The essential guide to conducting international market research

Aeroplane at sunset
Image of the post author Jodie Shaw

In this guide we explain how to do international market research, exploring the key considerations to set you up for success.

Why is conducting international marketing research so important?

Whatever you think of it, globalisation is now a fact of life. For more than half a century, the biggest brands in the world have operated on a truly international scale. But in the past 25 years – the internet era – an ability to service global markets much more easily has made an international footprint even more compelling.

Near-universal penetration of the internet – often via a smartphone, equipped with GPS locators, camera and microphone – has created low-friction access for brands into markets they didn’t even know existed. Global supply chains and logistics make serving overseas markets easier than ever. And although there have been notable blips – in the form of sanctions, national protectionism and policy decisions such as Brexit – the overall trajectory is towards fewer tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade.

All that adds up to international business no longer being the preserve of multi-billion dollar blue-chip names; or even mid-corporate specialists and cool brands. Any company can now expand beyond their local market. International marketing today is a much more open field.

But the Covid-19 pandemic has also reminded us that within that global picture, markets evolve unpredictably. And they have always been subject to rapid change driven by local conditions, culture and consumption patterns.

That’s made multi-market insights even more useful for global brands already operating internationally – and any business planning to grow ‘overseas’ for the first time. Marketing research is important even at ‘home’. But in brand-new target markets with high potential, it’s nothing short of critical.

Finding a balance – with pertinent local insights or the one hand, and global uniformity for brand consistency on the other – can be a huge challenge. Marketing textbooks include plenty of examples of a failure to localise products and services, mistranslations of brand messaging (some of which are urban legends…) and other cultural blunders.

That’s made market research a crucial tool for business looking to foreign markets, both to help generate insights that can be benchmarked across their global consumer base; aggregated to inform global decisions; and ensure international progression isn’t tripped up by nuances that demand locally tailored marketing or even products themselves.

Big world, small questions – How to embark on an international market research project

So what does it take to run an international market research project? One fundamental truth about market research holds true whatever you want to find out: the tighter the brief, the more useful the results.

That’s not to say brands could, or should, never conduct wide-ranging and open-ended research studies to test general attitudes or behaviours on a global scale. But while that kind of ‘scene-setting’ work can be very valuable in one location, country or even cultural context, it can be much harder to come up with firm conclusions when you’re trying to be ‘global’. International market research might start out with the intention of finding global commonalities or appetites, but the data collected will rarely reveal universal insights.

It’s more a question setting out the kinds of insights that might drive operational, product design or branding decisions for different markets. Country specific norms for consumers and logistics will affect the brief. And different nations, cultures and infrastructure will dramatically affect the available research methodologies, too. Again: it’s not impossible to design international research projects that have perfect consistency in methodology – but for many situations, it’s also not necessarily going to deliver the biggest return on investment.

There is significant value in getting inputs from research professionals even before setting the brief. Getting those right at the outset helps the market researchers you work with get a clearer idea of how they might target their investigations and sets expectations about what’s possible – whether you’re looking at a single overseas market, the potential for an entire region or tailoring local research work to evaluate global possibilities for your brand.

International, regional or global? Approaching international market research

That decision – one or two new markets, a region (perhaps opened up thanks to changes in logistics infrastructure) or a global snapshot – probably won’t be defined by the research process itself.

For the biggest brands, global methodologies (which you can learn more about here) such as brand trackers might seem to be universal. But you still need to localise the process to draw broad conclusions. This isn’t simply a question of ensuring that two completely different markets generate results that can be compared at the global level to inform business decisions. National and regional situations are constantly evolving, adding different contexts that research should be able to factor in. Just like running focus groups around a large country, the broad methods might be the same, but the way you ask questions and interpret answers needs finesse.

The biggest global brands – such as Starbuck or McDonald’s – often undertake localisation work on their products and services, too. The Tsukimi Burger is alien to anyone outside Japan, for example. Research conducted to support these market-specific development projects is usually undertaken by local teams. But decision-makers at these companies’ HQs will still expect research supporting those decisions to meet their global standards.

For companies breaking into foreign markets for the first time, similar rules apply. They will have a standard of insight they demand from research; but they will benefit hugely from working with research teams or agencies who understand the local cultures, dialects and the most productive research methodologies.

So right at the inception we need to ask some basic questions:

  • Are we looking to assess products that present uniformly across the globe? (An iPhone is the same everywhere; a chocolate recipe might not be.)
  • How would we tailor products or positioning for a local audience? (Is this just packaging, for example, or tweaks to the features to adapt them to local conditions or cultural norms.)
  • What are the financial implications of these decisions? (Tailoring research to local markets and contextualising the outputs against your global strategic objectives is usually fascinating work. But will it create valuable enough insights to offset the cost of both the research itself and the tailoring?)

Speaking our language

One of the biggest issues for research internationally is translating your project into different languages (we explore that in detail here). That means not just the questionnaires or scripts that you use, but the brief (so local fieldwork teams understand your intent), the responses and insight reports.

