Conducting Secondary Research
Secondary data can be quantitative statistical information or they can be qualitative information on lifestyle and attitudes. Quantitative data of use to the researcher may have been collected by academic institutions, trade associations, government agencies, and marketing research firms.
Qualitative data can be found in magazines, newspapers, and websites. Data on competitors can be difficult to obtain and besides the usual sources, observation and networking can be used.
Conducting secondary research involves determining the sources of information that are available in the external environment, the industry or the consumer segment. Planning the search should include determining the keywords for it.
The vast amount of information available online means that the search terms may need to be modified a number of times before the relevant information is found. Such information can be retrieved from websites, databases, blogs, articles, social media networking sites and books.
External Secondary and Primary Research Data
After a researcher has defined the problem using critical thinking skills and internal data, the next step in the research process is to determine what external information is already available that could assist in answering the research question.
The two types of external research data that can be obtained by market researchers are commonly called ‘secondary’ and ‘primary’.
A researcher will obtain primary data directly from research participants. In contrast, secondary data already exist as someone else has collected them as the result of previous research. Secondary data, despite the name, are the first type of data that should be used by researchers.
Why use secondary data first? Since secondary data already exist they are less costly than obtaining primary data. Not only do researchers not have to spend the money to conduct research, using secondary research data saves time.
Finding information is much easier and quicker thanks to the internet, as there is a wealth of online sources of secondary data. In fact, the amount of available data is so great that researchers need to develop skills in determining what information is relevant and credible.
Institutions that collect secondary data
Secondary data may have been collected as part of research conducted by an educational institution, a government department, a trade association, social media sites or a commercial data provider. The faculties of educational institutions such as colleges and universities may conduct research that has been funded by a grant.
In turn, this grant may have been received from a large corporation or government agency that needed research data on consumer preferences, or from a government agency that wanted information on social trends.
If the grant was from a corporation, the data may not be available to the public. Research may also be undertaken solely as the result of professorial interest. Since the goal of professors is to publish research, this kind of data will be made available to the public.
Government agencies will conduct their own research to provide information to guide policy decisions. The information collected will include population demographics and economic detail, all of which should be available to researchers.
In addition, trade associations will conduct research on products produced by members of the association. For example, the ACEA (European Automobile Manufacturers Association) gathers information on auto industry-related statistics.
Therefore, primary research on the auto industry should not be conducted without first ascertaining what secondary data are already available.
A newer source of secondary data is social media. While the purpose of these sites is not to collect data, all of the comments, reviews, likes, photos and videos that discuss consumer products and trends can be treated as a source of secondary data.
Finally, commercial research companies will provide data for a fee. Not to use these sites as sources of information is wasteful of the researchers’ financial resources.
Benefits of conducting secondary research
Once a research proposal has been approved, researchers may be tempted to immediately start conducting the primary research methodology by designing a survey or holding a focus group.
However, there are many benefits to first conducting external secondary research including lower costs, research answers, assistance with the design of research methodology, and providing industry information.
The costs involved in obtaining primary data include determining and obtaining a sample, designing the research methodology and analyzing the findings. Because secondary data, unlike primary data, have already been collected they can be obtained at a lower cost.
However, not all secondary data are free. If the data are obtained from a commercial provider there may be a cost involved. If this is the case researchers may find that the cost of the secondary data is still much lower than the cost of obtaining the data through primary research.
There are occasions when only secondary research is conducted. By analyzing the secondary data researchers might find an answer to a research problem.
This is most likely to happen if the research question is general in nature. For example, if the research question is the percentage of people in the city who are concerned about weight gain, these data might have already been collected by a local health organization.
However, most research questions are more specific to a company’s product or target market segment and the data collected through secondary research will not be specific enough to provide the necessary answers.
Research methodology design
Secondary research can provide information that will help to design the primary research methodology. Data from existing sources of consumer preference can provide information on desired product benefits that will help in the design of a questionnaire or focus group script.
For example, if a company is considering designing a new accessory for use with cell phones, research of articles on cell phone design might find an industry study on consumer preferences regarding features.
In addition, comments on social networking and product review sites will provide comments on current products and preferred benefits. This information could then be used to develop a questionnaire that could be used with current or potential customers.
Another benefit of secondary research is that it can provide background information on an industry. Even if the secondary data that are analyzed do not directly provide the answer to the problem, their collection and analysis are still helpful in providing background information and context on the research issue.
Using this knowledge can help a researcher choose the correct research method and design a better research tool.
Requirements of secondary data
Secondary research for existing data is always the first choice for researchers as it saves time and money. However, secondary data should only be used if the data are relevant and relate appropriately to the problem.
The data should also be credible, timely, accurate and affordable. Ensuring the usability of secondary data is the responsibility of researchers.
Data used by the researcher should not only deal with the consumer market segment or the product category, they must be relevant by specifically addressing what researchers need to know. With vast amounts of information available online, it is relatively easy to find data.
However, researchers must take the time and effort to verify the credibility of sources of data to ensure these come from reputable organizations or publications. If the source is a website it can be more difficult to determine credibility. Researchers must verify which individual or organization is responsible for the content of a website.
Besides the relevance and credibility of a source, researchers should determine the date when a study was published, as the data should be timely. What is considered outdated depends on the product or consumer groups being studied. Fashion and technology information becomes dated very quickly. In other fields, the opposite is true.
When evaluating the accuracy of the data, a researcher should ascertain who it was who originally collected the data included in a study. It is not necessary to know researchers personally, but it is necessary to know that the specific organization for which researchers collected the data is reputable. How the data were collected should also be examined.
Data that have been collected using the wrong method or a flawed sample will result in erroneous results. Finally, the cost of the data should be considered. Even the best data cannot be used if they cannot be afforded.
