Why is cultural insight important in shaping research projects?

06 May 2021 | Research & Business Knowledge

Felicia Schwarz is scheduled to share her experience of the crossover between cultural insights and market research in an upcoming webinar.  Here she gives us some background on how she came to feel that we all need to think more about integrating cultural nuance into our research projects and how to make clients more alive to this topic. Felicia writes …

“Having spent most of my career working for ad agencies in China, my natural role when relocating to the UK was to constitute a bridge between these two cultures, focusing on consumer insight.

I have so far worked with numerous brands across sectors from baby nutrition to car sound systems, and partnered with agencies who needed China expertise. 

Sometimes, clients are specifically looking at China as a territory to launch or grow their brands in, sometimes China comes up as an (increasingly important) element in Global brand strategy. To borrow an often-used analogy for culture, when in China I was like a fish swimming in the ambient “cultural” water, where things were obviously done the Chinese way, but when relocating to London it quickly became apparent that these cultural specificities and differences were not always recognised. 

  • I received briefs which posited Western-skewed assumption for the consumer usage and motivations of entire categories such as alcohol 
  • I found myself with centrally agreed discussion guides full of terms around trending themes in the UK such as “diversity” and “community” which were not relevant as such in China 
  • I read global research summaries which did not put local findings into context (e.g. looking at child nutrition it is relevant to know that in China children are disproportionally cared for by grandparents and nannies) 
  • On the very basic logistic level, I found myself explaining to headquarters why it was not a good idea to try launch fieldwork in China late January just before the Chinese New Year.

All of this brought me to think that we should better integrate culture into Global research projects from inception on, and also give some thought how to weave-in culture along the process, for example by making methodologies more culture –appropriate and incorporating plenty of context into research findings. Maybe cultural scales like those developed by sociologists like Geert Hofstede and Fons Trompenaars should be used as an additional prism to put behaviour into relative context?We live at an age where many multinationals are headquartered in the West, but of course the same issue is coming up now in reverse as Chinese companies are going global and launching brands and operations across the world. With new economic powers coming up across the world and local and global logic in a state of constant friction, the next few decades promise to be interesting for cross-cultural insight and practice.”