Different strokes

Steve Hemsley examines how marketers try to build up detailed data by differentiating research strategies from country to country

An international research project can be scuppered without proper planning and the involvement of local marketing teams from the start. Multinational surveys, designed to assess consumer attitudes in multiple different countries, tend to be initiated from a global head office. But these can tread on the toes of local marketers, used to different methodology and dealing with suppliers in their own region. National teams can also be worried that carrying out research on a global scale will dispute their established consumer databases.

Nigel Hollis, chief global analyst at Millward Brown, reveals: “You must make sure you have not missed anything because the work involved in a multinational study is much greater than working in separate countries.”

“You certainly have to find out which research techniques are most appropriate to get the local results you want. An internet study might not be as effective in India or Brazil as it would be in the US, for instance [due to low levels of online penetration] so more face-to-face or telephone research will be needed in some countries. The planning and budgets must reflect this.”

Effective communication and consultation is crucial to remove any concerns about the value of a global research project. Senior managers and budget holders on the ground need to be won over early so they can convey the benefits.

For global brands, it is crucial to assess how they are viewed in different markets and whether a new product or services will be a success in individual territories. These studies also aim to tell them how their competitors are performing internationally and whether a particular regional marketing or pricing strategy is working.

Local marketing departments will often come together at project summits to discuss how international research will work. They want to clarify the communication channels and share country-specific knowledge so the questionnaires are as relevant as possible to their particular sales territory.

TNS Technology has a presence in 80 countries and director Elodie Franceschini says this network is invaluable when it comes to understanding international data. She explains: “We have benchmarks so we can analyse the cultural differences and knowledge of the brand in different markets. Consumers in the West can be more demanding so levels of satisfaction are harder for brands to maintain, but in other markets, such as Asia, the products are more aspirational and consumers are less judgemental and critical.”

In Africa, many people are bilingual, speaking their own language and that of their former European colonial administrators, such as France or Britain. This also means they tend to have a high opinion of products from those countries.

Franceschini adds that it is crucial to have local people on the ground to decipher data and report regularly. “It is also important the findings are of interest to the local marketing teams so they can apply them to their domestic marketing strategy,” she suggests.

Around 70% of rival agency Incite’s research is now international, working for clients such as Diageo, Cadbury and Samsung. Director Paul Thomas says marketers are focusing more on consumer attitudes in emerging markets. Incite undertakes extensive studies with low income consumers in rural locations in China and Nigeria, for example.

Thomas points out that in remote areas of Africa and Asia, relationships often need to be built up with local religious or tribal leaders before a brand can begin interviewing face-to-face. In some Muslim countries, questioning women can also be difficult and there can be security issues in some unstable nations.

“Often you can turn up in a remote area and 50 people will surround you and the people you are interviewing become local celebrities for the day. But you must win their trust first,” says Thomas.

Some locations can provide a real challenge because there is no research infrastructure. “There are sometimes no teams of interviewers you can call on so you have to start from scratch,” he reports. Incite helps brands develop communities of local interviewers with market knowledge who can be called on again for other projects.

“A few months ago we did a study talking to illiterate consumers in developing countries about mobile communications. The brief was to discover what they need from a mobile device so a product could be developed,” says Thomas. “The research revealed that the opportunity existed to develop a very specific stripped-down version of a mobile phone.”

Rowland Lloyd, chairman of the Market Research Society, warns, however, that brands needs to be careful not to draw conclusions about general consumer attitudes across a large region rather than undertaking research in every country in which they operate. Taking a broad international approach can mean their national marketing campaigns are not as effective as they might be.

He urges marketers to drill down deeper when researching international markets. This means gathering as much specific country-by-country data as they can on how consumers feel about brands in different categories and what their reasons are for selecting particular products.

“You have to narrow down your research because even neighbouring countries can have vastly different cultures and opinions on brands and products,” says Lloyd.
“Unfortunately, with research budgets under pressure, it can be tempting for brands to do fewer spot checks themselves. They are relying instead on research companies with experience in different countries to inform them of local differences that they should be aware of.”

Chinese consumers can have some animosity towards Japanese brands, for example, while in Eastern European, it is often the men rather than the women who wear the more flamboyant clothing because they have been more exposed to outside fashion influences. These would not instantly be obvious insights to outside researchers.

The recession has created a rush of research briefs from global companies concerned about how the economic downturn is affecting consumer attitudes towards premium brands. “Consumers are questioning the value of established brands with retailers at the lower end doing well in so many countries,” says Lloyd. “Cleverly thought-out multinational research and a better understanding of local shopping habits become even more important when the pressure is on to retain customers.”

Research firm Ipsos Mori has also noticed how consumers are reacting differently to premium brands and how own-label products have the power to woo shoppers around the world. The company tests advertising copy in different markets for clients such as Philips and Nestle and says brands must emphasise the value they bring and ensure the message is relevant and does not offend local people. Consumers in the US are still more sensitive to any references to sex and religion in advertising than their counterparts in Europe, for example.

