Issues in International Marketing Research

Instructor: Neil Brown
Successfully conducting marketing research in markets other than your own is fraught with risks and potential problems. Some of these are obvious before going in, while others may only emerge as the research is being conducted. This lesson is an overview of some potential problems and how to avoid them. Updated: 11/17/2021

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.

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