russian company interested in compiling the same type of data under licence. BMRB’s involvement was heaviest in the start-up period, but the company still follows the Russian research closely.

The survey, which is used to correlate consumption and lifestyle with specific media, has also been launched in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Israel and China.

As a continuous single-source self-completion questionnaire running to about 100 pages, TGI requires more commitment from respondents than other research vehicles. “Response rates have been remarkably good,” says TGI International director Paul Dickinson. “Here in the UK and in the US people have got a little tired of being asked questions, and often assume that you are trying to sell them something.” That kind of “respondent fatigue” does not exist in these new markets, he explains. In fact, researchers involved in these markets report that projects can require more time than they would in the West simply because individual interviews take longer.

In countries where there has been a history of authoritarian government, says Dickinson, there can be barriers to effective face-to-face research. Persuading people to disclose their income can also be a problem, but one which applies equally to samples in many developed markets. And self-completion resolves many of these issues, Dickinson observes.

In general, the type of cultural difference which can stand in the way of effective research communication and analysis is not restricted to developing markets. Colours used in European corporate liveries and packaging can have negative resonances in, say, the Far East. In the same way, the question “If this product were a car, which car would it be?” only works on the basis of shared connotations. But the answer “a Mercedes” can have associations of luxury, taxi drivers or mafia bosses depending on which market you are dealing with.

Interviewing is not usually an obstacle in mainland China, says TNAGB group director for Greater China Richard Necchi. The problem is ensuring that you have a representative sample to work from. Census data is simply not up to Western standards, he says, and researchers try to rely on government statistics as little as possible. The huge migrant population of about 100 million also means that the actual population of certain cities is much greater than official figures suggest, and this problem is likely to grow.

“In China we have to do face-to-face every time, as there are so few telephones. But people love answering questions,” says Necchi. TNAGB compiles the TV ratings in China, and has recently enlarged its sample to 12,200 households in 62 cities. “We’re totally gobsmacked at how tidy and meticulous the Chinese are at filling out their viewing diaries,” says Necchi. He is unsure whether to put this down to a particularly co-operative spirit or simple boredom.

Necchi contrasts mainland China with Hong Kong, which he characterises as being “like New York on steroids”. In sharp contrast to respondents in the rest of China, those in Hong Kong are unwilling to give up much of their time to answer research questionnaires. Interviews have to be conducted over the phone, and if they go over a quarter of an hour, says Necchi, people will hang up on you.

The experience of Research International’s Shanghai operation confirms the general state of research in mainland China. Managing director Chen Jin says that although there are currently difficulties in targeting samples, or even attempting to define them, a social rank system is now being worked on, cross-tabulating income, occupation and educational levels.

“The Chinese population by and large does not mind being asked to participate in market research, but it is very common to incenti-vise respondents with cash,” says Research International’s China associate director Brooke Court enay. “Although this is not generally a large amount, it tends to reflect the respondents’ standard of living.”

Courtenay agrees that the sheer size of China, like other new markets, itself throws up considerable logistical problems. Together with often poor infrastructure, these add up to much longer lead times for research. “It means spending a longer time in the field than in countries which are smaller, more developed or both.”

RI also has experience of research in African markets. Apart from translation and literacy issues, the company identifies methodological barriers which go beyond those of telephone ownership.

In some cultures, respondents may never have seen a computer, so the use of CAPI (Computer Aided Personal Interviewing) could inhibit the response.

Whatever the political and technological background, says RI, there is a tendency among respondents in new markets to “overclaim”, showing exaggerated enthusiasm for a product either because they feel such a response may be rewarded or out of deference to the interviewer.

But just as the experience of international research companies and the receptiveness of their respondents in these new markets appear to be converging, a new threat has lurched into view. Unilever London reports that its Brazilian business recently carried out consumer product research in the north-east of the country. But no outside consultancies were involved.

Local marketing managers had to rough it in the favelas, and were only allowed back to their desks three months later.

By then, they had firm results about the relative merits of Uni-lever’s perfumed washing powder brand and the traditional carbolic alternative.

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