The top five challenges in international market research solved

a shop in Tokyo, Japan
Image of the post author Kadence International

Conducting market research on an international scale is an increasingly common requirement. Global markets are more important than ever, offering growth to businesses facing domestic stagnation or saturation. But international market research can be challenging to get right. In this article, we explain the top 5 challenges in international marketing research together with our top tips for overcoming these.

What are the top challenges in international marketing research?

1. International markets are incredibly diverse

Some business fail to appreciate the diversity within a region or indeed a country. Only by rooting out the nuances of different geographical areas, cultures and consumers, can you get an accurate picture of what people value and whether your products and services might succeed.

2. There can be a temptation to go too broad

Linked to this, sometimes when companies set out on international marketing research projects, they make the mistake of going too broad and trying to understand a region as a whole. Another error we see is firms commissioning research to target one market and then using this as a jumping off point into others with “similar” attributes. This inevitably leads in costly mistakes as brands map their assumptions about one market onto another.

To avoid this, be clear on the emphasis of your research. Where are you looking to focus? Why? Looking too broadly across a region of different markets, or exploring how an entire product range might perform, can cloud the picture.

3. Finding the right research partner

The next big question is whether you have the research capabilities to conduct meaningful projects internationally. Most brands and their research partners can run domestic research projects with ease. But if you’re in the UK, say, even going as far afield as France or Germany requires different sensibilities and capabilities. The more international you get, the harder you need to look for that kind of experience and expertise.

4. Bringing together local and global expertise

This is one of the biggest challenges in international marketing research and there has to be a collaborative effort and a shared understanding of the mission, the methodology and the insights to overcome this. A research team at HQ might working with a local marketing team to understand how to position a product for success in an emerging market. But if the teams are siloed and don’t have a consistent understanding of the brief, their approach to researching the market and their findings might not actually help deliver on the challenge at hand.

5. Ensuring that the project is realistic from the outset

This is where all the other challenges in international marketing research come together: which markets, what purpose, the capabilities available, and the effectiveness of the output – all within a budget that makes sense. There are always going to be limits to what’s practical – and the last thing any client needs is to be spending large sums testing international markets to no effect.

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Meeting the challenges in international marketing research – tips and tricks from our experience in the field

1. Get the brief and the scope right

The more you can nail down exactly what you need to know, and about which markets, the better your international marketing research will be. The key here is to dismiss the idea that lessons from one market can be overlaid onto other markets. Your approach might not even work in the same region, much less globally. So ensuring the brief isn’t burdened with too many assumptions, and is very clear on objectives, is key.

For research into one new international market, the brief can be clear cut. You’ve picked one new place to trade, and you probably have some specific questions? Will the branding work? Do we need to alter the packaging, are there specific features we need to tweak? But as soon as you broaden the scope – to, say, three new markets covering a region – the nuances become more important in the brief.

One solution is to ask questions at every stage. Why these three markets? What are they like? What do we need to know about purchaser sentiment there? How will a research project change what we decide to do in each markets? Companies that are open with their agencies on operational and marketing strategies – rather than prescribing research about the areas they know matter in their existing markets – will see more effective results.

2. Understand the cultural nuances you’ll face

Everyone knows instinctively that cultural differences are both a factor in conducting meaningful research internationally – and a major reason for doing that research in the first place. ‘Market immersion’ is a key concept, and that’s all about getting to grips with the cultural context. But local nuances within new markets can catch people out. In South Africa, for example, there are multiple cultural groups. Having local knowledge of how to tease those out is vital to breaking in South Africa.

That means one of our jobs as global research partners is challenging clients at the briefing stage to ensure these considerations are baked into the research approach and the analysis and interpretation of the results. The good news is that when you have research experts living and working in these markets, like we do, cultural nuances are easier to plan around. We use this inside knowledge about how people live to help understand opinions, habits and behaviors.

3. Don’t think language is just about translation

Companies are often wise to the importance of understanding ‘culture’ and as a result, adopt a cautious approach. But one mistake people make in international market research is to assume that ‘language’ is easier – it’s just a question of running a survey or its results through Google Translate, right? But that’s never a good idea. It requires a much more nuanced approach, as described in this article from Research Live.

Language isn’t just what we say, but how we say it. And local variations within international markets – think Swiss German or Quebecois French, but the list is endless – further complicate the issue. It’s fascinating stuff – which is why we’re writing a separate blog post on language. What this space…

4. You’ll need the nuance: go regional

Understanding local culture and language are important in their own right. They’re also the gateway to getting out of the big cities and understanding the whole market. Tokyo is a true megacity – but it doesn’t reflect all of Japan. Paris is iconic – but its citizens have very different values to those in Marseilles, let alone rural France.

