Editor’s note: Carlos E. Garcia is senior vice president, multicultural research, in the Burbank, Calif., office of research firm GfK.
Marketers want to be able to see into the future. That is, they want to make informed decisions today that will play out nicely in the marketplace tomorrow. A standard approach is to establish trend lines that are founded upon historical data and use current data to direct that arrow from the past into the future. But we have to ask: Is this approach still reliable, given our current environment of dramatic demographic changes and technology-driven paradigm shifts?
My specific area of concern is the rise of the multicultural markets (I’ll leave it to the digerati to take on the tech shifts). The multicultural markets have been an important part of our national economy for some years; but there was, understandably, some lag time between the demographic shifts and this fact sinking into the daily practices of the marketing establishment. It seems now the tipping point has been reached and the multicultural markets are now being included in total market studies.
Fine – accepted and acknowledged. But what about the trend-line foundational research that was conducted in the past? Remember those arrows that start out in the past and head to the future? Are they aimed in the right direction and thus pointed toward a bright future or will they veer off in a suboptimal direction?
Well, we can’t go backwards in time to fix old trackers, A&Us and segmentations. But at the very least marketers can get a clearer picture of the present.
The argument that multicultural populations must be included in numbers proportionate to their presence in the population is clear and hard to refute. The number of Spanish-speakers is clearly large enough to require that this be a part of your sampling plan as well. But is that enough?
To get things right when it comes to today’s unprecedented population shifts requires a probing look at how we do things in marketing and marketing research. Specifically:
- Are your questionnaires written with multiple cultures in mind or are they simply translated?
- Are your scales adapted to result in readable results across the cultural groups?
- Do your attribute statements reflect the lives and lifestyles of the whole market or are they simply the usual suspects from days gone by?
- Will your analysis be done with enough cultural sensitivity and savvy to find the insights you need to make full use of the data?
Coming into meetings fighting for the multicultural markets is tough. No one wants to change their tried-and-true trackers, their familiar set of standard measures, their usual scales, their usual way of doing things. But if the 2012 elections should teach us anything, it is that the usual way of doing things won’t work going forward.
The reality we now face includes a few facts:
- Different cultures can interpret questions differently – so, while you may be think you know what you are asking, you might be mistaken unless your research team includes professionals with multicultural experience.
- If you ask what a person of a different culture considers to be an unanswerable question, the data you get back will either be obviously indecipherable or, worse, misleading.
- Different cultures use scales in different ways, so your goal of data comparability is undermined specifically by mandating use of the same scales across cultures. Techniques exist to handle this problem.
- Different cultures face different socioeconomic and cultural realities, so the danger of asking condescending or confusing questions is high without the above-mentioned experience.
- Getting your contemporary research right will help you see the differences between the cultures. This can help you find algorithms that would help you understand how to “back-cast” to adjust the tail of your arrow, so that your arrowhead really is pointed in the right direction.
It takes vision, wisdom and leadership to be willing to make the changes that will lead your organization in the right direction, to be able to confront the future armed with precise and nuanced data that reflects our evolving reality. Choose your research approaches and partners well, and you will be more than halfway there.