International Market Research

By David Kay

International market research has become a key ingredient in the marketing mix of many American companies particularly as exports to other countries become more important. Conducting market research in other countries is not necessarily the same as in the U.S.A., both in terms of methods that are appropriate and in the interpretation of results. Here are some "dos" and "don'ts" to keep in mind.


In countries where English is not the first language, expect to conduct research in the language of the country. Use local translators who have translated market research questionnaires from American English or have translated focus groups into American English. Try to work with translators who specialize in market research translation. Also look for translators who have worked in the industry for which you are doing the research. Use local research suppliers, that is, moderators or survey project leaders who have moderated/conducted surveys in American English as well as in the local language.

If you have the budget, use back translation. That is, have your questionnaire translated into the local language, then have a different person, translate the questionnaire back into English. You may be surprised to discover that "cross country skiing" becomes "skiing across many countries" when re-translated into English, or that a "guarded response" becomes a "response under protective custody". And if your company has a local office, have them check the translation. Here is why these steps are important.

Language often does not translate literally. Not only does each country (and often each region of the country) have its own idioms, industries often have their own colloquialisms as well. Local market research suppliers who know the industry you are researching and American English, are required.

Remember, English is an unusual and complicated language. There are more words in English than in most other languages. Also, because English is an amalgam of other languages, English speakers are generally more tolerant of generally or vague language far more than speakers of other languages. English is more flexible and adaptable (a positive way to look at it) or more sloppy, less precise than many other languages (a negative way to look at it). Linguistic lapses are less tolerated away from the U.S.A., so greater care is needed.

Verbal scales used in surveys do not always translate accurately. A "Poor, Good, Very Good, Excellent" scale may have different meanings in different countries. A bi-polar numeric scale can reduce the error.

Also, be aware that the Spanish of Mexico is different than the Spanish of South America or of Spain. The French of France is different than the French spoken in Quebec, Canada. German, too, can vary depending on whether it is spoken in Switzerland, Austria or where within Germany.

Even in countries where English is the first language or where English is commonly spoken, it is not necessarily spoken as in the U.S.A. For example, football means soccer in most other English speaking countries. Not only does behavior differ, but it's spelled differently elsewhere (behaviour).

Early in the "light" food revolution, we tested response to a light (lite?) product in Canada. The product was well liked, but LITE as a product descriptor was soundly rejected. Respondents objected to the incorrect spelling This attitude has changed somewhat since then, but not entirely.

The good news is that, especially for the business community, English is close to being a universal language. You will not have difficulty finding good professionals who can work in English. And if you are conducting your interviews among senior business executives, you may be able to conduct the research in English since many come from U.S. Business Schools. But don't assume it.

Style and Cultural Expectation

Positive Bias

Differences in style and cultural expectations or requirements are more subtle and more difficult to integrate into your analyses. For example, researchers know that there is a positive bias (sometimes called a politeness bias) in research. That is, respondents will often respond more positively in a research situation than in a "real" situation. We take this into account in analyses. Also, many researchers use positively skewed research scales to allow for the bias. But the degree of positive bias differs among cultures. For example, in some cultures, advertising or new product concepts always score higher than in other cultures, by as much as 1 point on a 10 point scale because the positive bias is stronger. In Japan and in Latin America, for example, the preference to say "Yes" rather than "no" regardless of the question is far greater than in the U.S.A. If your action standard is 7.5 in the U.S.A., you may require a higher action standard in another country.

Taboos and Cultural Requirements

Some questions can be asked directly in the U.S.A. but not in some other countries. Some topics can be discussed in mixed, male/female groups in the U.S.A., but not in other countries. In some countries, attitudes to age differ from in the U.S.A. If you are not sure, keep males and females separate; conduct separate groups for younger and older respondents; use an older more experienced moderator when you conduct a group among older respondents and use a female moderator to interview women.

A handshake is normal in the U.S.A., but touching, even if only a handshake, is not acceptable in some countries. On the other hand, a handshake is always expected in other countries at the beginning and at the end of every meeting or you would be considered unfriendly. First names are the norm in some countries but not in others. Find out what is expected.

In some cultures, respondents (or colleagues) may be reluctant to speak openly with you in a non-business environment (in their home or in a restaurant for example) unless you share a drink. You will seem too distant unless you are having a beer or a glass of wine together. The day can get interesting by your fourth meeting or interview.

Check with your local network of suppliers. They can keep you out of trouble, save you time and money. If you don't have a network of local suppliers, contact the American Marketing Association for membership rosters in other countries.

Choice of a Moderator or Interviewer

In some countries, the moderator is expected to be a trained psychologist, or at least able to operate with an academic style and appearance. In other countries, he or she is expected to be business oriented. Know the research customs of the country.

The good news is that there are excellent suppliers almost everywhere. You have to find them. Also there are adequate focus group facilities in most countries. If your company has a subsidiary in another country, check with them.

Timing of the Research

Be aware of national holidays. The French are as unlikely to go to focus groups on Bastille Day (July 14) as Americans are to go on Thanksgiving. Incidentally, Canadians also have Thanksgiving, but they celebrate in October.

