Consistency and Customization: A Balanced Approach to Global Survey Design

The purpose of many multi-country studies is to help brand managers tailor their marketing strategies to the unique conditions of local markets. This requires the researcher to design and field survey instruments that yield consistent and comparable measurements of behavior and attitudes across markets. Properly done, the process will account for varying local conditions, and may even yield valuable market intelligence about a country. The following are some issues to consider in fielding a study in multiple countries and languages.

Some questions are impossible to ask. Different cultures may find it difficult or even impossible to relate to some concepts. This is illustrated by a company that wanted to test awareness of canned frosting in a multi-country study. Well known in the West, canned frosting is virtually unheard of in mainland China, where baking cakes is rare. Moreover, in China, the word “cake” implies a food not exclusively associated with dessert. While it is technically possible to translate the words, they make little sense to Chinese consumers. Ultimately, this product was dropped from the Chinese language translations. But this issue resulted in a useful piece of market intelligence for management.

Some questions are inappropriate to ask. Another caveat is that in different parts of the world certain topics (often of a political or social nature) are considered taboo altogether. For example, questions on gambling, sexuality or finances can be problematic in many cultures. Host governments in certain countries may be offended by topics that are viewed as critical of the regime or society.

It is key to maintain a constructive dialog with the local field center. Local overseas field offices are the researcher’s eyes and ears on the ground. A good working relationship with competent professionals can spot significant translation and cultural anomalies early on in the process. We also need to be sensitive in how we manage those relationships. If we make research colleagues in other countries feel defensive, especially if they are culturally inclined to hide bad news, they will withhold their concerns, causing more serious problems later. Our client’s local office may also be able to provide valuable input. In the cake frosting example, the researcher in China raised the issue, but the local office helped dispel skepticism by headquarters staff.

Proper translation is the backbone of a successful multilingual survey. A proofread of the original translation by a qualified native speaker in the country can prove to be an important investment in quality. In the cake frosting example, the standard verification method would not have been sufficient – to have “back-translated” (that is, re-translate the Chinese characters back to English to see if the word and spirit match the English original), the mistaken canned frosting phrase might easily have passed the English test. Yet we would have been blind to the fact that it failed the test in Chinese.

Proofreading also lends greater integrity to other parts of the translated survey such as scales and instructions. For example, the term “strongly agree” would translate literally between Spanish and English, but would be awkward in Spanish.

As a provider of global research, our job goes beyond designing studies and analyzing the results. We also need to guide our clients how to adapt to diverse cultures and languages, and offer extra learning that comes out of that process.