In our last blog, we discussed the challenge of translating ideas when conducting market research in countries that speak different languages. This time, we’ll tackle deeper cultural differences—those that influence behavioral norms.
Some of these quirks are simply matters of local etiquette, which any traveler can study before going abroad. (The thumb-to-forefinger gesture that means “OK” in the United States, for example, is an obscene gesture in much of South America.) Other behavioral differences, however, can profoundly affect both the research process and its results.
This is, to be sure, an inconvenient truth. One of the main goals of global market research is to find commonalities among far-flung consumers in order to support the development of global brand positioning and messaging strategies. In the pharmaceutical industry, marketers hope to create brand strategies that will appeal to a wide range of patients and physicians around the world, regardless of their specific medical practices or reimbursement systems.
Yet the temptations of uniformity must sometimes be resisted. Recently, for instance, a mid-sized, U.S.-based firm asked my company to research market conditions in six countries—the United States, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Japan—for a drug to treat a metabolic disorder linked to cardiovascular disease. In all those nations, we asked the same questions. We quizzed patients about their diagnosis, the impact the disorder had on their lives, how their current medication was working, and what kind of drugs might better suit their needs. We asked physicians about their patients, the treatments currently available, and the ways that future medications could be improved.
But we didn’t conduct all the interviews in the same way. In the U.S. and Europe, we spoke with groups of three or four people seated around a table—a setting that, among Westerners, tends to encourage frank and revealing conversations. We videotaped these sessions for later review. In Japan, however, we knew that group interviews would have an inhibiting effect; there, people are often reluctant to share personal experiences among strangers. We also knew that videotaping would be regarded as a gross invasion of privacy. Instead, we asked our questions one-on-one, and took copious notes.
When it came to the answers, the biggest surprise came from the Latin countries. Elsewhere, patients seemed to fall into two categories: Those whose metabolic disorder had a strong genetic component, and those whose daily dietary habits were primarily to blame. But in France, Italy and Spain, many patients attributed their problem to weekend parties—a pattern the physicians reported as well. This group, which we labeled the Revelers, would eat moderately most days. Three or four times a month, however, they’d join friends for an evening of joyful gluttony and alcohol consumption. Those spontaneous blowouts led to chronic health troubles.
Initially, the drug company’s marketing team were reluctant to include the Revelers in their positioning strategy. But they changed their minds after our quantitative research indicated that this segment accounted for almost 10 percent of patients in three of the six target countries—too large a minority to be ignored.
The moral of the story: It’s a global marketing researcher’s job to uncover meaningful cultural disparities as well as similarities, even if it makes everyone’s life a bit more complicated.
As those French party animals might put it: “Vive la différence.”