How to Conduct Global Consumer Research with Impact, Part 1: Design Like a Social Scientist
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How to Conduct Global Consumer Research with Impact, Part 1: Design Like a Social Scientist

August 20, 2020

Zoë Billington

Check out the first installment of our two-part series on global research for the best tips and strategies to successfully execute an international project — live or remote.

Local Brand Research Lessons

Before COVID-19 changed the way we think about in-person instruction, my colleague and I went back to school. Fourth grade, to be exact. We were conducting ethnographic market research in the classrooms of public school teachers across the country to learn about technology’s role there — both the pain points it creates and its ability to bolster student-teacher relationships. (Disclaimer: unfortunately, this is not a story about the secrets to a remote learning model. I wish.)

Being the A+ students that we are, we showed up bright and early to meet our teacher — let’s call her Ms. Apple — during her prep period before settling into plastic chairs in the back of the room for a full day of lessons.

Students were working on individual laptops, researching for a history project, when an announcement boomed over the loudspeaker: “We are now on Level 1 lockdown. Please follow lockdown procedure and wait for more news.”

With the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting recently behind us, my colleague and I exchanged worried glances. But no one around us seemed phased by the announcement. One student took out a list of steps for different lockdown levels while others worked together to lower the blinds and cover the porthole-like window on the classroom door. 

Ms. Apple eventually told my colleague and me not to worry: “These lockdowns happen all the time.” Still, we didn’t learn the cause — a student medical emergency — until hours later. During lunch, Ms. Apple talked to us about the challenges she faces as a teacher in her school district. She painted a picture of a high-stress environment where her attention and time were spread thin.  

The Students Become the Teachers

We went in to tell a story about technology, but quickly learned that we couldn’t tell that narrative without exploring every factor working against teachers today: safety scares that have become the new normal; a constant stream of classroom interruptions taking away from instructional time; parent requests that require after-hours attention; countless admin duties; a lack of societal respect for the profession; the need to work second jobs to supplement their low salaries. The list went on.

Classroom technology — laptops, Smartboards, gradebook software — was just one piece of the larger puzzle representing Ms. Apple’s responsibilities. This became the story we told our client, one that revealed the complicated struggles and needs of a teacher in a tech-filled classroom today. 

This narrative is complicated even further by the pandemic. Today, we would have had to figure out new ways of immersing ourselves in Ms. Apple’s remote teaching world from afar. We would have had to take even more nuances into account when telling the story of Ms. Apple’s needs: students’ access to internet, functional devices, and even meals; family dynamics helping or hindering at-home education; an ever-widening learning gap for which there appears to be no relief; and more.

Like the complex subjects and stories we uncover, our methods are always evolving and adjusting. This means we are continuously blending the rigor and cultural nuance of a social scientist with the speed and storytelling power of a journalist. 

Taking Our Lessons Global

I might have been a student in the American education system once, but I still felt far from understanding the local context of Ms. Apple’s school. It took hours of learning and listening to pick up on the details that defined this landscape.

Now imagine being thrown into a system like this in an international city, where a foreign language and unspoken customs present new challenges, and where you likely don’t have the time or budget to spend weeks immersing yourself in your new surroundings. This can be even more challenging when conducting research digitally, miles away from the market — our new normal for now.

If you’re reading this, we’re sure you already know there’s a lot to consider when conducting international research, whether it be qualitative or quantitative in nature, and whether it be in-person or remote. But like many others, you may be wondering how to balance quality and rigor with speed, cost, and a compelling lede. 

In this post and its follow-up, we’ll use our experience as global brand consultants to go in-depth on what it takes to execute a successful international project that can help drive your global brand strategy. First up, how to approach research as thoroughly and planned-out as a social scientist… 

How to Design Your Global Market Research Like a Social Scientist

#1. Partner with experts in the field. 

It’s imperative to treat international research partners as members of your own team. Bring them into the research design process before a project is even sold. Your goal should be to create work plans with empathy and respect for your participants, rather than business assumptions about the market. Having a local researcher guide ensures you’re set up for success from a cultural, logistical, and strategic perspective from day zero. 

It’s also important to invest the time in consulting client stakeholders from both the U.S. and the international market when scoping and designing research — that way, you can leverage their local expertise of the target consumer and brand in that market. The importance of collaborating with stakeholders isn’t unique to international research, of course — but it can be more difficult due to language barriers, time zones, and company silos. Making this a priority from the start isn’t always easy, but it’s worth it, especially when it comes to tip #2.