Secondary data requirements
Relevant – they must address the issue being researched Credible – the source is a respected provider of information
Timely – the data are not outdated
Accurate – the data are correct
Affordable – if not free, the company can afford the data
What’s New with the Chinese Consumer? Secondary Data Will Tell You
Anyone planning to do business in China would want to know what the Chinese consumer values in a product. With a country that is so large and geographically diverse, where would you start? Because the country is of interest to many, marketing research firms have already conducted research which can be used.
McKinsey & Company has the ability to conduct large-scale research. They interviewed 10,000 Chinese citizens living in 44 different cities. This is a task that an individual company is not equipped to undertake. What did the research interviews uncover?
The Chinese consumer is changing. While they are optimistic about the future they are aware of economic uncertainty. Therefore they are borrowing less and saving more. They also are placing more value on spending time with family rather than simply purchasing products.
This means that they are interested in lifestyle services and experiences, particularly ones that the family can enjoy together. When they do spend money on products, they are willing to invest in premium brands, rather than lower priced mass market brands. If they are buying a premium brand they are most likely to purchase a foreign brand name.
This research would encourage a foreign company with a well-developed brand that sells premium products designed for family use to enter the Chinese market.
Question: What other primary research would you recommend be conducted before the company enters the Chinese market?
Secondary Research Uses
Three major issues that a marketing researcher should use secondary research to explore are the external environment, the industry as a whole and consumer segments.
Fortunately, much of this research can be conducted right from a researcher’s computer. However, a visit to a public or business library to use online databases may also be necessary.
Secondary research on the external environment
Research on the external environment should include searching for data on social, economic, legal and technological issues that might affect the research question. When researching the external environment, the secondary research might focus on social changes that could affect the benefits that consumers desire from a product.
Another example of research on the external environment would be general economic news, as this would affect the pricing of a product. Researchers might examine the legal environment for changes in laws that could affect how a product may be packaged and promoted.
Finally, the technological environment needs to be researched for any implications it may have on new product development. Online sites that discuss and review new tech products would be particularly helpful.
For example, if a research question is designed to determine the reason for a decline in consumption of a company’s packaged chocolate dessert, there are probably no legal issues that need to be researched as these would not affect consumer consumption of that product.
However, there may be social and economic issues. Researching the social environment might lead a researcher to articles and other information regarding the increase in obesity and the resulting popularity of low-calorie diets.
Researching economic issues might reveal that consumer spending has fallen. If so, it may also show that economic hard times have resulted in consumers buying less of expensive food products. Both of these facts will be worth considering when designing the research study.
There will be occasions when an organization is conducting research when there are few secondary data available. This may be particularly true when research is focused on an ethnic group with a small population.
In this case, little may have been written about the group and even less research conducted on the behavior of its members. However, social media sources can be helpful when the availability of secondary data is limited.
Secondary research on the industry
Secondary research could also gather information on an entire industry to see if there are changes that might affect a research question. These would include general data on changes and trends in that industry.
In the case of the dessert product, data might reveal a trend toward smaller portion sizes or packaging that will go directly from the microwave to the table. A final issue to be researched might be of competing products.
A researcher will need to know if there are new competing dessert products that consumers are purchasing.
Secondary research on the consumer
One last general issue that might need to be researched would be information on consumer segments. This secondary research could be on the current market segment or in a new potential market segment.
For example, the current market segment targeted by the company for the dessert product might be families. In this case, research should focus on any changes in consumption patterns for families. Research might reveal that families are serving fewer sweet desserts because of health concerns.
A researcher might also focus on new target market segments, such as young single professionals and their dessert preferences. Research findings on new industries can quickly become available. Academic researchers are often interested in studying what is new.
For example, online auction retailing as an industry segment was soon an object of study to researchers. Research findings on how consumers use these online auction websites could also help researchers to design new studies.
What to research using secondary data
trends in consumption
competitor growth or decline
current customer segment preferences potential consumer segments preferences
Organizing secondary data
Since there is a wealth of information available to researchers, keeping track of it all is a critical issue. A means to organize data while monitoring all the sources of the information will save time in the long run.
Carefully noting the source of data will save a researcher time if they need to verify the credibility of the information. Also, any questions as to the accuracy of information can quickly be addressed, as researchers will know the exact source of any data.
To organize data, researchers should keep a log of where information was found, how it was obtained, the name of the publication, database or document and the date of the source. This information, when entered in a software database program, then forms part of a marketing information system or MIS.
Even information that isn’t of current interest to researchers might be of use to a marketing department in answering a future research question. Therefore maintaining relevant information can potentially save time.
This information can also be used as an example of what research can accomplish. For example, an organization may be interested in conducting research on the connection between price and perceived quality.
A previously conducted study that has been presented in a journal may give marketing researchers some useful ideas for conducting their own research.
Sources of Quantitative and Qualitative Secondary Data
Quantitative secondary data are numerical facts on the external environment, industry, and consumers that already exist. Most of this information will be from statistical studies conducted by academic institutions, trade associations, government agencies or marketing research firms.
Researchers will find numerous sources of information on the external environment and consumers.
However, they may also discover that finding data on competitors can be challenging. Qualitative secondary data are not statistical and will be gathered from sources such as magazines and newspapers. This type of information is very important when researching consumer preferences and competitors.
Quantitative secondary data
Most external quantitative secondary data result from statistical survey research that has been already conducted. Common sources of these data are academic institutions where professors conduct statistical research.
In addition, trade associations will collect statistical data for their members. Local or federal government offices collect data as part of the services they provide, while commercial research firms collect statistical data to sell.
These organizations have the financial and staff resources to be able to conduct a survey with a large enough sample to ensure that data are statistically valid.
Academic and government data are often available to a researcher at no cost. Trade association data are usually available only to member organizations, and commercial research data must be purchased.
The secondary data that result from studies conducted by academic researchers can most often be found published in academic journals. However, often the studies are basic and not applied research.
While such data may provide the researcher with insights as to the causes of a problem, they will rarely answer a research question directly. However, examining the research of others can provide information on some basic questions.
