Saurabh Sharma's Blog

Breaking Free with a Safety Net
By Saurabh Sharma on 02-Nov-10, 13:39 in Advertising, Brand, Marketing |

A visit to Beijing or Shanghai’s Decathlon - the French sports goods store – is a feast for the activity lover. Decathlon has almost everything that a sports lover would want – from bicycles and bicycle accessories, to inline skating gear, to all kinds of sports goods- football, volleyball or basketball; camping and trekking gear – you name it! It is not just a big store with no shoppers -Decathlon is buzzing! No matter what time of the year you visit, a barrage of Chinese shoppers would greet you.

Are Chinese as sports oriented, as the medals tally in all major international sporting events would make us believe?

If I were to compare the average Chinese person’s level of physical activity with his counterpart in India, it would be easy to conclude that the Chinese are much more active. They engage in many more outdoor activities than the Indians do. This also has to do with access to infrastructure for outdoor activities, which is a lot more in China than India. Parks, bicycle lanes on main avenues, pedestrian footpaths, public fitness zones in all communities etc are just some of the examples that point at how India’s urban infrastructure has not been developed for the man wanting to keep fit. Sometimes, although jokingly, it is said that the most popular sport in India is “spectator sports!”

While the Chinese are physically more active than Indians, it can easily make us believe that they would also be a lot into outdoor trekking and rock climbing and hiking and the likes. If I were to believe the brisk sales of tents, camping gear, etc in Decathlon, I sure could say so. But the truth perhaps is a little more interesting than that. During my regular visits to the parks in Beijing, which are a must go autumn destination for Beijingers, I discovered something more interesting than the buzz in the Decathlon stores. The camping gear that was meant to be used when you trekked up that hill or when you went hiking with your friends over the weekend was being used in the park! Families and couples had set up their tents in the well-levelled lawns of the parks. And while some of the boys and girls were cozying up inside them, it was largely a family’s day in the tent with the kid in tow enjoying the new experience away from the cramped apartment block! It was like the morning/ evening walk now remixed and made a little more exciting; A more ‘predictable adventure sport’; A barbeque dish in a lunch box!; A blend of freedom with the family in tow; Like breaking free with a safety net!

This is just an observation and only represents one side of the urban story, for there are as many if not more Chinese that go for hiking. But the adventure tents in family parks sure have a story to tell.

As China develops, prospers, urbanizes and may be even westernizes in some way – it still is not witnessing a sweeping change in values. There is and perhaps will always be the Chinese way of doing things. We can’t and need not expect the Chinese to transition into individualistic and free spirited explorers just because they buy at Decathlon and love North Face. There is an evolution beneath all this revolutionary change and that evolution will ensure the presence of a unique ‘Chinese way of doing things’ in almost everything that happens in this country.

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Will you talk to your Mom like this? (Concluding)
By Saurabh Sharma on 13-Sep-10, 09:33 in Advertising, Brand, Marketing |

This is the fourth and last post in the short series of posts that I started about Challenges facing Qualitative research in China. As I have said in the posts before, the idea is not to castigate research agencies or trash the ways of some of the marketers. Instead the idea is to highlight the research & marketing issues plaguing various marketing and research systems & highlight that if we address these we can find a way to superior understanding of people in China and consequently do better marketing and market planning.

Insight is an oft-quoted word in the marketing circles. What is an insight? Where do we find it? Does the consumer say it? Does it come from a data table? What does it lead to? How do we know when we get it? Is it real or mythical?

I have always believed that the insight lives in interpretation of information, not the information itself. Insight is not a fact, a data point or a consumer quote – it is the unique way in which we interpret it that gives it meaning. It is about intuitive understanding of inner nature of things. For example Coffee is commonly believed to be a stimulating beverage that people like to drink to keep them awake. But most certainly it is also a way of socializing with others.

The way I interpret this is that coffee is not just a stimulating beverage in the physical sense. ‘It is an excuse to meet and talk’. It is a great way to get to know people over an engaging conversation. ‘Coffee stimulates socialization!’

All this sounds very obvious after I say it but respondents almost never say it this way in a research discussion. This is for us to interpret. This is the real insight. Like always it is hidden in the obvious. And yet by its very nature helps in creating a competitively advantageous idea. For example – premium coffee bars/cafes etc are just one business idea coming out of the insight about being ‘an excuse to meet and talk’ and ‘stimulates socialization’.

Just observe how the same product, that we were treating only as a stimulant just a few minutes back, has given us an opportunity to think about it in an entirely new way.

I therefore believe that if we need to derive real insights – we need to interpret information afresh. We cannot expect consumers to verbalize it, nor can we write it down and ask them to choose it or rate it. That is just not real. In a developing market like China, where consumers are not very articulate, nor are they very savvy about the products and services that they use, we cannot adopt a direct approach of deriving the insights. Giving people various statements as options is definitely not the best way of working. Instead – we need to tap into our collective experience and use personal judgment to interpret the information that we receive.

To explore the world we do not need to travel to new places, we need a fresh pair of eyes and new perspectives. That discovery is not out there, it is inside us. I wish we looked inside more, I wish we reflected more on the inner nature of things.

Happy Working!

