Thursday, August 20, 2015

Organizing an International Marketing Research Program

By Daniel J. Colquhoun
Senior Vice President, Customer Research
Frost & Sullivan

Global marketing is based on the premise that consumers in comparable socioeconomic groups with comparable disposable incomes, aspirations, exposure to media and consumption habits would be more like their counterpart in other markets than they would be of their fellow countrymen in different groups.

This meant that brand management and appropriate advertising strategies could be universally employed across boundaries, contrary to the 1970s and 80s habit of individual country management.

This would ultimately offer economies of scale in production, media buying and advertising development and execution. There are also significant management economies inherent in the idea as policies, training, and staff movement become more standardized.

Several factors arose that caused this concept to be re-evaluated. In some cases it has been rejected outright while in others various hybrids have developed and subsequently coined as new catch phrases, such as: Think global, act local, Global strategy, local tactics, and Glocalization.

These phrases recognize that many of the international and regional similarities are overrun by local idiosyncrasies in the form of cultures, language and emotional appeals as far as the consumer is concerned.

With these points in mind, this article addresses the effect on marketing research information systems in two parts. In this first installment we cover the many obstacles that stand in the way of what is still, in this global economy, an ambitious and challenging endeavor. The second part of the series will look at the structure of an effective international marketing research program.

Challenges to Consider

Multi-country marketing research presents unique challenges as a result of the very detailed information to be collected from customers across many countries, and by virtue of the necessity to integrate these into a single reporting system. In determining how a multi-country research study should be structured the following potential obstacles to success must be considered:

  • Availability of market research information. Much of the information required may not be readily available, particularly in developing markets.
  • Comparability across markets. Even in cases where the information is available, it is unlikely to be comparable in terms of definition of coverage and delivery.
  • Quality standards for research. Different research suppliers will have widely ranging standards as to what they believe to be acceptable quality. This may be higher or lower than the initiating country’s standards. Also, what constitutes good research will vary; some markets are heavy on data but low on interpretation, others are the opposite.
  • Certain research approaches that will work in one market will not work in others. This relates to methods of data collection (e.g., web-based research), the nature of the respondent, participation incentives expected (or not).
  • Levels of research expertise and knowledge are also highly variable. A standard multivariate analysis technique may be nothing special in one market but very complex in others.
  • Individuals respond to the same research question in many different ways depending on the language and culture. Thus comparisons cannot be made at face value.

So, any multi-country program needs a very systematic approach to marketing research if the final delivered data is going to be of any use in terms of:

  • Accuracy;
  • Comparability;
  • Relevance.

Only against this background and with the aid of this information can a truly global marketing strategy be selected, developed and implemented.
In reality there is little chance of getting a fully comprehensive research program underway. Apart from the logistical problems, the twin specters of timing and budget loom large.


First, you need to decide whether the research is going to be paid for locally or by head office. This will have implications on the speed of implementation and on the final content of the research. If you expect the local company to pay, you can expect a longer process for agreement on the coverage, and it is more likely that your data will not be comparable in all areas across all markets. Yet, central funding can be expensive.

Also, don’t expect research costs to be proportional to the value of the market. They will generally reflect the levels of salaries and rents in the country. Unfortunately, for statistical reasons you would need the same sample for a country of three million as for 300 million, assuming a similar level of population heterogeneity.


Here our concern is with the time that it takes to assimilate the research data from a large number of countries. This normally requires considerable internal resources.

In practice you need to prioritize the research budget in terms of:

  1. Countries. Even if you have a global strategy you may not be in the right state of preparation to put it into effect in every country at the same time. Prioritize on the most appropriate countries in terms of the market ripeness, the stage of its development and the likely speed of implementation on the strategy by local management.
  2. Product markets. You should generally concentrate on the core businesses as you will have the most expertise in those markets and so the greater understanding. Still, they are often likely to be the most competitive.
  3. Areas of research coverage. You cannot cover every aspect of the research. So which are the most important?
In the next installment of this two part series we will look at an example of an ideal program set-up, and describe the benefits of using one central research agency to coordinate a multi-country research study.