The secondary data compiled by trade associations are usually specifically focused on the consumers who purchase a product, such as orange juice or women’s fashions, sold by member companies.
This information can provide very specific and therefore valuable data on consumption trends and changes in consumer preferences.
However, because detailed information on consumer preferences would be helpful to competitors selling substitute products, this information may only be available to those companies that belong to the association. Less sensitive data on consumption trends may be available to the general public on the association’s website.
South Koreans are Drinking More Coffee
While a person might associate Asia with tea drinking, secondary research will show that coffee culture is making an inroad into South Korean society. From 2011 to 2014 the coffee market in South Korea expanded by 50 percent.
In 2014, there was a 17 percent increase in coffee imports. A large portion of which was from the United States, which is not a coffee producing country! The US imports were, in fact, coffee being shipped by coffee shop chains, such as Starbucks, to their Korean stores.
Why are foreign chains gaining popularity? They provide the space for meeting and mingling that small local coffee shops lack. Does this mean that they will be out of business soon?
Not if they read the research. While Koreans value the brands, such as Starbucks, they are also concerned about price. Many are buying their coffee at fast food establishments and gas stations.
Question: What other data might be available that local coffee shops could use to help them compete?
Government departments and offices usually collect data on social trends or issues. These data are almost always available to the general public and can be accessed directly on websites or by visiting a business library. Each government office will be responsible for conducting studies in their area of concern.
For example, the US Department of Commerce conducts studies on business activity in different regions of the USA. Likewise in Europe, the European Union website can be searched for industry information.
Social media sites
Since social media posts are in the public domain, they can be a rich source of information. This can be done informally by simply going online and reading.
However, a more systematic approach would be using online applications that monitor, track, gather and analyze comments. These might be comments about the researcher’s organization but such data can also be used to analyze consumer comments about competitors.
Marketing research firms
Marketing research firms are also a source of quantitative secondary data. These companies specialize in researching a certain product category or consumer market segment on a continual basis. These data are then available for purchase by any interested company or individual.
Types of qualitative secondary data
Secondary data other than statistical information are also available to researchers. Qualitative sources such as general newspapers and magazines are sometimes overlooked by market researchers as sources of information on consumer choices and competing products.
These types of publications are often aimed at consumers who belong to a specific demographic group or consume specific types of products. These lifestyle publications are particularly useful for consumer marketing research.
Many magazines are written to appeal to a specific demographic group. For example, Retirement Living magazine would be read by people who are either already retired or who are still employed but planning their retirement.
If marketing researchers were interested in what types of issues are of concern to this group, examining the table of contents from several issues of the magazine would help to provide this information.
A travel company may also notice that many issues of the magazine had articles that addressed the new trend of grandparents traveling with grandchildren. These data could be used to develop new types of tour packages.
Other publications are aimed at groups of people who share a specific psychographic interest or lifestyle. Car & Driver magazine and, even more specifically, Volkswagen Driver would have articles focused on readers’ automotive interests.
Market researchers in the automotive industry should make a habit of reviewing such publications to keep abreast of consumer trends in this area.
These lifestyle magazines would also provide valuable information to market researchers in related industries such as automotive supply stores. If a certain type of car accessory is being heavily promoted, such as heated cup holders, then eventually consumers will be looking for this product and stores should have them in stock.
Business and trade publications
Magazines and newspapers that cover business subjects are also a source of qualitative secondary data. They will often carry articles that relate to new consumer interests or product trends.
Trade publications will also focus on a single product or industry. These business publications should be received by marketing departments and kept on file for research purposes.
Likewise, any trade publications pertaining to specific industry trends should be received regularly. The appropriate trade association publications should be readily available in a marketing department along with competitors’ catalogs and other promotional material.
Websites and social media
Many websites also contain information that is pertinent. This includes ’zines, traditional publications that are online and websites devoted to groups that share a specific interest.
Blogs, chat-rooms and social networking websites are easy ways to research consumer interests, particularly those of younger consumers. Social networking sites that allow people to post reviews of products and services can provide valuable insights.
When a Consumer Says a Product is Cheap, is that Good or Bad? Information on social media can be used as a source of secondary data. In a way, a social networking site is one huge focus group with everyone giving an opinion and adding to a conversation. Social media insights can be used at the beginning of the research process when the researcher is still even vague about the problem being explored.
By listening to conversations, the researcher can discover what subjects are being discussed by consumers. An even more in-depth analysis can take place of the nuances of what people are saying.
A research company used text analysis to measure whether comments about a product demonstrated brand loyalty. An analysis of the different scents offered by a product showed that while many were discussed, one elicited passionate language.
Finally, an in-depth analysis showed that when a country is doing well economically the word cheap is used negatively. However, when the same country is in an economic recession the word cheap is considered praise.
Question: How could loyalty to a university be analyzed using social media as secondary data?
Competitor secondary data
When considering the cause of a problem that is being researched, it is important to consider the actions of a company’s competitors. A large corporation might have an established system for gathering information on competitors’ new products, promotions or new target market segments.
However, even small companies can keep abreast of competitor actions. Besides the usual sources of quantitative and qualitative data available to track competitors, researchers may need to take a more creative approach to find the required information.
Marketing researchers should obviously routinely read all types of newspapers and magazines that focus on business issues to learn about competitors.
However, other methods will also be needed because not all of the relevant information will be published. Here, observation of competitors should be considered. For example, the owners of a sporting goods equipment store might note which type of sports equipment is being carried at other stores.
Watching sporting events would provide information on what brands of equipment are popular at different skill levels. In addition, useful information can be obtained by visiting competing companies or places where competitor products are sold. Valuable information can also be gathered through networking.
If funds allow, researchers should attend trade association events so they can network and hear the latest industry news. In addition, researchers will hear all the informal gossip regarding those competitors who are thinking of introducing new products or promotions.
If trade shows are out of the question all business people can afford to network in the community by attending local business meetings and events.