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Will you talk to your Mom like this? (3)
By Saurabh Sharma on 18-Aug-10, 12:46 in Advertising, Brand, Marketing |

This is the third in the short series of posts on Challenges facing Qualitative research in China. As I have said in the posts before, the idea is not to castigate research agencies or trash the ways of some of the marketers. Instead the idea is to highlight the research & marketing issues plaguing various marketing and research systems & highlight that if we address these we can find a way to superior understanding of people in China and consequently do better marketing and market planning.

Have you ever wondered what kind of working people would take out time on a Wednesday afternoon (or morning!) to go to a discussion in a room full of strangers talking about sanitary napkins or tyres or adhesives etc for over two and a half hours? I can hazard a guess – these are people who do not have much happening in their personal or work life. Some of my not so polite friends have another word to describe these people – they call them “losers who don’t have a life!”

Come to think of it – who can take out so much time for a relatively unimportant topic and that too in the middle of a workday! These people are outside the stream of active social or professional life and thus have so much time to spare. They are the laggards in all kinds of product adoption processes. Outside of occasions like the focus group discussion – they are a conservative lot without strong opinions on most of the subjects – leave aside consumption choices.

This is the other challenge that a lot of qualitative research faces in developing markets like China. Most of the people that we end up recruiting for research are at best not savvy about the topic being discussed. This is dangerous because we base many of our marketing decisions on the feedback captured from these researches. When we do this – what we are effectively doing is taking feedback from the masses and ending up with the lowest common denominator of understanding. This might be a better idea in electing a government but it can definitely not help us make strategic breakthroughs in marketing.

Having said that – this also does not mean that we only speak with opinion leaders – that is not realistic either. What we really need to do is to structure our research in a fashion that we strike a balance between such dull followers and some savvy adopters. Learnings from only that kind of a mix can be considered more balanced and representative of the reality.

Only such a respondent mix can help us find inspiration not just information.

Happy Working!

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Will you talk to your Mom like this? 2
By Saurabh Sharma on 20-Jul-10, 20:22 in Advertising, Brand, Marketing |

This is the second in the short series of posts on Challenges facing Qualitative research in China. As I said before, the idea is not to castigate research agencies or trash the ways of some of the marketers. Instead it is to highlight research & marketing issues plaguing various marketing and research systems & highlight that if we address these we can find a way to superior understanding of people in China. And consequently do better marketing and market planning.

In this second part, I will share some thoughts about the way we ask the questions in our researches.

It pains me to see how we run our consumer immersion groups.

Why are we so direct?

After every response – we simply barge in with a “why?” or “why not?”

Do we really believe that people will give an honest explanation for their usual behaviour?

Add to this, people in China take much longer to open up than people from most of the other cultures that I have been exposed to. We need to respect this cultural truth. China is a lot about steady conversations and negotiations. It is not a “on and off” culture, it is not about this way or that way, it is not the start and stop mindset. It is a continuum. It is about maneuvering around and about topics – touching them enough to give a hint rather than making them obvious.

Our way of talking to people needs to learn from this.

My long-time friend once told me how Chinese and Westerners think differently. He explained it to me through a business meeting analogy. For the Westerners – if a meeting is short it must be very good because everybody was talking the same language and thus not much conversation was required to reach an agreement. Contrast this with the Chinese idea of a good meeting. The Chinese think that if the meeting is short – it did not really achieve much. The underlying principle is that it takes longer to know people and understand their motives – too quick and you have not really achieved anything. On the contrary, if it is longer – it sure means that it helped people know each other more. Knowing people is most important. All the business can follow.

Now think about our interview situations – how can we rush through it with a 100-bullet point checklist?

I often say – “In China – slow down, if you want to speed up.” Things move forward briskly when we do not labour them too much. Conversations are no exception. Of course we need answers to “why” and “why not” but we need not ask it that way. We need to make the questions indirect, help respondent speak about himself without feeling shy about it by. Make it less sharp and allow the real answers to flow in. Only a comfortable respondent is a natural respondent.

A few more to come in this series.

Happy Working!

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Will you talk to your Mom like this?
By Saurabh Sharma on 09-Jul-10, 14:31 in Advertising, Brand, Marketing |

From today I will start a short series of posts on Challenges facing Qualitative research in China. The idea is not to castigate research agencies or trash the ways of some of the marketers. Instead it is to highlight research & marketing issues plaguing various marketing and research systems & that if addressed it can lead to a way for a superior understanding of people in China and consequently better marketing  & market planning.

Why do we always have so many questions? Do we know so less or are we playing safe by getting the research to confirm even the most elementary things?

Fewer questions, shorter questions with more room for conversation are much better than long questions and many questions. Visualize our conversation with our friends and family – how we talk to them over tea and snacks. It is fluid, enjoyable and refreshing. It helps us know each other even more and it brings us closer. Now think about our last conversation with users – chances are

We had many more things to discuss (many-many questions)

We moved from one question to another very fast (completing a ‘list’ rather than striking a conversation and trying to understand)

We consumed almost two hours doing this and everyone was tired & irritable at the end of it (rather than becoming more open, refreshed and thus closer).

Why do we do this? Why are we so paranoid about not being able to complete all the questions in our DG? If we all know the marketing goal, the brand challenge and our priorities – then why don’t we allow the interviewer some intellectual & conversation autonomy? Why do we act like we just came from Mars and we need to be told everything by the research?

“If there is a shared vision –there is no need for supervision”, said someone, and if there is a shared vision, I don’t see any reason to be paranoid.

More on this in the posts to come, Happy Working!

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