Anxious about your next research project? Imagine that global initiative to develop a new offering to low-income consumers, which includes Latin America, is launching soon. What if things don’t go as planned with the research? What if the outcome of the research is such that it puts your job at risk?
Launching a high-stakes research study across the oceans is scary. And it is your job to help your company learn about people outside the U.S. – to understand, through online surveys, ethnographic interviews, focus groups, etc., how they live, what they like and dislike, their behaviors, needs, beliefs, etc.
But just imagine: thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of work invested, and then… lack of transparency in the recruiting process, poor communication with participants, sloppy field management, weak insights, poor collaboration among team members, and few “clear cut” ideas at the very end. Just one of these issues would be enough to keep you up at night.
If you haven’t done market research in Latin America, you may be a little scared to manage a project like that. But you shouldn’t be – keep calm. As long as you keep in mind a few important factors, you should expect to get great results from a market immersion in Latin America. After conducting high-visibility research studies in dozens of countries, here are my own best reminders related to the work I’ve done in that part of the world.
1. Latin America is not a homogeneous block of people
Believe it or not, Latin America is commonly understood as one country. Learn about Peru and you can extrapolate findings to the entire region. Learn about Chile and you can create a viewpoint for the other Spanish speaking countries. That is a common mistake. Approaching the various countries of Latin America as though they are one market will likely be a failure. There are twenty countries in Latin America, which cover an area that stretches from the southern border of the United States to the southern tip of South America, and it includes the Caribbean. Latin America is a region of the Americas that comprises countries where Romance languages are spoken; primarily Spanish and Portuguese, but also French and indigenous dialects. Each country has a different culture and a different way of viewing the world. Conducting the same market study in exactly the same way in each country, using the same methodological approach, may not work that well and results may be compromised.
2. Recruiting does not use a unified standard
Recruiting in Latin America is often done poorly if the right questions and specific demands are not asked upfront. In every country, recruiters have their own criteria for screening research participants. For example, “Criterio Brasil” is a socioeconomic classification model used for decades by media, advertising agencies, advertisers and research institutes. While it helps explain the consumption of major consumer goods, it focuses mainly on high-income strata at the expense of important emerging market segments that have grown in Brazil. If you are using Criterio for screening low-income consumers, make sure the recruiter understands each parameter and can adjust to other factors such as the location of neighborhoods, and number of people living in the household. In Mexico, you may chose to use the classification from the Asociación Mexicana de Agencias de Investigación, which is based on social class, income, lifestyle and wellbeing. In Colombia, the most used (and often abused) approach to define the social economic level is the “social strata.” This is a geographical breakdown of households defined by the Government with the purpose of giving preferential rates and social benefits. Depending on the project goals, our Colombian recruiter considers household income, education level and occupation in the screener, and asks research participants to bring their last utility bill to confirm their strata. Obviously there are other things that come to play when recruiting in Latin America, for example whether or not you need to screen people over the phone or door-to-door. The key takeaway here is that every country requires a customized recruitment strategy.
3. “Lost in translation” never happens…yeah right!
Spanish is the native language in most of Latin American countries, but it is also spoken differently around the region. Each country has its own dialect and because of this, it is a good idea to assemble a translation team familiar with the local words and expressions to make sure you get the most complete translations and avoid being lost in an alien culture. For example, we conducted a research with low-income consumers from multiple regions of Colombia. Participants had different educational levels and their vocabularies diverged so widely that most of the content produced had to be reviewed several times by a second translator. Most translators believe they can do the job, but they are often the source of translation problems. Some think they are perfectly bilingual and bicultural, or a writer at a professional standard. Others underestimate the time required to translate the original content and end up cutting corners to complete the job. Only a few translators are able to render the translation into a high quality, natural-sounding prose. And that is especially true for Brazil – the only country in Latin America where the culture and language are inherited mainly from Portugal – and researchers forget this at their peril. Regardless of the country that I go to, I often setup calls with my translators to test their translation skills, their familiarity with the American English and to make sure that they understand the research goals and terminology.
4. Insights are found underneath cultural factors
Local culture is complex in Latin America (and everywhere else, for that matter). What we can observe on the surface – clothing, food, festivities, art, or architecture – is the result of underlying cultural factors – history, faith, principles, attitudes and behaviors – that shape the uniqueness of each country. Without a greater understanding of the dynamics of these cultural factors at the country level, we can only wonder about the validity of our early perceptions and stereotypes. Let’s use the home cleaning product category as an example. In Brazil, cleaning is a weekly chore. Regardless of the social class, most Brazilians attach high importance to the cleanliness of their home and it is not uncommon to enter a home with plastic covered sofas and recently mopped floors with a nice scent in the air. In Mexico, the importance of cleanliness is accentuated even more. The mom is at the heart of the family and is expected to take care of the house on a full-time basis. Many have maids to help with the sidewalk in front of your house, removing fallen leaves, dust or dog feces. And there at the end of the year, they have a New Year’s Eve custom of mopping the floors with water and cinnamon before midnight. As a market researcher, if you don’t understand how different things are between cultures, and remain focused on conducting the same research protocol in exactly the same way as the one carried out in the U.S., your findings may provide few valid insights. Remember that you need to adjust your research to the local culture, rather than imposing a US-centric way of doing things – because the latter can lead to a lot of wasted of time and worse, poor research results. This leads me to one last reminder…
5. Lateness is the norm, but can be managed
Punctuality is a virtue in most western countries, but people in many Latin Americans countries take life at a slower pace and are generally late for appointments. Lateness is more notable by its presence than absence. There is a reason why Mañana is jokingly defined as “anytime between tomorrow and never” – and this is the reason why I always account for lateness and cancelations in the research schedule. When recruiting, I always add multiple confirmations to the process, and ensure that participants are incentivized accordingly. When doing the fieldwork, I allow enough time to accommodate delays, especially if the research team has to travel between sites or has multiple interviews or focus groups in one day. It is quite common for respondents to arrive late to interviews because they got stuck in traffic or have been watching the soccer match or telenovela! On the other side, locals are also willing to make adjustments to accommodate our crazy research schedules, which is always nice.
Certainly there are many other things one should know of and remember before starting a research project in any place of Latin America, including the research logistics (transportation, food stops), security, holidays and weather limitations. All of them will help you save resources during fieldwork and more importantly allow you to make the right decisions later on, in terms of opportunity definition, new product development, brand and promotion strategy.
So, go forth and don’t be anxious about your project in Latin America. However, if you are not convinced you can’t do it alone, reach out to us. We will be happy to assist you and your team.
Adriano is the Vice-President of Sylver Consulting, an innovation research and strategy company. As a market researcher, he is specialized in the Portuguese and Spanish speaking markets, in particular the Latin American countries. You can find more about Adriano on Twitter or LinkedIn.