At such events, a researcher might find him or herself in conversation with a local media representative who might know about the future promotion plans of competitors or the local business reporter who should have the latest news about new products being introduced by competitors.
Even real estate agents are sources of information, as they will have information on what companies are looking for new space because of expansion plans.
Steps in the Secondary Research Process
Researchers shouldn’t start the secondary research process without a plan. After determining the research objective and question, a researcher should then review all the available internal data including written sources and interview notes. The next step will require online access or the use of a business library, either academic or public.
Researchers should first familiarize themselves with the services such a library offers, including the use of a reference specialist. A reference librarian is familiar with all of the resources that are available and can help in guiding researchers to the best sources of information.
Some libraries even offer an orientation or classes on the available resources to help business people gather market research data.
External sources of information available at a business library would include general newspapers and magazines for information on social changes. Business newspapers and journals are sources of information on industry and economic news and statistics.
Government documents are sources of information on legal issues. Current information from these sources might be available in paper format, but most of the information will be contained online in specialized databases.
Finding data online
Much of the required secondary research can now be conducted online using websites and databases. This has made life simpler for researchers because much of the research can be conducted in the office environment. However, it has also made life more difficult.
Because there is so much information available, it is up to researchers to plan and conduct secondary research in a manner that doesn’t just obtain information but also obtains the right information.
Previously, the issue facing a researcher was finding any information; now the issue is finding the correct information. Researchers will never quite know where the relevant information will be found.
India Social Media Use Growing Fast
Using social media to conduct secondary research is a possibility in all countries. Once the internet is available, the use of social media expands fast.
In fact, the percentage of people who have ever used the internet in urban areas grew in India by 43 percent from 2014 to 2015. What is surprising is that even in rural areas it grew by 28 percent.
If you compare the growth of active users (at least once a month), the percentage growth is higher in rural areas at 77 percent compared to 38 percent in urban areas. In rural areas internet use by men greatly exceeds use by women, but this is also changing fast.
India has the second largest base of internet users after China. What are they all doing online? Once online the largest use of the internet is Facebook and WhatsApp. So the same type of analytical online secondary research common in other countries can now be done in India.
Question: What types of products do you think are being discussed online in India?
Planning the search
The first step in the process of accessing online information is to decide what type of information is needed. If researchers are conducting secondary research on the external environment they may need factual information on economic news, legal issues and technological developments.
If the research is on consumer preferences, researchers may need information on demographic data and social trends. In addition, researchers may need information on the names and locations of competing companies.
All of these needs will have different sources of information. For example, if researchers are searching for information on trends in the sporting goods industry, there are a number of different online sources that could provide information.
It would be useful in this case to analyze statistical information on what percentage of young people aged 16–22 engage in various sports activities – but such a large-scale study would be very expensive to conduct.
However, if the information is already available, a government agency or trade association will probably have collected it. The government agency that would collect this information might also be interested in health or tourism. The trade association might be doing so for sporting venues, sporting goods manufacturers or a league of sports teams.
Information on sports participation might also have been collected by companies that manufacture or sell sporting goods equipment. Because these companies will have collected this information for use in developing corporate strategy, it might not be in the public domain.
However, the results if not the details of these types of studies may have been published in press releases that are readily available to the general public.
Researchers will also want to analyze qualitative data. Blogs and articles on sports participation may contain statistical information on popularity that the authors were able to gather from other sources.
Even if the blogs and articles do not provide statistical information, they will provide information on what sports are popular and also give insights into why some sports are gaining in popularity while other sports are declining.
Some information only exists online. This type of information includes social networking sites, video/photo sharing sites and blogs. Social networking sites such as Facebook are now popular with people of all age groups and are also growing globally.
People will use these sites to post information on their interests, including sports participation, entertainment choices and product preferences.
Blog sites allow for online discussion and are usually formed around a specific topic, including everything from an interest in science fiction to sports participation. Analyzing these sites can provide valuable insights into trends before they are documented in blogs and articles.
Online search strategy
Once the source of online information is decided upon, the next step is to construct a search strategy that involves identifying keywords and terms to be used in searching the database.
The success of accessing the correct information depends on using the correct search terms. It is rare that a researcher will identify the correct terms on the first try. For example, researchers might want to know which sports are gaining in popularity among young people.
Terms such as ‘sports young’ might bring up too many sources of information, including data on the health benefits of sports, sports injuries and sports for children.
On the other hand, the search term ‘winter sports participation by young people with disabilities in Germany from 2010 to 2012’ would bring up few or no sources of information. Finding the correct search terms is often a matter of trial and error. Unfortunately, researchers often have a ‘microwave’ mentality.
They believe they should be able to enter search terms and within 60 seconds they will have results, just as a microwave heats a cup of coffee. A successful online search will take time and effort because of the vast amounts of information that exist. It is unrealistic to expect that one or two tries will result in accessing relevant data.
Retrieving online information
Online search engines such as Google are useful in looking up routing information, such as a store’s opening hours or the location of the nearest hotel. These search engines are designed to help a user browse the web.
The definition of ‘browsing’ is to look around or look through. Browsing can be an enjoyable activity as the web is full of interesting sites with fascinating details. However, these search engines are not designed for serious research.
The definition for ‘search’ includes the words to hunt or investigate. While browsing skims along the top of all the available information, searching explores a limited amount of information in depth. Instead of browsing the web using search engines, more specialized databases are needed to conduct research.
These specialized databases are readily available through public, business and academic libraries if a company does not subscribe. Statistical information can be obtained through official government websites or sites that access government information from many different sources.
For example, demographic information on the United States can be obtained through the official US Census website at www.census.gov. British sources of demographic data are available through the Office for National Statistics website at www.statistics.gov.uk/. Here sources of information on topics as widely varied as national flu statistics and monthly museum visits can be found.
Corporate and trade association information would be contained in industry databases such as Edgar and ThomasNet. Other specialized databases for company information include Hoover’s Online and Thomson Reuters Worldscope.
