The new frontiers

As the demographics of market research’s remit grows both geographically and socio-economically, practitioners are having to overcome ignorance, cynicism and their own preconceptions.

In the UK, as with most Western economies, consumers have increasingly less time for and patience with market research, but at least they understand what it is and how it works. In some developing markets, there is little middle ground between ignorance about its role and an equally problematic cynicism about the Western brands it benefits.

In other markets, without a long history of international brands, relations with clients are frequently helped by what Simon Howell, director at Research International (RI), admits is often an exaggerated respect for Western research companies. “Sometimes, it is true, you are offering expertise that may not be available locally. But there is also sometimes an assumption that, because you’re Western, you know more,” he says.

The problems begin when it actually comes to interviewing. “We were recently carrying out research in Central Asia, looking at companies’ export behaviour in a business-to-business context,” says Howell. “There was a real fear about answering our questions. Many thought we might be working for the State, and we had a very high refusal rate.”

This element of fear is common in some ex-Soviet states such as the Ukraine. “But there are quite a few eastern European countries, Hungary and Poland for example, which we treat in almost the same way as we would western European markets,” Howell explains.

And sometimes, the Western researcher’s own preconceptions about a country may prove to be more of a barrier than anything actually encountered in the field.

In some markets, Western attitudes can seem oversophisticated. May Tha-Hla, director of RI’s technical and communication division, has experience of projects in her home country, Burma, as well as the UK. The closed nature of Burma’s market, as well as cultural differences, reinforce the need to work with local research companies, she explains.

For teams used to the often evasive or coded responses which are common to the UK and other western European markets, the directness of respondents in less-developed economies can itself be disconcerting. “In Burma, unlike Europe, there is a straight-line correlation between what people say in research and the way they behave once the product is launched,” says Tha-Hla.

Having been involved in research in several eastern European states over the past few years, Design Bridge has noticed distinct developments in consumer attitudes. “The consumer sees brands in a very different way in these countries,” says Nick Verebelyi managing director of Design Bridge Structure, a division of Design Bridge. “Four or five years ago, if the subject was a vodka, responses were all functionally-led, concerned with the distillery or the supposed level of adulteration.”

In the intervening years, packaging-led brands have been introduced, many of them foreign-owned. “Now, in markets such as Russia and the Ukraine in particular, attitudes have been turned on their heads, and international brands are being shunned in favour of local ones,” says Verebelyi.

This aversion to association with international brands was also uncovered in research for the Romanian Carpati brand, now owned by KJS.

Suspicious minds

In projects carried out by partner agencies in China, BMRB has encountered similar problems. “Over the past few years, particularly in the larger cities like Shanghai, people have become more suspicious about how any research is going to be used,” says Rebecca Briscoe, senior associate director of consumer research at BMRB. “It has become more difficult to find a good sample. People used to like being offered Western products, in an aspirational way, but now there is greater pride in their own nationality and their products.”

Local agencies may be more attuned to the culture and appropriate techniques in a given country, but with research in China continuing to boom, says Briscoe, some are clearly prepared to exploit the situation. She notes that local companies are now offering telephone omnibus research, but hardly any households outside the major cities have telephones as most consumers are mobile phone owners – who would be excluded from the sample.

Design Bridge’s Verebelyi has come across similar corner-cutting among some local research companies in Poland. He points to an example earlier this year where researchers allowed the results of preliminary diagnostic research to be used by the client. This precipitated a completely negative response when it came to the next stage of testing, forcing the designers back to the drawing board.

Even when trying to collate simple factual information on a market, there are problems with developing economies. “If you are researching in Russia, China or even Poland, you have to rely on primary sources far more,” says Tim Cooke, managing director of research company Seymour Cooke. “You can’t rely on the printed word.”

When compiling business-to-business desk research on the food sector in Poland, Cooke says he found that the Polish news agencies’ official view of the country’s economic situation was patently at odds with reality. “You have to take each market on its own merits and ask whether you trust the source,” he says.

The unreliability of forecasts – however well-intentioned – is a separate but equally thorny problem. As Cooke explains, when dealing with a high-inflation economy such as Brazil, market performance in a given sector can deviate from the forecast by as much as 50 per cent.

Substantial geographical territories remain largely uncharted from a socio-economic point of view. But the frontiers of research are being pushed back in other areas much closer to home. UK-based research companies are finding new markets to tackle on their doorstep, both in terms of sectors of population and the often unfamiliar methods used to research them.

Close attention

The children’s market cannot be considered “new”, even though it is a fast-growing area of marketing. But marketers are now paying closer attention to the way that attitudes and buying behaviour among parents complement children’s own preferences.

Companies such as NOP are also matching the demand from clients for more quantitative data on younger age groups using the Internet as an effective research tool.

“What began as a way of using a combination of graphics and tick boxes to find out about kids’ favourite websites has now been extended into packaged goods, TV and other media products,” explains Neil Samson, research manager at NOP Family. And the trend for online research to spill over into areas beyond website questionnaires is likely to continue, he says.

“This is a very effective way to access children, because so many have adopted the Internet as a part of their own lives; they are relaxed and in their own environment,” says Samson. Clearly there are limits to the scope of online research, he adds, but it works well for basic quantitative work.

RI’s Howell notes that the children’s market, far from being specialist, is now becoming part of the mainstream in western European research. Researchers are having to expand their skills to enable them to deal with children – and to interpret the results.

Increased commercial interest in particular social groups has gone hand in hand with greater investment by central government in social policy research. Here, the “new markets” being tackled for the first time – at least on such a large scale – include socially-excluded groups such as the unemployed, the homeless, single parents and the disabled.

“The trend towards evidence-based policy making has come together with government focus on social exclusion to produce a huge increase in volume of both qualitative and quantitative research,” explains BMRB social research unit director Graham Kelly. In the case of just one scheme within the Government’s New Deal, this means carrying out 25,000 interviews over a two-year period, but the burden will be shared with the Office for National Statistics.

But while the simple volume of research is problematic, there is also the fact that certain disabled groups may have communication difficulties, and there are evident and distinct problems to do with the methods used for sampling homeless people.

Kelly adds that conservative research techniques, still favoured by the public sector, also make the task of data collection more laborious. “A lot of commercial organisations commission research, want it in two weeks, but may not care that much how the research was obtained,” he says.

Incentive payments

One final nightmare just waiting to happen, says Kelly, involves the payment of incentives to the homeless, where the incidence of alcohol and drug dependency is relatively high. “Some public sector groups have been uneasy about this,” he says. “The last thing they want is the tabloids getting hold of a hypothetical case where &£10 or &£15 has been given to a homeless respondent, and they’ve gone straight off to spend it on drink or drugs.”

Facing up to the wrath of the tabloids’ righteous indignation makes the problems of interviewing in reticent subjects in China or Russia pale into insignificance.

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