Part 1: Translating Ideas
Even when working in a single country, a qualitative market researcher has to be a kind of cultural anthropologist. To achieve accurate results, it’s necessary to adjust for the differing mindsets of broad groups of customer targets (for example, healthcare professionals, patients, and caregivers), as well as the subtler influence of factors such as physician specialty, geographic location, and level of education. Those variables apply throughout the market research process, from the design of screeners and discussion guides through the analysis of field work.
Adding an international component compounds those complexities, often requiring researchers and their clients to question their most basic assumptions. In this series of articles, we will explore some of the challenges of global market research—and offer suggestions for how to overcome them.
Language is the most obvious hurdle to anyone conducting market research on foreign soil. Certain words or phrases, for example, are tough to translate: The French proverb Un clou chasse l’autre means “One nail chases the other” when rendered literally—perfect nonsense in English. To the French, of course, it means “Life goes on.” But it’s not simply a matter of translating words; it’s the ideas behind those words that can pose the biggest problem.
A case study: Not long ago, Aptel Research was hired by a U.S.-based global pharmaceutical company that was about to launch a new cancer medication. (Details have been changed to preserve confidentiality.) The drug’s mechanism of action involved infiltrating cancer cells in a novel way, and the advertising team proposed using an espionage metaphor to describe it: “The first-ever double-agent targeted drug.”
The company’s market-research department enlisted us to test reactions to several positioning statements, including one using this metaphor, among oncologists in the United States and the top five European Union countries. We contacted our team of marketing researchers in those countries, and sent them a lexicon of the scientific terms contained in the statements. Sensing that it might be particularly challenging to interpret the phrase “double-agent targeted drug,” we got on the phone with the teams’ translators and went over the concept.
When we sent the translations to the company’s European affiliates for review, however, they were baffled. “‘Double agent’ is an espionage term, not a medical one,” they told us. “Your translators must have made a mistake.” It turned out that the folks at U.S. global headquarters had failed to brief their overseas colleagues on the marketing concept to describe this new MOA. We had to go back to the client and ask them to explain the idea to the affiliates. This added delays and costs to the project, which could have been avoided if the client had consulted the affiliates in advance.
After the misunderstanding was cleared up, we did our field work. In the U.S., most of the doctors we interviewed easily grasped the link between espionage and the cancer drug’s mechanism of action. In the E.U., though, most of the interviewees either objected to the phrase “double agent” as unscientific, or simply scratched their heads. Perhaps the Americans pictured the drug’s molecules as spy-movie heroes, like miniature Tom Cruises fighting evil tumors; for the Europeans, such images may not have sprung instantly to mind. In any case, the phrase clearly lacked global appeal, and we recommended that the positioning statement containing this concept be dropped.
Positioning concepts should be developed with a global audience in mind, and affiliates need to be fully informed by global headquarters on new marketing concepts before they reach the research stage. As they say where I come from, Mieux vaut prevenir que guerir. Translation: A stitch in time saves nine.