These contain information on both public and private businesses in many countries. There are even specialized websites that display information on business press releases, such as Business Wire.
Almost all the blogs in the world can be searched using WorldCat, which allows searching by topic, author, title, and language. Articles can be found using databases such as Business Source Premier, LexisNexis, JSTOR and Academic Search Elite. These sources are not available to the general public but are available at many libraries.
Combining the uses of secondary and primary data
Researchers will need to understand how to use secondary research to design primary research. For example, a researcher may be presented with the problem of declining sales in fruit juice products.
One of the first questions they would want to be answered is whether juice consumption as a whole is declining or whether it is just that company’s product that is not being purchased.
To conduct a statistically valid study of all juice drinkers in a country is possible but would be an expensive and time-consuming effort. Fortunately, such as study is not necessary if secondary data are available.
In fact, the data are readily available on the US Department of Agriculture website. The British Soft Drink Association produces an annual report on the topic. Statistics on fruit juice consumption can also be found on the Australian Bureau of Statistics website.
A researcher will now know whether people are still drinking juice. Therefore, declining sales must be due to consumers buying other brands. Further external research would include reading trade publications on the beverage industry.
Here it might be learned that juice is not being given as prominent a shelf space in local grocery stores because of all the new health drinks on the market. This knowledge gives the researcher a good indication of what the problem might be.
However, the secondary quantitative and qualitative data do not answer the question as to whether the lack of shelf space is actually the problem for their product.
A research question or hypothesis is then developed that consumers do not notice the juice display and therefore are not motivated to purchase. The researcher can now design a primary research study to obtain data on whether this hypothesis is true.
Secondary data are also useful in designing qualitative studies. To use the same juice example, researchers may want to know more about how and when people drink. Secondary research using online social media sources would provide information on trends.
For example, following comments on social media sites concerned with health can provide insights into how people view the benefits. Reviewing information on social media sites that provide ideas for entertaining may provide information on juice used in cocktails. These ideas can then be further explored in a focus group.
International Marketing Research Challenges
International marketing research can be defined as research that is conducted in one or more countries other than the country of the company commissioning the research.
This international research may be conducted because this company already sells products in more than one country, or because they hope to do so in the future. If more than one country is involved in the research project, the company may decide to conduct the research either simultaneously or sequentially, country by country.
When researching the introduction of an existing product into a new country, any company needs to understand the unique needs, wants and desires of foreign consumers.
Companies will use this information to adjust the products, prices, distribution and promotion to make their products more attractive to local consumers.
Rather than adopt a current product company may also use marketing research because they want to develop new products that uniquely meet the needs of consumers in other countries. In this case, research is even more important.
Almost all international marketing research is also cross-cultural research. This is true because national boundaries are usually also cultural boundaries.
Marketing researchers need to be aware that within any foreign country there may be more than one cultural group. Therefore, marketing research designed for a foreign country may need to be adjusted for more than one culture.
Cross-cultural research at home
Cross-cultural research may also need to be conducted in a company’s own country. This will be the case if the country where a company is based is home to more than one cultural group. These different cultural groups may have existed together in the same country for centuries.
For example, a country such as Romania has been home to culturally unique groups throughout its history. Alternatively, different cultural groups may result from recent immigration. For some countries, such as the United States, immigration was how such nations were formed.
Unfortunately, just because there is more than one cultural group living in a country does not mean that market researchers are adept or even aware of the need to adjust their methodology. This lack of awareness may result because the newest immigrant groups are usually not represented in the ranks of marketing professionals.
Of course, this fact will change over time as newer immigrant groups take advantage of the educational opportunities available to their families. However, the possible lack of educational opportunities that can currently exist explains why there are few marketing professionals among these groups.
As a result, this population might be ignored when conducting marketing research. Unfortunately, by not adapting marketing research techniques to better assess the wants and needs of immigrant groups marketers are ignoring a potential consumer segment.
Unique research questions
The marketing research process does not change because it is being conducted across cultures. What does change is the choice of methodology and how that methodology is implemented.
In addition, marketing across cultures may result in unique research questions. For example, aspects of consumer behavior that researchers take for granted in their own culture may need to be researched in another.
Design preferences such as color, style, and package size may also change from culture to culture. The preferred brand name may vary as well. In addition, where a product is purchased and how that product is used may differ. These variations will result in the need to ask additional research questions.
Examples of research questions which address cultural differences
What are the design preferences for color and style?
What social media are used personally and professionally?
In which type of retail store would our ethnic target market segment be looking for our products?
Who makes purchase decisions in these families?
What type of media does the culturally distinct target market segment use?
Do consumers want different packaging of products?
In what languages should products’ instructions be written?
How much disposable income does the average consumer have?
How are our products used?
Availability and comparability of secondary data
Much of the secondary data that a marketing researcher might find available in the USA or Europe may not be available in all countries.
The availability of information on demographics and consumer behavior depends on having an institution gathering and maintaining the data over a period of time. This continuity, in turn, depends on having a stable government or nongovernmental bureaucracy to support that institution.
Another issue when conducting international secondary research is that many researchers have become dependent on using online sources of data. However, these sources may be absent in other countries because the relevant information has not been computerized due to the cost.
In this case, researchers will need to find and analyze original documents and sources, but even then, they may experience problems because the data may not be accurate.
In some countries, the purpose of collecting data may not have been to provide an objective source of information for researchers. Rather, the purpose may have been to only collect data that supported government policy.
Level of cultural difference
When developing a research plan for conducting international research marketing researchers should consider the level of cultural dissimilarity between a company’s home country and the new geographic area in which it plans to market.
These differences could include both language differences and cultural values or dimensions. Sometimes research conducted in the same country as where a company is located might still be faced with language and cultural values issues when researching consumers from a minority cultural group.
While the considerations of language and cultural values must still be taken into account, this research will be easier to undertake.
This is because even if they are not members of a particular cultural group, researchers will probably have been exposed to that culture through personal relationships or through the media.