#2. Understand the difference between translation and localization — and build time into your project timeline for both. 

Nailing both translation and localization usually requires deep market knowledge and insider company knowledge, so it’s a good thing you’ve already got research partners and clients in your specific market on board to help! 

Translation is all about capturing the essence of what consumers say during research. Translation is at its best when it can take turns of phrase in a local language and make sure the meaning is captured in your native language so key insights aren’t lost in the process. 

Pro Tip: Just because the foreign market you’re doing research in speaks English, that doesn’t mean you should skip the translation phase when creating a discussion guide/questionnaire, or reporting back insights to your team. You’d get misleading results asking consumers in England about “chips” when doing a study on potato chip brands. People might start talking about fries, not what they know as “crisps”!

While translation may seem fairly straightforward — and with a translator on your team, it usually is — it’s important to involve market stakeholders as soon as possible when thinking through even the most baseline translation needs. Oftentimes, these affect other considerations like recruiting and simultaneous translation for live qual work.

For example: When designing co-creations for research in Malaysia, we knew there were three potential languages in which we might need to test stimuli: Malay, Cantonese, or English. It turned out that the company did all its local marketing in English — a counterintuitive fact which neither our U.S.-based client or our Malaysian research partners had been able to confirm. Getting this info from the Malaysian client team as soon as possible was crucial in ensuring we didn’t waste valuable resources and showed up with the right materials in hand. It also impacted our recruiting criteria: we knew we had to select Malaysian participants who could speak and read English for the study.

Localization is all about making sure stimuli, concepts, prototypes, questionnaires, and discussion guides are appropriate for each market, and that data is analyzed through the lens of that market’s specifics. This is more faceted than simple translation; it’s about ensuring that your research strategy is tailored to the specifics of the market and region (e.g. tone of language, design nuances, local regulations, etc.).

For example: Research shows that consumers around the world use scales differently when taking a quantitative survey. For instance, Japanese and German respondents are less likely to select the extreme ends of scales, while respondents from Mexico and Brazil tend to use the top half of the scale exclusively. Always take these consumer perceptions into consideration when comparing data across markets or setting quotas that are defined by extreme scale usage (e.g. TB advocates in the US may align more closely with T2B in Japan). 

These nuances are especially important for projects involving stimulus testing — not only in specific brand messaging, but also in general imagery — to make sure that communications are appropriate for the market and evaluated within realistic context.

For example: When doing an image projection exercise in multiple markets, choose a consistent set of country agnostic images so you can safely compare results. Showing the most busy intersection in Tokyo to symbolize motion or commerce might not feel relevant to participants living in a suburban American city. Conversely, showing a block of two-story, single family homes with white picket fences to symbolize shelter or comfort may not resonate with participants living in apartment buildings in Tokyo as they might with those suburban American participants.

#3. Don’t discount logistics. 

Do your due diligence — the sooner the better — and be sure to partner with your local research team to understand potential geography, time, or space constraints so you can plan around them accordingly.

An example of how this plays out in in-person ethnographic research is that people around the world have different levels of preparedness and comfort when it comes to hosting researchers in their homes. For example, our local partners in Japan have told us that due to a less common culture of in-home entertaining, many homes in Japan are not set up for hosting many guests — meaning they may have less seating or lack a gathering space. As a result, it’s a good idea to limit the number of people you bring into the field for in-home interviews, and come prepared to sit on the floor (shoes off, of course). Knowing these things in advance helps create a more comfortable experience for participants and the research/client team alike.

An even more basic logistical constraint for both qualitative and quantitative research are local, regional, and national holidays that vary from market to market. With the exception of a couple global or more commercialized holidays, many are likely not top of mind for researchers in different countries. You typically want to avoid fielding studies during these times.

By collaborating with experts on the ground to design a research strategy based on market-specific nuances, you can make sure you’re approaching international work with an eye towards communicating clearly and empathetically with your participants and your stakeholders — just like a social scientist.

That’s all for now! Stay tuned for part two, where we’ll put on our journalism hats and share strategies for reporting out global research to different audiences, time zones, and languages to deliver a story — and global marketing strategy — with impact. 

Zoë Billington

Associate Director, Qualitative Research

As an Associate Director, Research & Strategy, Zoë gets to put her innate love for people-watching and storytelling to work every day. In her role, she both moderates qualitative research and...

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