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Multinational Market Research – What Are The Pitfalls?

Are we making progress on the local versus global front, or simply swinging like a pendulum from one to the other?



By Edward Appleton

Anyone who has ever been involved in a multi-country research project knows how complex and challenging they are – multiple stakeholders both Client and Agency side, co-ordination challenges, language intricacies to name just a few.

Multi-country research is a topic close to my heart. I’ve been living and working in Germany for the last 20 years, and have lead numerous multi-country projects of all shapes and sizes, mainly across Europe and in North America.  I’m part of a a panel with Steve August (Revelation, USA) Anupama Wagh Koppar (L’Oreal, India), Sandrina McLure (Added Value, France) and Andrew Vincent (Waves, UK) discussing the pitfalls of multinational qualitative research at the ESOMAR Qualitative Congress in Valencia/ Spain in a weeks’ time, specifically what gets lost if global control dominates local sensitivity.

The global versus local discussion is one that multinational companies constantly grapple with, the pendulum swinging regularly between a push to global co-ordination (costs, control, scale) and a recognition of the efficiency of local empowerment (sales uplift, motivation) The jury is constantly out.

As someone who has witnessed first-hand the pros and cons of either approach over the years, I’ve come to believe that while there are no hard-and-fast rules about what makes multinational research good, there are some common pitfalls:

  • Rolling out globally what works in the home market with no local intelligence and adaption (WalMart’s German store employees were expected to sing a song each morning prior to store-opening; Marks and Spencers (UK retailer) tried selling chicken tikka sliced bread sandwiches to Germans…..)
  • Superficial, tick-box approach to multinational research –  “we did research in….countries XYZ, they all loved our campaign idea”. Advertising Agencies are prone to this drive-to-launch approach.
  • Insufficient local involvement, leading to disengagement in the local Marketing and Sales organization

All the above probably reflects my own cultural bias: I am a convert to the “all business is local” school, having seen too many examples of cultural ignorance coupled with business hubris leading to ignominous failure when tackling international expansion.

I am also aware of how complex all business situations are – success drivers are invariably locally rooted, it takes time for any outsider to understand the often hidden drivers and motivations of a new situation; not all capital owners have the patience required.

If I were to suggest some tips on how to succeed in multi-national research, they would be the following:

Get local involvement and understanding up-front, and as strategically as possible

One of the first things to do in a multinational resarch project is to ask for strategic input from local partners, Clientside and Agency. Do this jointly with your Marketing partners.

Local input is critical to make sense of everything, to interpret it, optimise it – failing to do this seriously risks the whole thing  breaking down (you may not be aware of this – which is the insidious thing, as mainly global staff are operating virtually blind at local level), starting with a “google translate” approach to language.

Ask for constructive feedback to a suggested Research Design, allow degrees of freedom to execute on suggestions given.

Push your local partners for their own hypotheses on the business challenge at hand: will a suggested communication approach be likely to succeed or fail, what tweaks are necessary? Challenge them to think about the cost implications of local adaption – will this actually result in greater sales effectiveness, in their view? Can they quantify that? Put them in your shoes, attempt to see the world from their angle.

Getting beyond the “not invented here” syndrome is critical.

Spotlight Critical Differences, not just “Differences”

There are multiple differences between cultures in many markets – tastes, education systems, beliefs, language, sense of humour, the list is endless. Any global project is likely to be required to uncover similarities, commonalities – but equally to pinpoint differences that are critical, ones that if unheeded will become a barrier to success.

A simple example: if you wish to penetrate the individual Education markets of a European country, understand fully the whole eco-system of teachers, local education authorities, parents, funding in that country – and consider carefully what resources you will need to succeed. Don’t forget that regional differences within country can also be important factors when planning a marketing and sales drive, and set the research up accordingly.

Underestimating local challenges – a Type 2 error, assuming there are no critical differences when in fact there are – may go down well internally at central level, as it allows for a “one size fits all” mentality to go under the guise of synergies and cost-efficiencies. This type of error always bites back, often relatively quickly.