In addition, finding assistance in obtaining cultural information will be easier as local experts can be found to assist with research.
When research is conducted in another country that shares the same language, it is easy for researchers to assume that the values are the same.
However, a shared language does not mean that the cultural dimensions are similar. Americans, Australians, Canadians and British people may all speak English, but a marketing research plan will still need to be adjusted for cultural differences.
Marketing researchers should remember that even if the minority culture uses the same language as the majority culture, there will still be differing cultural values that must be considered when designing the research methodology. Research is most challenging when both the language and cultural dimensions are different.
In this case, researchers must use local expertise to ensure that their research design will obtain the needed information. Even when using local research firms, companies must be aware of communication difficulties that might arise from language and cultural differences between management teams and foreign marketing researchers.
Differences in languages between the country where management is located and the country where the research is being conducted will result in additional steps in the research process, including research questions and translation needs.
The first issue here is that additional research will need to be conducted to determine the correct wording for brand names and promotional material. The wording used in promotional material (including print and online ads, brochures, billboards, posters and also broadcast messages) must be researched.
It is not enough to simply translate a message. While factual information can be translated and still be understood, a promotional material often conveys an emotional rather than a purely factual message.
Emotional messages are difficult to communicate, even with people sharing the same culture and language. Therefore, additional research will need to be conducted in order to choose how a message should be conveyed, even before the translation issue is faced.
Translation during the research process
The second issue is that companies must translate all research material. Translation of both verbal and written information may be needed during several steps in the research process.
This includes the planning phase when preparing research materials and putting together a final report. The best way to approach this task is for researchers and translators to work as a collaborative.
If possible, companies undertaking international marketing research should do so by partnering with a research firm in the country where the research will be conducted.
This would be advisable because a commissioning company will lack both the language and cultural knowledge needed to conduct effective research in a foreign country.
However, this partnership does not mean that translation will not be needed. While all the marketing researchers in a foreign research firm may speak the language spoken by the local consumers, not everyone in a foreign research company will speak the same language as the management in the commissioning company.
If everyone does not speak a language at the same level, a translator should be employed at the research planning meetings. After all, it is difficult enough to communicate effectively about research goals and objectives when everyone speaks the same language.
In addition, communication in planning meetings is generally difficult as people start with generalities as research ideas are sorted through and then a meeting will build in complexity as various needs are prioritized.
If the added difficulty of language misunderstandings is present, there is an even greater likelihood that miscommunication will take place. If there is any confusion about the purpose of the research and the research question, it will result in designing a study that will not provide the needed information in any language.
Translation of questionnaires, interview questions, and focus group scripts are more involved than simply having an adequate word for word translation. While the software will automatically translate languages, simply using this method is not enough.
There are many cultural issues that will affect word choice. For example, when writing questions, researchers should be aware of wording issues involving ethnicity.
There may be many names for the same ethnic group. There may be an official government designation, a commonly used name by other members of that society, and a name that is used within a group itself.
Researchers should always use the term that an ethnic community prefers to have used when addressed by those people who are not members of their group. The term that members use among themselves may not always be the term that they prefer others to use, and in fact, they may even find it offensive.
Besides the research instruments, researchers should not forget that any participant instructions will also need to be translated.
In addition to translating all written material, the oral translation will be needed when conducting interviews and focus groups. Of course, interviewers and moderators must speak the same language as research subjects as this is the only way to ensure that effective communication takes place.
They will, therefore, need to be bilingual so that a written and oral report can be prepared for management.
Another translation issue arises if someone from the company commissioning the research wishes to observe a focus group or interview. It will then be necessary to provide for simultaneous translation while the research is being conducted.
This translation should take place in a separate area designed for viewing and listening to the research while it is being conducted so that the translation will not disrupt the research.
For example, if a German automotive company has commissioned research regarding the auto preferences of Bulgarians, they will observe the research while the translator repeats in German what both the moderator and the participants are saying in Bulgarian.
When simultaneous translation is to be used, the translator should be briefed about the purpose of the research so that they can be ready to translate any industry-specific jargon.
Research findings reporting
Of course, the final written report will need to be translated. The company commissioning the research should request a copy of the research in both the language in which the research was conducted and the language of management.
In addition, any research instruments and research notes should be translated even if originally written in another language.
If there are any difficulties with the research recommendations, the research instruments can be checked to discover if the problem was as a result of language misunderstandings.
Finally, a researcher who is bilingual should give the oral presentation. If this is not possible, an oral translation may be needed at the presentation of the report.
Hofstede’s Dimensions of Culture
Many of the decisions people make each day as they go about living their lives are made at an unconscious level. After all, life would be much too difficult if every decision had to be carefully considered. People get up in the morning and eat what they consider to be ‘normal’ breakfast food.
They commute to work in a normal fashion, work in normal occupations, and have normal family living arrangements. Of course, a ‘normal’ breakfast meal of cornflakes for one person may be fish soup for another – and meanwhile, each may consider the other’s choice ‘strange’.
Self-reference is a term used to describe the fact that everyone believes his or her way of life is the ‘norm’. This is not necessarily a problem unless a person comes into contact with other people who have different ideas of what constitutes a ‘normal’ life.
This person then has the choice of feeling threatened and reacting negatively, or reacting with interest and exploring the cultural difference.
When researching marketing issues across cultures it is imperative for researchers to remember that the self-reference criterion is unacceptable.
Instead, researchers must remain aware that all consumers have their behavior and desires shaped by their national and ethnic culture. Even within a single country, several different ethnic and cultural differences may exist among people who belong to different groups.
Of course, on a basic human level people have the same emotional makeup.
Hofstede’s model is based on research conducted on the characteristics and values of people in many different countries. The research revealed that human behavior is not random.
Statistical analysis revealed four main characteristics where differences were shaped by an individual’s cultural environment. These dimensions of predictable behavior are termed power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism/collectivism, and masculinity/femininity.
