Postcards from Brazil: Research in the wild, wild South

Editor’s note: In this post, researcher Alan Grabowsky looks back at some of his experiences conducting research in Brazil during the 1970s and ’80s. Grabowsky founded ABACO Marketing Research, a São Paulo, Brazil firm, in 1975 to perform confidential projects for Brazilian ad agency Almap’s clients. In 1987, after his department had become Brazil’s largest research entity, ABACO became an independent boutique offering international B2B and B2C research. Grabowsky and a team of multilingual researchers continue at ABACO today.

These days, Brazil is prominent in advertising and marketing research: strong in the B2C sector and advancing rapidly in B2B. In the 1970s, its creative advertising drew worldwide notice but research was in its infancy. A booming economy grew 8 percent annually and a fast-growing consumer population attracted dozens of multinationals, especially CPG brands. The prize-winning creativity of Almap, a Brazilian agency, helped it conquer global brands – VW, Dannon, Gillette and Polaroid, among others.

Almap’s owner flew to New York to recruit a founder for a research and marketing services department. The author, a young experimental psychologist with international CPG experience, signed on in 1975 for a two-to-three-year stint (or so I thought) in São Paulo.

Logistical nightmares

No experience in research prepared me for the challenges of applying “common” methods in Brazil. In this country where the VW Beetle accounted for half the fleet, another global automaker planned to launch a larger vehicle and ordered its first clinic in São Paulo. To ensure secrecy and maximum cooperation of the invited participants, the firm selected a posh urban social club surrounded by massive ivy-covered walls. The client withheld the secret location until the eve of the clinic, hours before test vehicles arrived in closed trucks under the cloak of darkness.

The research team hurried to the location and was shocked to behold the main car hanging halfway from a truck, partly inside the heavily gated entrance. The car was wider than the gates.

The clinic was eventually performed without a hitch in the research but the client’s headquarters raised eyebrows and many questions about one costly unbudgeted item in the accounting: “Overnight demolition and subsequent reconstruction of wall.”

Physicians in focus groups? Are you crazy?

Back then, medical marketing was still new and few research methods had been applied. One advantage I had was not knowing – or believing – something was impossible. (If it was possible elsewhere, why not here?) For example, I was told no one had dared to perform focus groups with medical doctors, who are treated nearly as nobility in Brazil.

Then the brash European president of a pharmaceutical laboratory came to São Paulo to replicate the market success he had experienced in his homeland by applying the same research methods he had used there. He informed his marketing team that groups would be done – period. Their search for a willing and able research firm to do the job was lengthy, until they located a similarly brash American researcher who didn’t realize it was impossible.

So it was that we performed Brazil’s first physician focus groups with a thoroughly non-representative sample: the meager 2 percent of MDs who finally agreed to participate in this seemingly unprecedented encounter.

Public opinion research? Be very careful.

Education was, as it remains, the country’s greatest obstacle and the population was almost 90 percent Catholic. Outside of main cities, there were low cultural levels and very conservative attitudes – perilous territory for opinion and political research.

Moreover, the 1970s and 1980s were known as “grey years,” when a hard-line military government was suspicious of social and opinion research. Several members of the miniscule research community with progressive political philosophies were detained for questioning – or worse.

But advertising in that era was aimed mostly at the growing urban middle class. As the imported founder of the research department at an agency with high-profile clients such as Petrobras, this problem rarely affected my activities or my those of my teams. That is, until we delved earnestly into social research.

Research on girdles … in Brazil?

I had been a pioneer user of the Yankelovich Monitor of social trends while at International Playtex, a company that introduced new plastic-based technology to everyday personal products. Legend has it that it was the president of Playtex who inspired Yankelovich to develop the Monitor, by challenging its famed researcher Florence Skelly to explain why his wife and other middle-aged women had stopped wearing girdles. Of course, Brazilian women famously do not wear girdles but in every conversation with friends at Yankelovich about social trends in Brazil, the same question arose: “When are you going to develop a Monitor Brazil?” For several years I answered, “Not yet; most Brazilian companies are still at too early a stage for such a sophisticated tool.”

Times changed. In the 1960s, Brazil had borrowed excessively to finance the so-called Brazilian Miracle – “50 years in 5” – at variable interest rates. We all know where that leads. World crises of the 1970s bloated the interest payments, stunted growth and triggered phases of hyperinflation and social unrest.