Understand the Desired Approach – Global Synergy or Local Sensitivity?

This is critical to ensure resources are used effectively, and that no local insights are generated that will effectively not be actioned. If a project, say, is to understand the relevance and motivation of alternative positionings, it’s crucial to know what can be adapted in the Marketing Mix.

Is there the appetite and budget and organisational set-up for a local communication campaign? What level will the local freedom be – and precisely in what tool eg POS, merchandising material, sales promotion material, flyers, sales folders, web design, print campaign?

Working back from the Actionability perspective is valuable – if you know there is a clear desire to have one and the same shower gel at the product level (product consistency, fragrance, colour) but there is room to tweak at packaging level, then focus on exactly what on the pack can be changed and fixed locally.

Finally, I would suggest to use technology as much as possible, but always to enrich it with other insight sources that are closer to an actual reality.

Digital drives costs down – a webinar is immensely less costly than a face-to-face meeting – but if you haven’t actually been near the customer experience, in the indigenous environment, the local shopping trip, the media environment, you probably won’t really know what other people (I prefer to avoid the word “locals”, it smacks of arrogance) are talking about.

Are we making progress on the local versus global front, or simply swinging like a pendulum from one to the other?

My sense is that many companies have significantly upped their investment in local understanding, local management, local execution at a sales level – but that the pressure to reduce cost is significant and ongoing, meaning that the push to harmonize wherever possible is still strong. There is – and probably always will be – tension.

I remain personally interculturally fascinated, an enemy of parochialism, and will continue to devote my energy to uncovering intercultural insights that help drive business value, seeking the sweet spot between global and local.

I’m also looking forward immensely to the discussion at the ESOMAR event –

Curious, as ever, as to others’ views.

Please share...

5 responses to “Multinational Market Research – What Are The Pitfalls?

  1. I read this with interest as I have been doing multi country projects for several years in the healthcare environment. Some companies want a regional view (to provide some consistency in messages) but still want local insight to drive domestic business. We work with clients where 80% of the project is consistent across markets but the remaining 20% is flexible to meet local requirements. This approach allows for comparisons across markets, best practice sharing, pan overview as well as local data. It also allows us to meet needs to multiple clients – although a slight headache on the project management front.

    Interesting topic.

  2. Very nice post Edward. Culture captures a heap of hidden gotchas for the unwary and often these are differences consumers will assume you know – local norms are just the way they are – so they won’t necessarily be articulated.

    For instance in Northern Europe beds are often 2m long. In Southern Europe they’re typically 1.90, or even 1.80m long. This has knock effects not just for mattress and bedding manufacturers, but also room sizes are designed with the smaller bedsize as a template. A little detail can have quite deep consequences.

    A second major difference can be understanding local business practices (eg distribution or supplier selection). A large targets focused US corporate can be surprised as to how much a European small business is often run for the lifestyle with personal relationships taking precedence over absolute profitability or growth.

  3. I enjoy your article and you are right on target. While conducting a lot of international or multi-country qualitative projects in the US and The Americas my preference and recommendation to the clients is always to give the local researcher good latitude when it comes to methodologies, data collection and approach – the intention is to enhance the value of the study as a collaborative approach and not as much as dictatorial – in most cases in my experience clients are willing to listen.

  4. I always route questionnaires to local researchers. We want them to add questions of interest and we need them to review and sign off on translations. (That’s the easiest way to try to discredit a study if they don’t like the results.) In a B2B CSAT work, I’ve found that the local unit will try to exclude accounts that are likely to provide troubling information. Allow them more latitude, and you can lose the ability to compare data between countries. Also, getting the locals to conform to a common schedule can be like herding cats.

    It is incredibly important to understand local issues and customs. However, there are plenty of resources for learning. You also need to understand the local calendar. That’s not a difficult task either. Bottom line: if you own the study and the final report, you need to know what’s going on and why, and the strengths and weaknesses in the data.

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