Power distance describes how individuals react to authority. No society exists where everyone has equal power. For example, within an organization, a boss has more power than a subordinate.
Because of this power difference, the boss can determine the behavior of the subordinate much more than the subordinate can determine the behavior of the boss.
This would also be true between those in political power and ordinary citizens. The same could be said between family members, although who holds the power in a family may differ between cultures.
This situation of inequality, where one person has the power to determine the behavior of another, holds true across all cultures. What differs is the acceptance of such inequality or power distance.
Do those without power try to reduce the control that the powerful have over their lives? Or is there an acceptance that such a difference in power levels is ‘normal’ and therefore acceptable?
People in a country with high power distance will believe that decisions made by those in power should be accepted. There is a belief that those with power will make rules that will lead to the happiness of most people and therefore these rules should be followed.
However, in an organization in a country with low power distance there will be the belief that people at all levels have the ability to make the decisions that are best for them.
Because everyone has the ability to make good decisions, subordinates will expect to have an input into decision making. Therefore, if more people from every level are involved in the decision making, the better the decision will be.
Relation to marketing research
The dimension of power distance has a direct application to marketing research. For example, the USA is a country that ranks low in power distance.
Therefore, a marketing researcher should expect that the average consumer will have insights that they believe will be valuable to those making product decisions in the company. Based on this assumption, a researcher will plan a focus group or interviews to gather opinions on management’s decision to introduce a new product.
In a high power distance, country research participants might find this idea rather ridiculous. Those in a focus group will see the researcher as someone in a position of power and not be challenged.
Interview subjects will believe that the management of the company includes the best people to make the decision as to what to produce. If those in power have both the authority and the responsibility to make decisions, why are consumers being asked what should be produced?
Part of being human involves being conscious of time and therefore being aware that we are constantly confronted with an unknown future. However, it is psychologically impossible to live in a state whereby a person must acknowledge that at any moment the future could radically change.
To lessen this anxiety regarding this unknown future, countries create laws, perform religious rituals and use technology. Such laws govern people’s behavior so that it can be more predictable and this, therefore, results in less anxiety.
Religious rituals are used to provide comfort and also a belief in a knowable future that will occur after the present uncertain reality. In addition, countries will use technology to protect against the randomness of Nature.
How accepting people are of the ambiguity of the future differs between cultures. Families, schools and governments transmit this level of acceptance through their use of laws, religion, and technology.
Avoidance of uncertainty will lead to behavior that is considered rational, such as keeping the same job for a lifetime. In contrast, this same behavior in a country with less uncertainty avoidance will be seen as irrational.
Organizations cope with uncertainty avoidance by creating rules and organizational rituals. An organization in a high uncertainty avoidance country will have many rules that govern behavior.
People who live in a high uncertainty avoidance culture will find these rules comforting rather than restrictive. They will know that if they follow the rules the future should hold few surprises.
Employees in these countries will also tend to stay with the same employer to avoid the implied threat that a new employment situation would present.
Relation to marketing research
People from countries with high uncertainty avoidance cultures will find novelty a threat rather than exciting. Because they will fear failure more than they will anticipate success, a task with no rules and without any definition of what is to be expected would not be welcomed. However, people from low uncertainty avoidance cultures will find new challenges and unfamiliar situations exciting.
Rather than worry about failure, they will focus on the possibility of success. Research techniques that require participants to take risks based on little information would make individuals in high uncertainty avoidance cultures uneasy.
Creative projective techniques, such as asking participants to draw a visual ad for a product based on their opinions, provide little guidance as to what is expected.
Such techniques would not work well in a high uncertainty avoidance culture. Even open-ended questions in a survey form may go unanswered as there is too much risk of giving an answer that might be perceived as wrong.
Individualism vs. collectivism
All human beings are social animals with a need to belong. However, whether this desire to bond is encouraged varies between cultures. The issue of individualism versus collectivism affects social and living arrangements both at home and at work.
This cultural dimension will shape the decision of who people will choose to live with, whether alone or with family members, and will even shape who is considered ‘family’. In individualistic cultures, ‘family’ often means the nuclear family only.
Even within the nuclear family children will move away as soon as they can be self-sufficient. An adult child still living at home will need to be explained to other family and friends, as it seems somehow ‘unnatural’.
In collectivist cultures, the concept of family is extended much more broadly to include those who may be distantly related.
In these cultures, adult children who choose to move away from the family may be seen as ‘unnatural’. However, the concept has a broader implication than just where people live and who they consider relatives, it also impacts how people think and work in organizations.
In an individualistic society, people are expected to have their own unique thoughts and ideas and are rewarded for doing so. In collectivist societies, people will tend to think the way others do and group decisions will be respected.
Relation to marketing research
The marketing concept puts the individual needs and wants of the consumer at the heart of the marketing mix. The purpose of marketing research is to uncover these needs and wants.
While it is true that individuals differ because of their genetic makeup, their family experiences and their external environment, in collectivist cultures it will be much harder to prompt individuals to express these differences.
Particularly in focus group situations, research subjects from collectivist cultures will be more likely to agree with other group members rather than explore the differences that might cause disagreements.
Also, when answering survey questions, people from collectivist cultures are likely to respond to questions based on the views of their families and friends rather than on their own opinions.
Masculinity vs. femininity
Biological differences between the genders are the same everywhere, but the importance of these differences and how they are reinforced differ across cultures.
Differences involved in childbearing are biologically determined. However, while not absolutely determined by biology other behaviors are statistically more common in males or females. This is because every society has ideas of what behaviors are considered appropriate for males or females.
While these ideas of gender-specific appropriate behavior vary between cultures, there are similarities. In most cultures, men are expected to be more aggressive and concerned with status while women are expected to be more nurturing and concerned with the family. However, how these roles are applied may differ.
For example, in Russia, the occupation of a doctor has been seen as one that is natural for women because it involves caring for people. In the USA the occupation of doctor has been seen as natural for men because the power of being able to heal gives status.