Despite the successive economic crises, the market burgeoned, attracting foreign investment and more multinationals. On the political scene, Brazil’s military leaders were no elite group intent on perpetuating their rule. Despite their iron hand with any group or faction which they considered a leftist threat, they were essentially middle-class career soldiers, weary of their responsibility of administering this huge country in a prolonged period of economic turbulence. Everyone wanted growth but had doubts about the future.

Global and Brazilian clients of the ad agency were troubled; they began to ask us how research could help them understand or even predict public sentiment. Not surprisingly, the government and its huge state companies did the same.

I called Yankelovich: The time had come. It was no easy process. Launching a social trend study is not simply translating an American questionnaire and applying it in Portuguese to a representative sample. Yankelovich had detected 47 U.S. trends such as Back to Nature and Psychology of Affluence. How relevant are these in a developing nation with incipient urbanization and a suddenly emerging New Consumer Society?

Discovering relevant trends was an intricate process, with lengthy phases of expensive qualitative research. The agency helped marshal financial support from 14 of the only 20 companies in Brazil which we then believed capable of using Monitor effectively.

This being the first such study in a developing country with profound regional differences, there was much to learn. Two years and 480 IDIs in 20 cities and towns later, we had constructed a questionnaire with 550 response items, while discovering five social trends unheard of in the developed world. A fascinating example was Lack of Role Models, the result of two factors:

• Adapting the Monitor in Japan had revealed the trend of Reverence for the Emperor. Brazil had no analogous concept. Long years of military rule precluded the possibility of any current political figure becoming a paragon.

• Brazil’s mushrooming urban migration and industrial surge engendered rapid social mobility. In families of rural D-class Brazilian workers with third-grade schooling, children with big-city education were leapfrogging to class B and enjoying new lifestyles. How could these youth emulate Dear Old Semi-Literate Dad?

Brazil had “No John Kennedy and no John Wayne.” Thus the Lack of Role Models and a psycho-social vacuum. We found broad implications for marketing, advertising and surely for the state companies with their uniformed directors.

Far more difficult

Complex as it was to develop the quantitative questionnaire, applying it in a vast country, with limited transportation and communications, was far more difficult. The final sample entailed 2,850 personal interviews in 85 municipalities, many with minimal infrastructure – emphasis on the minimal.

Here was a country the size of the U.S., with precarious roads and limited air connections. Some field itineraries were impossible to complete via public transportation; many required returning to a main city to embark again in a different vector because of lack of interconnectivity. “You can’t get there from here” we were commonly told.

Transportation – or the lack thereof – was not the only obstacle. As could be expected in a study of emerging social trends, there were questions about religious beliefs, sexual attitudes, gender equality and other delicate subjects. The fact that Brasilia, through state companies, had endorsed our ambitious research meant little out there in the vast interior. Our interviewers and supervisors were being halted or detained here and there for “suspicious behavior.”

The climax of this phase came late one Friday afternoon when, in rapid succession, we received urgent telephone calls from field teams in the nearby Southeast, the far South and the very distant North of Brazil, near the equator. Frantic supervisors in the Southeast and South begged our immediate intercession with federal officials to help spring their interviewers, who had been arrested for suspicious activity, such as asking young women questions about sex and, far worse, political opinions.

The third call, from the remote town of Esperantinopolis – deep in the northern state of Maranhao, don’t expect to find it on most maps – was far more sanguine. Just as with the other urgent calls, a small team of survey researchers with their huge questionnaires had been detained for questioning about apparently subversive activities. Why, then, was the team so nonchalant about their imprisonment? “We’re in luck, Senhor Alán. The only place to sleep in this town is the local jail. We’ll probably be freed tomorrow morning.”

With a little help from our friends at the agency, so they were. It was just another day in the field; a typical early adventure in Brazilian marketing research.

It is stories like these that help explain why my customary response, when asked “Why are you doing research in Brazil?” is “It never gets boring!”

This entry was posted in International Research, Interviewing, Market Research Humor, The Business of Research, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Postcards from Brazil: Research in the wild, wild South

  1. Luis Tadeu Dix says:

    It was an honor for me to have known and worked with Alan at Almap Agency some years ago and now with some projects.
    ABACO is for certainlly one of the best research companies in this country: professional, ethic, and inovative.

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