Find out when elections and major sporting events are scheduled. Ask about the major religious holidays and whether the custom is to take off one or two days to celebrate. Is there a common summer or winter holiday period when half of the population is on holiday? Business to business research in August in Europe is rarely acceptable. You don't want to try and conduct groups during Mardi Gras, which incidentally, is celebrated in many countries and under different names. Find out whether it is most or least appropriate to interview in the morning, afternoon or evening. Countries differ.

Deadlines are not always regarded with the same respect as in the U.S.A. Try to be flexible and prepared to change timing and job parameters in mid course. You don't want to have to improvise, but you may have no acceptable choice. Make sure that your colleagues and clients understand this. Flexibility and improvisation can take time.

Of course timing problems can occur in the U.S.A. as well. We told a recruiter that we were concerned about conducting focus groups on Martin Luther King Day because we felt we would have difficulty getting respondents. She assured us that there would be no difficulty. She was mistaken.

Contracts and Contacts

Market research is probably unusual in that much of it is conducted without a formal contract. We have found this to be the standard everywhere. Recruiters have begun recruiting and interviewers have begun interviewing for us from Brussels to Buenos Aires on the strength of a telephone call. But use your judgment about contracts. And confirm everything in writing to avoid misunderstanding. Some of your international contacts will agree to conduct your project during a telephone conversation in order to be polite or to avoid the appearance that they do not understand the requirements. Having it in writing gives them time to digest the information or request and decide whether they can do the project. And have the project parameters spelled out and agreed well in advance.

Obtain biographies and credential of the researchers working on your project. And if possible, establish an ongoing relationship with a senior researcher and make sure that he or she is assigned and is the sole project manager. Try to meet with this project manager before fieldwork begins and at the conclusion of the project.

Action Standards

Keep in mind the population size and competitive set of the country when you set your product performance action standards. The U.S.A. has a large population. A 2% brand share is sufficient to support almost any product in the U.S.A., given the size of the market. In a smaller country, the brand may not be viable unless it achieves a 10% brand share. Therefore, the performance action standards in the other country may have to be higher than in the U.S.A.

Remember that some major American brands may not be available in the country where you are doing your research, or they may be a minor player or have a different formulation. If your action standard is to match or exceed the dominant brand in taste, be sure that you are testing against the dominant brand of the country.


Obtain competitive bids for research done in other countries. Costs can vary greatly among suppliers. Have the costs explained. A research supplier may quote high because he does not want or understand the project. It is less embarrassing to give a high quote then to refuse the project. This, incidentally, happens in this country as well. Check low bids as carefully as you check high bids. If the id is too low, it may be based on misunderstanding, and make certain the supplier understands all of the assumptions and criteria of the research.

Obtain costs for alternative methods, Cost structures can vary widely by country. In some countries, telephone studies are generally more expensive than door-to-door studies. In other countries, the reverse is true, also in some countries, you can and are expected to negotiate.

Be prepared to pay a portion of the field costs up front, as a gesture of good will and commitment. Again, find out what are the expectations.

You may want all costs in American dollars or include an exchange rate guarantee since many other currencies fluctuate more than American currency. You can also look into currency futures to provide protection against currency fluctuations, but be sure to check with your accountant.

Cash fees are expected in some countries and absolutely verboten in others. In some countries a token gift is expected, not a cash incentive. While in some Latin American countries, we found that a small gift to the secretary was essential if we wanted to interview the senior executive. Understand the expectations of respondents.

Time differences can be frustrating. FAX and Electronic mail help. But allow more time to accomplish your work, especially during the set up period. Recognize that the business day begins and ends at different times in different countries. Suppliers may want to discuss the project with you at 7:00 AM. their time.

Of course if you plan well, the time differences can be helpful. You can FAX a request to your foreign supplier at 5:30 P.M. and the reply can be waiting on your desk the next morning.

Understanding Consumer Needs

Many marketers believe that, in some categories, unstated/emotional- psychological needs drive purchase behavior while stated/rational needs are used to rationalize the decision. But unstated needs can vary greatly among countries. For example, populations in some countries tend to be more cautious when it comes to trying new products than in the U.S.A. Some populations are more fiscally conservative and are more security driven.

Stated/rational needs can generally be determined by asking directly. Uncovering unstated/emotional-psychological needs can be more challenging. Techniques are available to investigate unstated needs (experiential responses rather than opinions, projective techniques). They need to be explored.

Security/Crossing Borders/Government Regulations

I will leave security issues (bombs, terrorists) for others to discuss. But be aware of government regulations that might hinder your research. For example, you may not be allowed to bring advertising materials into another country for test purposes unless it is cleared in advance. Testing liquor might require licensing. Testing food products will probably require that a list of ingredients be shown and responsibility for the test clearly indicated (if a respondent is poisoned, who do they sue?). Your computer disks may be checked for content.

The Key to Conducting Research Internationally

Of course the real key to conducting research internationally is the same as in the U.S.A. Deal with people who know what they are doing.