A culture is referred to as ‘masculine’ when the difference between gender-specific behaviors is reinforced. In a highly masculine country, men are expected to be aggressive, tough and driven by the need for status, while women are expected to be modest, to nurture the family and maintain social relationships.
The difference in a highly feminine country is that there is more leeway for these roles to overlap. Women are allowed to be more aggressive and it is socially acceptable for men to be more caring.
Relation to marketing research
Masculine versus feminine behavior has a direct implication for consumer research as it affects who is considered as a consumer. In a highly masculine country, men make the major shopping decisions involving expensive products while women will shop for food and everyday items.
Therefore, men will be asked to participate in research that asks for opinions on expensive products such as automobiles.
In feminine countries, men would feel free to involve their wives in making this decision. As a result, women will have an impact on the purchase decision and should be included in the research. Likewise, in a highly feminine country, men may equally take on the task of food shopping. Research on household products, such as laundry soap, will also want to gather male opinions.
Marketing Ethics and Cultural Values
Ethics are socially based ideas of what is correct behavior versus wrong behavior. Ethical rules are learned while young from family, the educational system and religious institutions. If ethics are the result of socialization it can be assumed that they may differ from culture to culture.
This leaves marketing researchers with a dilemma. When are market researchers in ‘Rome’ should they ‘do as the Romans do’ even if it conflicts with their own ethical principles?
One theory that can help clarify the issue is contextualism. Contextualism argues that while the rules of conduct may vary in different cultures, they may still spring from the same universal principle.
A universal principle is one that is true across cultural boundaries. An example of such a principle is that the strong should protect the weak from harm.
However, the application of a rule can vary depending on who it is that a culture defines as being in need of protection.
A culture that sees women as being in need of protection will seek to protect women from strangers, particularly men. They will not be open to the idea of a male researcher interviewing a female participant without a male family member present.
The researcher may come from a culture that does not believe women need this type of protection. This refusal to allow women to participate in research if the moderator or interviewer is male may be difficult to accept.
However, it may help if the researcher remembers that the behavior is the result of a universal belief that both cultures share. Rather than waste time in disagreement, it might be better spent on adapting the research methodology to ensure that the cultural value of the protection of women is respected.
Everyone constructs stereotypes of groups of people different from themselves. These stereotypes take the qualities of a few members of a group and project them onto all members of that group. People construct stereotypes, either positive or negative, in an effort to make sense of the world.
A researcher may have a positive stereotype of groups based on perceived personality traits.
For example, Americans may be seen as friendly, Germans as hard-working, and the French as romantic. However, some stereotypes held by researchers may be negative. While stereotypes can be used as a ‘shorthand’ method of understanding the world, the problem is that they may blind researchers to reality.
If a researcher holds the stereotypes mentioned above they are much less likely to note that Americans can be unfriendly, Germans can be laid-back, and the French can be unromantic. Researchers will only notice these traits if they are very extreme because they conflict with their stereotypes.
It is impossible for researchers to be free of all stereotypes. Researchers are naturally more likely to feel positive about groups that they associate with positive personal qualities and to feel negative about a group that they associate with negative qualities.
Rather than be free of all stereotypes, the goal is for researchers to be aware of their stereotypes and to make the necessary adjustments in their attitudes.
If researchers working with a group of Japanese focus group participants believe that the Japanese are hard working with little preference for leisure time, they are less likely to see the variation in the group members.
As a result, they are less likely to notice the focus group member who is unhappy with his or her job and dreams of living on a beach somewhere.
Prejudice is always a negative phenomenon. It can be based on age, gender, nationality, ethnicity, occupation and sexual orientation. This type of attitude engenders negative attributes toward the members of a specific group which may have no basis in reality. Prejudice is usually learned early as a result of family, school, and social experience.
However, it can also be developed later in life as the result of associating with others who share a common prejudice. It can make a person so uneasy that they will avoid contact with members of a group they view negatively. Prejudice can even lead some people to actively seek out members of a group so that they can express their hostility.
Because prejudice is usually learned early in life, it can be difficult to overcome. If researchers realize that they have a problem with prejudice they should avoid working with groups they view negatively.
Even if researchers feel they can hide their feelings, their attitudes may still show. For example, a researcher may have learned a very negative view of an ethnic group.
Even if the researcher is now aware that this prejudice is incorrect, part of their feelings may still show in a focus group setting.
Because members of the ethnic group have probably all experienced discrimination based on their ethnicity, they will be quick to pick up on this prejudice and the focus group will not be effective as a result.
1. A company may need to conduct marketing research across cultural boundaries, whether on a unique cultural group in the same country or a different country.
There are a number of unique challenges a company may face when it conducts marketing research across cultural boundaries, including the need to research consumer preference questions that would normally not require research.
The amount of research challenge will depend on the level of cultural difference between the marketing researchers’ own culture and the culture that is being researched.
2. Marketing in other countries where a different language is spoken will require translation. Translation issues the company will face include the need to translate meetings, research materials and the final written and oral reports.
3. The self-reference criterion refers to the fact that most people assume their own behavior is the normal standard against which other behaviors should be judged.
While all people have the same range of emotions their behavior is shaped by culture. An international marketing researcher must be able to understand the validity of the choices made by members of other cultures.
These cultural differences can be explained using the dimensions of power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism versus collectivism and masculinity versus femininity. Each of these will affect the choice of research subjects, research methodology and the way that methodology is implemented.
4. Contextualism is a theory that explains that although behaviors may vary across cultures they may still be the expression of the same underlying value. Rather than focusing on the disagreement regarding this behavior, it is better for marketing researchers to understand what value the behavior expresses.
Marketing researchers must also be aware of their own stereotypes and prejudices. Stereotypes, either positive or negative, occur when the actions of a few are believed to be true of everyone in a group. Prejudices are always negative and are based on preconceived ideas rather than reality.