In most cases, international studies focus on understanding consumer attitudes but there is a strong need for B2B research too. Brand owners value feedback from foreign clients on customer service, new product development, pricing and local marketing campaigns. In many markets, a brand will be talking to a relatively small number of respondents who are responsible for a large volume of sales.

“Research that generates insights at the individual account level is extremely valuable to global brands,” says Sharon Nichols, research director at DJS Research which undertakes B2B studies for clients in the construction, utilities and retail sectors.

“Face-to-face conversations with clients can also be a useful way to develop a business relationship, but the research team on the ground must be able to speak on a technical level and answer technical questions. They need to understand the product and this can be a challenge. We have to ask the right questions during the early briefing meetings with clients.”

Nichols says that finding the most appropriate executives to research is also important. “This is not always about interviewing the top person,” she says. “You have to know who is involved in specific decision making. It could be the technical, marketing or purchasing manager you should be questioning in a particular country.”

The complexities involved in discovering how consumer behaviour varies across the globe means companies must be realistic about the cost of managing a multinational research project compared to any activity in a single market. The expense of coordinating interviewers and respondents regionally – as well as fees for translation and travel – must not be overlooked.

Different labour laws can mean the cost of undertaking research will differ considerably between countries; Germany can be a particularly expensive territory to survey.

For brands hoping to run research across many markets, a contingency plan to account for any unexpected expenses internationally is vital to make sure it reveals insightful results that make projects with such wide scope really worthwhile.

Case study: Kimberly-Clark brand equity study

The global marketing teams at health and hygiene giant Kimberly-Clark are still digesting the data generated by a huge brand equity study conducted across 30 countries. The Dallas-based company, which employs 53,000 people, is frustrated that its key brands have different attributes in the eyes of consumers in different countries.

Researcher Millward Brown was briefed to undertake the study for five of Kimberly-Clark’s international brands: Huggies, Kleenex, Kotex, Scott and Poise. The company decided to question consumers in countries that represent 70% of net sales for each brand. This meant carrying out research in 30 countries for Huggies and just 12 for Kleenex.

Scott Usitalo, the director of global brands for Kimberly-Clark, says the company needed a better understanding of how consumers around the world view its brands to ensure the company delivers what they and shareholders expect. “We appreciate the link between brand equity and profit,” he says.

“We needed to discover why consumers around the world have different attitudes towards our products and question people on business issues such as pricing and the competition.”

The research project began in January 2008 with a series of Discovery Sessions where Millward Brown and Kimberly-Clark marketers from around the world met to share local knowledge and devise bespoke national questionnaires. Representatives from Australia and China met in Singapore while marketers from Latin America, Brazil and Columbia congregated in Argentina.

“Millward Brown needed that local knowledge to obtain the global perspective we were seeking. These sessions also ensured that on a local level we could set specific goals and measures,” says Usitalo.

An initial challenge for Millward Brown was to convince local offices of the value of using an international research company. National brand teams had their preferred local research suppliers who were already providing different brand equity findings.

It took three months to finalise the questionnaires and compile a list of between 12 and 15 attributes for each brand. These were based on how competitive the local market was and cultural differences. General attributes included ‘softness’ for Kleenex and ‘absorbency’ for Huggies.

The methodology and how the research should be conducted were also clarified during the consultation process. In more developed nations such as the US and UK more research took place online, while in Vietnam, China and India, as well as in South Africa, the emphasis was on face to face. In Russia, a higher proportion of people were surveyed via the telephone.

About 600 people were questioned in each country with surveys varying in length from between 20 and 30 minutes depending on the local language. Kimberly-Clark is reluctant, though, to reveal detailed results from the research which was conducted throughout last year.

“We want consumers globally to attribute the word ‘softness’ to Kleenex but where the research told us this did not happen internationally; we now know where we have to tweak our marketing message,” Usitalo reports.

He adds: “This is a journey to improve the link between customer need, attitudes and brand promise and refining how we communicate. We need to be aware of differences country to country and then ensure our local and global marketing teams apply what we have learned.”

He will not reveal the cost of the international research project but says a “sizable chunk of funding” was allocated. “What is noteworthy is that we have got to a point where this piece of activity is not incremental spending within our research budget but an actual redeployment of existing marketing funds,” he says. “This is a vital piece of research which local marketing teams around the globe are taking different things from.”

Debbie McMahon, senior vice president of client services at Millward Brown, says senior management at Kimberly-Clark bought into the ideas behind the research early which helped to get local marketing teams engaged. “There is always a struggle between centralised and localised research programmes but this type of research has to work on both levels and include plenty of local input,” she says.

This was the first project of its kind for Kimberly-Clark and it is now being used as a benchmarking exercise with best practice from different countries being shared globally. The research will be repeated annually for some brands where brand equity can move quickly, such as Huggies. Research around more established marques, such as Kleenex will take place less often.

“Kimberly-Clark is still digesting a lot of what we are telling it, but the findings are already being used strategically by global brand managers,” says McMahon. “They are now putting the consumer’s voice at the centre of the marketing and business strategy and getting their managers versed in the importance of brand equity.”

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