The value of sacrilege!

Image Source: Association for Financial Professionals’ website

I am grateful to my client who has inspired me to think more broadly about what “consumer insights” mean.

In 2020, a client asked me to help them understand Chinese mindsets — specifically, consumers’ in the (mainland) China market. They were puzzled by why Chinese consumers were so easily offended — often at things that other people would not or would simply laugh it off. They needed to develop communications strategies for their brand owner-clients and needed a framework to understand how Chinese consumers would take in the messages conveyed by the intertwined webs of myriad discourses and to predict, or at least sense-check, the messages they would be putting out in campaigns. In short, they needed an insights management tool to help brand owners protect their brands.

This was unlike the usual consumer insights projects.

At that time, I noticed that different types of researchers only had our minds on our respective silo. For example, among the research I do, user researchers tend to focus on users in their usage environments while market researchers would only focus on target audiences in a market context.

This is not enough.

Consumers and users do not live in a vacuum. We are part of what is happening every day in the news — from microtrends within individual life-stage segments, to macrotrends of economic fluctuations and social mobility, to the “grand scheme of things” such as international relations and geopolitical risks. Market researchers are always interested in the first, sometimes in the second, but rarely in the third. When I talked to my seniors (respected veterans in the industry) about this project, they sounded sceptical, with some even calling my approach sacrilege!

I had a strong feeling that I was heading in the right direction, so I ignored unhelpful/unconstructive criticisms and developed a cross-disciplinary approach based on academic, design and communications research:

- Sociology/Communication: Discourse analysis;

- International relations theories;

- Political science theories (memory politics, identity politics, geopolitics);

- Public Relations/Public Affairs: pulse checks and messaging tests;

- Design Research: Role-playing experimentations whereby clients played Chinese consumers’ and other roles to feel the messages based on understandings of the “Chinese mentality”.

This was not done in a linear manner. We went back and forth to build, re-build and enhance, all the while keeping an open mind about what approach to use and which field to learn from.

Sample output for the client. This only shows part of the table with the key content masked.

Without taking a broad view of the world our “target audiences” live in, explanations of Chinese consumers’ reactions to “anti-China” advertisements, for example, will only be superficial.

My goal is not to shame anybody so I have decided not to name the source. You may of course google it.

This requires researchers to be acquainted with Chinese and western cultures and mindsets. A Chinese “local” expert’s explanation will often be one-sided, coming from the exact target audience we are trying to study, since the local experts also grew up in the same environment.

On the other hand, we need to avoid going to the other extreme of seeing every action from Chinese people as a sign of brainwashing. For example, academic research has found that history textbooks are a medium for transmitting approved knowledge to the younger generations. According to Michael Apple and Linda Christian-Smith, textbooks often appear to be neutral, but in reality, they are used as “ideological tools to promote a certain belief system and legitimize an established political and social order”. This happens as much in China as in western democractic countries. The difference is in the latter, information is free so people have the chances to expose themselves to alternative truths.

I enjoyed this project tremendously. It has led me to a new territory and pulled me out of my sense of despair at the state of market research. It has helped me find a new way to do what I have always enjoyed but have grown increasingly frustrated about. Research is useful when researchers come out of our echo chambers.

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Hong Konger. World Explorer. Fun Lover.

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Frau IC

Frau IC

Hong Konger. World Explorer. Fun Lover.

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