Tipping the (survey) scales: How to set the multicultural record straight

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.

This entry was posted in Ethnic/Multicultural Research, Market Research Best Practices, Online Surveys and Research, Quantitative Research. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Tipping the (survey) scales: How to set the multicultural record straight

  1. Marc van Aken says:

    As a European it is difficult to relate to this, as this seems to address a ‘US issue’. In the rest of the world we face the reality of different cultures in market research on a day to day basis and are quite comfortable in dealing with these differences. Back translating and pretesting of questionaires and analysis of differences is always a must when dealing with multiple languages.

    The ‘cultural’ differences between generations: in use of language, way of reading, interpretations and use of media is probably an issue that has more impact on the market research industry.

  2. Edward04 says:

    I concur with Marc van Aken. As a European Clientside Research (a Brit living and working in Germany) the complexities of multi-cultural research are part of our (my) daily lives and tasks. I find it ironic that an article touching on intercultural sensitivity does appear to have a distinct North American bias, without apparently being aware of it. Intercultural anything – and that includes Research – is extremely important, and something that many of the smaller nations in Europe (eg Holland, Denmark) can talk about very credibly. Its much more than just being to speak a language, it’s about understanding culture differences, and then sensing and developing adaption strategies.

  3. Dimitri Liakhovitski says:

    I agree that Europeans are much more used to doing cross-cultural research. However, this being said: we frequently look at the results of the research in Europe country-by-country: because each country is frequently an independent P&L. In the US manufacturers were used to building a country-wide strategy because they considered the country homogeneous enough (at least in terms of the language use). Now that the demography/immigration combination is changing the US so quickly, the issue of multiple cultures is becoming more and more of an issue.

  4. Carlos E. Garcia says:

    Marc — I am happy to hear you feel you have a good handle on all of the sub-groups in Europe, but I hope you are also including the minority communities such as the Algerians in France, the Morrocans in Spain, the Turks in Germany and the Pakistani in England (etc.). Typically researchers don’t bother going after very small communities (less than 5% of the total pop) and I understand that it can be inefficient for marketing purposes, but for national or regional issues like public health, it can be very important. Having a mindset that encompasses the entirety of a population was what I was aiming to promote, to avoid focusing only on the traditional understanding of what a country might be.

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