How To Build A Multinational Marketing Research Company

In previous press interviews, I have described myself to be a senior researcher in the world's second largest media research company.  The ranking of the company is actually uncertain.  For example, I am looking at the ranking of the 2004 Top Global market/media/public opinion research organizations as published by ESOMAR and my company is listed at number 4.  This is misleading since there are all other companies that I personally also work for on the list and they are listed separately because my parent company has investment stakes (e.g. 49%) but cannot count those revenues as its own.  In any case, what is not in doubt is that the number one company (the Dutch company VNU which owns Nielsen Media Research) is far and ahead.

But corporate finances do not interest me.

I want to tell you instead about how to build a multicultural and multinational marketing research company.  If you believe globalization, WTO, IMF and all that, then you must believe in the globalized marketing research company that will provide the information.

From 1994 through 1998, I worked at a marketing research company which is now defunct.  This was a well-known full-service company whose main strength was international marketing research.  The client might be a beverage company that is headquartered in the United States and present worldwide.  For the purpose of understanding all its markets, it required standardized consumer research conducted around the world.  So its marketing research company cannot afford to be monolingual and culturally uniform because it must be able to communicate and coordinate around the world.

In a way, it is easier to hire people in a cosmopolitan place like New York City.  By comparison, it is a lot harder to find the Italian speaker in a Chinese city like Chengdu or some such.  The company would hire certain employees based upon linguistic needs.  So when I was running the Latin American study, I looked for Spanish speakers and made them learn Portuguese.  Still, there was no way to filled the languages of the 100 plus countries in which the company operated.  Instead, we had a self-help system.

On the day when a new employee shows up for work, he/she fills out a form to state the languages that he/she can speak/understand/read/write.  When a special need arises, the database is consulted to see if there are internal resources available before outsourcing to translation agencies.  I will enumerate some examples in which I was called to help.  A much longer example appeared in this previous post "I Want My MTV", but the examples below are different because they are not even related to my real job.

Some of the my assignments were improvisational.  For example, one day, a project manager came to me and asked me to look at a Japanese-language questionnaire.  I don't know a lot of Japanese, but this emergency assignment was simple enough: the project manager had shipped a list of items in English to the partnering company in Japan, and this translation came back.  The original list had ten items, but the translated list only had nine.  What was missing?  Telephone calls were impossible at that moment due to time zone differences and there was no one who knew Japanese at the company.  So I took both the English and Japanese lists.  For the kanji characters derived from Chinese, I could recognize them and use Google to check the English translation; for the katakana characters, I just downloaded a table and looked each character up.  The missing item was found in less than 10 minutes.

I also had more regular assignments.  A major client for the company was a Sweden-based upscale automobile manufacturer.  They had a large number of Canadian-Chinese customers in Vancouver and Toronto.  Our company conducted the customer satisfaction surveys by telephone using Chinese speakers.  However, we would hire these interviewers upon paper credentials, and the English-only supervisors had no ability to monitor their fluency or quality.  So there I played eavesdropper upon request by the project manager.  My specialty was media research and I had nothing to do with customer satisfaction, but I helped out because I was a good corporate team player.  For example, I listened in on a mainland Chinese-speaking person trying to speak in Cantonese to a Hong Kong female immigrant and after a few minutes, she just cut him off because he could not phrase the questions correctly and he did not understand her responses.  I told the project manager to go find someone from Hong Kong for the job instead.

And then there was the more interesting case of the USA-based hamburger fast food restaurant chain that is not McDonald's.  We were doing almost 100,000 "mystery shoppers" for that company.  A mystery shopper is an undercover civilian who walks into the restaurant to make a food order according to very specific instructions and then fills out a short questionnaire afterwards.  For example, the order might be for a large hamburger with a soda.  Sample questions were: "How long between the time you got on the line and the time when you got served?"  "Did the server say hello?"  "Did the server ask for the size of your soda?"  "Did the server ask you about French fries?"  "Was the restroom clean?"  There was some space to write in observations.

Those mystery shopper reports were very important for the branch managers, since it was the basis for their performance reviews.  When they received their report card, they would challenge anything that deducted points because that affected their bonus incentives.  While they cannot challenge most of the Yes-No questions (No - the server did not say hello), they will challenge some the written observations.  That is why there were project managers who reviewed the comments before release.

Again, this was not my operation at all.  They had enough English- and Spanish-capable people.  But when I was there, they had no French-capable person for French Canada, so I got drafted.  About once a month, I would get a batch of 15 mystery shopper reports from Montreal and Quebec City, Canada.  I got paid US$2 for reviewing a report.  What was I going to do with US$30 a month?  Buy one lunch?  (Or about four lunches at that fast food restaurant)  Anyway, they could have easily assigned the job to a translation agency, but they preferred to keep it in-house.  That was not to save money, but rather they needed someone who understood the process.

For example, consider the comment: "There was an inch-deep puddle of water in the corner of the restroom."  I deleted that.  Why?  Not because I was afraid of picking a fight with the branch manager.  Somewhere earlier, there was a question: "Where is the restroom?"  This restroom was not inside the restaurant; instead, it was in the hallway of the shopping mall.  The flooding in that restroom was beyond the control of the branch manager and he/she should not be faulted for it.  If the manager got points deducted for it, he/she should rightfully kick up a storm.  The purpose of the review was not to edit for grammar, but to make sure that the responses were consistent with the requirements.

Anyway, none of these examples were serious work.  If I wanted to build a multinational and multicultural research company, then the correct approach is Noah's ark.  If I can have only have a project team of ten people, then I would recruit the following: one Chinese, one Japanese, one Korean, one Spanish/Portuguese-speaking Latin American, one Swiss (or Dutch), one Dane, one Indian, one Indonesian and one Arabic speaker.  Strange, isn't it?  No English, because I assume that everyone does.  No French, German or Italian because the Swiss (or Dutch) can do all of them.  Those type of people are a lot easier to find in a cosmopolitan city like New York City or London.  Finally, don't forget to inventory the linguistic skills of all your other employees -- you never know!