This interview is part of a series of blog posts (see part 2, part 3, here) on the challenges and rewards of orchestrating global and multi-cultural research. We’ve been talking with some of our favorite partners around the world to learn more about their unique markets and how they’ve become the great researchers we love to work with. We hope you enjoy these “Postcards from the Edge of Global Research” and welcome your comments.
Here, I’m talking with Caroline Baker, founder and managing director of European Market Research Associates (EMRA) in France. Born and raised in the U.K., Caroline is a top-notch qualitative researcher who moderates in both French and English. I have had the privilege of working with Caroline several times in Paris and wanted to explore some of the language and cultural issues she has observed over the past 28 years that she has been living and working in France.
So, Caroline, tell me about your research background and how you found yourself in France.
I started in market research in London, where I worked for an agency which grew quite considerably during the time I was with it. It was mainly a qual agency. I was in the B2B section.
But I’ve always had a close connection to France. I lived in the southeast corner of England, and France was just the other side of the Channel. I had a close friend in France who I came to see a lot, a pen friend from college. So I had a particular interest in France.
While I was working in London, I persuaded my boss to send me to commercial French classes and one of the sessions involved writing a CV and a letter to go with it. I sent mine off — and to my surprise and delight I was offered a job by a market research company in Paris.
I was with them for 13 years, then I started EMRA, which stands for European Market Research Associates. As the name suggests, we conduct pan-European research, although our primary focus is on France. I mainly work in B2B, but I brought in an associate who specializes in healthcare research, so we do that, as well as some consumer work.
To differentiate our services, I’ve always tried to put an accent on being cross-cultural. What I enjoy is trying to explain the French to the rest of the world and also sometimes explain the rest of the world to the French — whether that’s eating habits or general consumer behavior or attitudes about finance. There are quite a few areas where you see some big cultural differences and I think that’s what makes market research interesting.
There’s a certain amount of thought out there that we’re becoming more and more like each other in today’s world. But there are still quite important differences in the way people think, the way people behave, the way people spend their money, the way people react to advertising. My background is in sociology, so that’s what interests me.
I’m in the process of writing a book called “Observing the French.” It’s based on my observations since I came to France back in the early 1980s.
What advice do you have for researchers coming to Europe from America or other countries to conduct a study?
One of the things I would say to a researcher in the process of putting together a proposal for an international project that includes Europe is: ideally, try to talk with your local research companies before you finalize that proposal.
What I often find is that by the time we are contacted in order to provide costs — and perhaps there’s somebody else in Germany and somebody else in Italy and somebody else in the U.K. — all sorts of things have been signed and sealed before we’ve been brought in. Methodology for example: perhaps the American researcher has suggested focus groups to the end client, whereas we might think IDIs (in-depth interviews) would have been a better approach in France. They might have decided to do the study in Paris and Lyon, but we might think it would be more appropriate to do it in two other towns. So, sometimes I wish that primary researchers would come to us earlier in the day. They seem to think they can only come to us once they actually need a quote. But we’re always very happy to share market knowledge and provide advice much earlier in the process.
Another thing I’d add is that some American end-clients tend to have a kind of homogenous view of Europe. It’s as though they almost forget that, no, we’re not the United States of America. We’re actually separate countries with separate languages. Often the schedules are such that Tuesday is Paris, Wednesday is Munich, Thursday is London and then they’re off to Rome. You kind of feel like they’re whirling through and they don’t have much time to take it all in. And they’re having to listen to simultaneous translators, which tends to render things slightly bland because it’s just one voice.
Are there any particular language or cultural issues specific to France that researchers should keep in mind?
Well, the French don’t very much like talking about what they earn. This is to such an extent that if we have a screening questionnaire that asks annual household income — which is such an embarrassing question to ask — my recruiters will inevitably frame it differently either by giving respondents quite big categories so they can say which they fall into or even establishing what they must be earning based on the jobs they’re doing. There are ways to ascertain income without actually having to ask the question so directly. Because it’s sort of impolite. The French wouldn’t talk about that sort of thing.
Another thing you’re not likely to speak openly about in France is your home or your lifestyle. You wouldn’t hide it, but it’s not something you’re flashing around.
There’s a saying in France: “Vivons heureux, vivons cachés.” It means “Live happily, live hidden.” So it’s almost the opposite from the impression we sometimes have of the States, where people might like to show off what they’ve got.
On the other hand, French people are generally good at expressing themselves orally compared to people from some other countries. I think that’s partially because the French educational system includes oral exams. For example, in England, the only reason you’d do an oral exam is if you learned another language and you needed to show proficiency. Otherwise, there’s no occasion where you’d be expected to stand up and actually talk for five minutes.
But this is the case in France and I think that may be one reason why French people are sometimes less nervous about taking part in focus groups. I often think that they take less time to get warmed up, because talking in front of other people comes slightly more naturally to them.
Another thing about the French, at least from my perspective, is that they are very creative — well, let me qualify that — they are very creative in terms of ideas. When conducting product development research in France, we often come up with things which have not been mentioned anywhere else.
There is an interesting contradiction here: French focus group participants can be creative in terms of ideas, but creativity in terms of putting together collages, finding images or symbols, doing drawings, seems to really stymie them here! I think again it’s a reflection of the educational system, because basically France has a very Cartesian sort of education. There’s not much creativity. They don’t do art. They don’t do theatre. They don’t do anything that would allow them to express themselves in that way.
Be sure to join us for Part 2 and Part 3 of our interview with Caroline Baker, posting Friday, August 19 and Friday, August 26, respectively.