Here’s where you need to understand geography and supply chains. If you’re moving into a new international market in a limited way – or if distribution is going to impractical outside conurbations, say – then researching inside big city bubbles might work just fine. But for national penetration, and in markets where businesses or consumers are more evenly distributed, understanding attitudes and behaviors across the country is a must.

For brands with an existing presence, existing assets on the ground are a hugely valuable resource for understanding these nuances. That could be local-office marketers or salespeople. Distributors and major customers can also offer insights. We love to work with chief marketing officers (CMOs) who have a helicopter view of a region and are clear about strategic objectives. But triangulating between them, their local marketing teams and our local research teams in the field tends to generate better results.

5. Decide on the most effective methodology

Another big benefit of having local teams in place like ours is that they have expertise in the best methodologies to use in different markets. This is sometimes a subset of culture, but in other markets it’s driven by the levels of technology adoption, geography or working practices. Some examples:

  • In Indonesia, face-to-face research is considered the norm; telephone depth interviews tend not to deliver a good hit rate.
  • In Japan, groups respond better to moderators of the same gender; and people are more likely to undertake qual work at the weekends.
  • It’s not acceptable in Saudi Arabia for researchers to interview women in the home one-on-one. And across the Middle East – and many other regions – mixed-sex focus groups tend to be a no-no.

You can read about others in our guide to conducting online market research in Asia.

This is also why more open briefing processes can be valuable in international research. It’s all too easy to apply a blanket methodology across a whole region and end up struggling to execute the research. Better to frame the key questions the organization needs to answer and tailor the research in each key market.

6. Calibrate your responses

Cultural and language shape the way you ask questions, then and they’re huge factors in interpreting the results of any research, too. A keyword search on a crude translation of responses could mean missing crucial insights – or, worse, coming to incorrect conclusions.

And don’t think this just applies to qualitative, descriptive research where local idiom, slang or cultural references might catch you out. International quantitative research also has to be calibrated by analysts with an appreciation for local nuance.

Respondents in some markets are more likely to agree with statements than others. For instance, you’re more likely to see people in agreeing with statements in India than you are in Japan. Even the way you phrase questions – not just translate them, but the nuance in the question itself – will affect the level of consistency in scores you can achieve between different cultures.

That’s particularly important for big global brands with a very set idea about how they do their brand equity or NPD studies. The alternative is to develop a more organic approach, so that the questions set allow you to reflect local nuance. It might be as simple as using a four-point rather than a five-point scale in markets where respondents are most likely to sit on the fence.

7. Use market research as a tactical, not just strategic, lever

It can be tempting to seek very broad answers from international market research: “will this product work in this market?” Or: “how should we tweak the service offering to meet this country’s needs?” These will help brands decide on strategic issues. But the more nuanced the approach, the more likely it is that the research will feed into local tactics for a brand, making its international investments work even harder.

That’s actually a common theme in research: properly granular insights ought to help on a number of decisions. It’s not just a ‘go/no-go’ binary but research should inform everything from pricing to choice of distribution channel; support for local sales operations, to targeted advertising.

A new era for international research

We’ve certainly moved on from an earlier era when global brands assumed continent-scale uniformity. Even if a business sees an opportunity in ‘Latin America’, has an ‘Asian strategy’ or issues financial reports for ‘EMEA’, serious decision-makers know they need to go, at the very least, to the country level for insights that will help their plans succeed. And they understand that it can be counter-productive to seek out ‘apples to apples’ comparisons between markets when a little nuance can go a long way.

One factor that’s complicated the picture more recently is the global Covid-19 pandemic. Because so much commercial activity is now managed remotely, there’s a temptation to run multi-market studies with a uniform online methodology. If everyone in the world is attending focus groups via the same videoconferencing app, what’s the difference?

The risk here is that the huge advantages of technological solutions are watered down in the hunt for low-cost, ‘big picture’ regional results. Online research can be conducted quickly and flexibly. And clients can immerse themselves in research projects more easily, gaining their own insights into consumer reactions on the other side of the world.

But research that is tailored, for example, to local respondents’ cultural norms will yield much better results. You can quickly adapt a methodology to a market when you have local research expertise and a clear idea of the brand’s mission. For instance, recognizing that in India you’ll need to avoid any methodologies that rely on lengthy video inputs, and instead combining text, image-based and short video tasks, will get you the insights you need.

The most successful companies understand that an international project isn’t as simple as handing a research agency a questionnaire and generating perfectly uniform results across every territory.

You know your product or service better than anyone; we know the right questions and methodologies that will get you where you need go; our local teams understand the cultural norms; and good translations – culturally and linguistically – can bring it all together. Find out about the regions where we can conduct international market research or get in touch to speak to us about an international project.