Understanding the reaction of your target audience to your product or service is basic, step one stuff for any business. It’s important to know whether they’ll like it or hate it – and whether they prefer it spotty or sparkly. Even within cultures there can be complex cultural baggage; for example in China, most people know that red is a lucky color, associated with prosperity – but writing someone’s name in that color could be associated with death in many traditional contexts.
These are the easy things to learn and remember, though, and there are deeper differences which might influence a marketer’s entire approach to their research – or unconsciously bias it. For instance, the important distinction between Western societies which in recent times have favored a more individualistic culture, and those which are more socialized or collectivist, which heavily influence consumer behavior.
One study found that what kind of society consumers lived in, and their number of social ties, impacted the likelihood they would opt to reduce or maintain their body weight. Being aware of these basic cultural norms can help you to focus your research in the first place – saving a lot of money and effort.
Even your approaches to data collection can be potentially volatile, using standard methods – interviews, focus groups, or observation. Some cultures might find frank and open group discussions uncomfortable, while others might find disagreeing with others to be rude. Even the time a respondent is called to answer a survey depends on a knowledge of the average family day – is it dinner time, prayer time, bed time?
Researchers need to have an awareness of how these different cultural approaches will affect responses to their questions – but they also need to be mindful that they can differ by more than just place. Just as in domestic market research, consumers need to be split by age and economic group, as what one values (tradition, craftsmanship) might be completely removed from the other (modern, value for money), even within what would otherwise be called ‘the same culture’.
This is especially difficult in cultures where age and income are taboo subjects, and invariably, certain groups are just more likely to respond to your survey than others – potentially skewing your results before you even see them.
At the end of the day, putting your research out there is only a part of the job. Marketers have to have the experience and local knowledge not only to ask the right questions, in the right way, but to put resulting data in context, and use their judgement as to whether they are based on genuine differences in consumption, or simply cultural variance.