Potential Issues in International Marketing Research
As in any domestic marketing research situation, international research requires professionalism and experience. There is also an added level of problems stemming from cultural norms, local laws, translating materials, and the like.
As an example of the hazards that even mere translation can cause, consider these classic examples of marketing blunders from international corporations:
Coca-Cola's brand name, when first marketed in China, was sometimes translated as 'Bite The Wax Tadpole.'
Gerber marketed baby food in Africa with a cute baby on the label without knowing that, in Ethiopia, for example, products usually have pictures on the label of what's inside since many consumers can't read.
Nike had to recall thousands of products when a decoration intended to resemble fire on the back of the shoes resembled the Arabic word for Allah.
The American Dairy Association replicated its 'Got Milk?' campaign in Spanish-speaking countries where it was translated into 'Are You Lactating?'
Any of these errors could easily have been avoided by using a local, bilingual expert to review all materials. It's always a good idea to check whether your name, logo, or tag line means something different in the regions where you're marketing or researching. Be sure to also check for context - in Vietnam, for example, the word 'pho' (which most Americans associate with a delicious soup) actually has four major and very different meanings, differentiated by punctuation or vocal inflection.
Overseas Research Adventure
Your author spent the bulk of a recent decade consulting with banks in the Caucasus countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Republic of Georgia) on a variety of marketing issues. Since training of local marketing managers was an integral part of the consulting, a project was always included to ascertain the local image of the banks, and its competitors, among consumers. Piece of cake, right? Any American marketer with 25 years of research experience could manage this in his/her sleep, right?
Here are just some of the problems we encountered:
- all three of these countries were formerly republics within the Soviet Union. With the plethora of secret police as part of their legacy, very few consumers were willing to speak with us or answer surveys. In fact, in a survey where efforts in the U.S. would typically generate about a 10% response, in Azerbaijan we were able to obtain a response from 1 out of 91 households - barely 1%!
- - none of these countries is noted for racial, religious, or ethnic tolerance. Questions used successfully elsewhere had to be heavily scrubbed to eliminate any potentially offensive references.
- - your author innocently accompanied one of the researchers one evening. With his Celtic appearance, your author was mistaken for a Russian (read - secret police), and nobody was willing to talk in his presence.
- - these societies are highly patriarchal, so men are considered to be much more important than women. If a given household agreed to answer the survey, it was done by the oldest male present...even a 10 year-old boy's opinion was considered to be more worthy than a 40 year-old mother's. If no male was present, we were told to come back. Even if we specifically targeted the survey to obtain opinions from women, the man of the household would answer and tell us what the woman's opinion was.
The examples above are not intended to to be all-inclusive. Your issues will vary by market. In Hanoi, Vietnam, door-to-door surveying was difficult because 3-4 generations usually live under one roof, and every adult under that roof clamored to be the survey responder. Of course, most of the issues cited above were caused by the major cultural differences between the United States and other countries. One would expect to run into fewer issues if a successful U.S. survey were then used in Canada.
How do we avoid research failures in other national markets? For starters, be humble and realize that you do not know everything. Also realize that no amount of study from afar can educate a foreigner in the nuances of culture or language.
How to Avoid Problems
The best advice is to hire a local expert marketing company to conduct the actual research and to make sure that someone on your team or the marketer's team is fluent in both your tongue and the local dialect. Then, of course, test the survey on a sample before its widespread dissemination to catch all of the hiccups that got through. Yes, your costs will be somewhat higher. But, they will be less than the cost of research that is worthless because of misinterpretations.
Marketing research is not pure science. There is an art to it as well, particularly when dealing with cross-cultural experiences. While research performed successfully in one location can form a solid basis for a similar project elsewhere, always be aware of and adjust for language and cultural differences.
If you want to be successful in cross-border marketing research, the unwritten rule (also applicable to diplomats and travelers) is to be humble and self-aware when in a culture other than your own. Beyond that, keep the four specific cautions in mind, and exercise them in every research project:
- 1. Reproducing marketing research in another country is more than just translating from one language to another.
- 2. Survey methods that work in one area may be totally inappropriate in another.
- 3. It is best to use local marketing and language expertise to the greatest extent possible.
- 4. Test everything!
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