In the era of Google translate (and, to a lesser extent, the use of English in many markets) this might not seem so difficult. But the nuances of language can be a major pitfall for brands and for research projects. Remember, even dialects and local idiom can affect both the meaning of a survey response, a focus group transcript or even the focus of a question.

Language and culture across South East Asia is incredibly diverse, so you can’t simply treat it as a homogenous region. Even in India (see our article on breaking the markets there) there are dozens of languages and cultural identities. And in Canada, for example, you need translators who know Quebecois, not just French. Making small mistakes can undermine engagement and trust, and it’s usually a relatively easy thing to get right if you know what to look for.

These language traps are particularly acute for qualitative work assessing softer or more descriptive product features or emotional product branding –especially if there is a very strong global brand identity that needs to be maintained around any local variation.

Working with local teams to ensure the meaning of questionnaires and responses is captured, not just literal translations, helps ensure marketing decision-makers aren’t trapped. Specialist translation services and research teams on the ground but who are in on the initial project brief are hugely valuable.

Two women having a conversation

Realities on the ground – how cultural nuances can influence your choice of methodology for international market research

There are huge variations in the cultural acceptance of different research methodologies too. In some countries, certain methodologies simply don’t work that well. You might find a survey on WeChat in China works well; but in some markets, you may need to spend more time building rapport with consumers – and allow them a sense of anonymity to build the confidence they need to be open with you. This worked well on a recent project in Saudi Arabia, for example, where we conducted an online community.

Some societies have historically been more open to face-to-face research rather than online approaches (although this is changing as a result of the pandemic), so we often recommend a blended approach to get to comparable levels of insight versus other markets where this might be attainable exclusively through online methodologies.

Even between Germany and the UK the research context varies hugely.  A lot of cultural nuance is rooted in history, too. In eastern Germany, for example, the folk memory of the Stasi is still recent history for many older people – which informs attitudes towards research and certain methodologies. So what you ask, how, where and when will differ in Leipzig compared to Paris or Birmingham, say. (And in much of the US, respondents will typically tell you much more than you need to know!)

And even well-understood quantitative methodologies – that you might think don’t require that linguistic nuance – need to be properly calibrated. For example, point scales vary around the world. In China, people are more open to giving 8s, 9s and 10s; in the UK, these are much rarer. If that’s not factored in it can skew important localisation decisions.

Research projects also need to account for infrastructure and social norms. If you’re investigating the relative strength of a drinks brand, for example, knowing how many people have access to refrigeration at home or whether drinking in the street is frowned upon will be important.

Online – not entirely global

Culture, history, consumption patterns, economics, language and infrastructure aren’t the only variations that need to be taken into account for an international research project. Technology has a potentially huge impact on the types of research you can conduct and how well it works.

The rate of adoption of devices and quality of connectivity in each market is a big factor. In some developing countries, you’ll need to tailor a more light-touch experience, with lower bandwidth requirements for online and mobile methodologies; in others, you can use more data-intensive approaches that are demanding on bandwidth and storage.

The smartphone has flattened out some of the methodological variety between markets, it’s true. Take Indonesia, for example. It was always very much a face-to-face market. But that is changing, as the need to inform faster decision making grows, with research through online panels– like our KOINS panel – taking off.

But there are still very clear cultural differences that mean it’s not simply a question of getting every market to download the same app, for example. Yet again, local knowledge is key – not just of those cultural or technological norms, but also of regulation. Data protection laws vary widely, for example.

Online survey methodologies can also lay traps on language. A couple of years ago, lots of brands were interested in the idea from Scandinavia of ‘hygge’ – a king of super-relaxed personal indulgence. There is also a word in Dutch to imply a notion of ‘coziness’, but it’s a different concept. If that crops up in responses, is it the same thing or not? Automated keyword searching and the surging use of AI analytics might not give you the whole picture.

In short: think global, research local

The smartest headquarters’ marketing teams already understand what needs to be tailored locally and what of their global branding they can apply in existing or new export markets. Knowing you can apply product branding across different markets can mean finding huge economies of scale in creative execution and being able to hook local variation into a wider brand image.

They will also trust either local marketing teams, or research specialists with local knowledge, to adapt both marketing and product sets to the conditions in their target markets. They need to know for each market what’s driving the local nuance and how to marry those with the logistical, economic and branding issues around that market.

And they know that whether it’s the attempt to tests global opinions, the openness of local consumers to existing products and branding or to uncover creative and value-creating local adjustments to products and messaging, there is no substitute for in-the-field expertise of a research partner capable of delivering to brief with the most appropriate methodologies.

The old phrase ‘think global, act local’ might be a tired truism. But when it comes to the way research is conducted to optimise performance in global markets, it’s still the number one rule.

Looking to embark on an international market research project?

Learn more about our international research capabilities, or request a proposal to discuss an international research project with us.