By Victoria Zagorsky

The journey to market research transformation became the key theme of ESOMAR MENAP Forum 2016. While ESOMAR MENAP 2015 presentations showcased powerful transformational concepts, this year the focus shifted to the applications of innovative practices in the Middle East, North Africa and Pakistan region. It was a highly practical forum with many interesting examples of innovative research practices being successfully applied in the region. At the same time, it was both an inspirational and insightful event providing a greater understanding of where the market research industry is heading and how to get closer to consumer understanding.

With a net increase of 9.1% in market research spending in 2015, MENAP is now the fastest growing region globally. Within MENAP, GCC countries have witnessed a staggering growth of 75% as compared to 2010. Research market in MENAP is changing as companies begin to embrace digital data collection methods instead of traditional approaches.

Role of Research in VUCA World

The world today can be best described with the acronym VUCA, which stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.

While the hotel and taxi industries are being disrupted by new entrants such as Airbnb and Uber, technology innovations impact many other areas including how consumers interact with day-to-day products.

Amazon, for instance, allows customers to use its Internet-connected devices to order items with the press of a button. In future, drones will be used to fly packages directly to the doorstep of a shopper in less than 2 hours.

Chef Wendy application talks to Knorr customers providing new recipe ideas and making suggestions based on the ingredients that customers already have. This allows to create a unique profile for each customer, providing valuable insights into individual preferences and dietary requirements as well as the types of ingredients that customers typically have.

What does it mean for market research professionals?

In VUCA world that experiences the ever-accelerating change, we are well placed to play an increasingly more important role helping business leaders understand the future and providing guidance on how to harness the opportunities.

Sanjiv Kakkar of Unilever outlined key strategies for becoming masters rather than victims of VUCA. These include moving from insight to foresight, taking intelligent risks, becoming more agile, harnessing technology to drive business growth and building purposeful brands. Sanjiv believes that we need faster and cheaper research techniques that are able to build scenarios based on the limited data.

Research Applications in VUCA markets: Egypt and Iraq

Interesting case studies were presented to showcase the use of the state-of-the-art research methods in Egypt and Iraq, two high potential markets of the region.

In Egypt, Unilever and AWE Research conducted a comprehensive research study to uncover how consumers cope with the financial implications of the economic crisis. A number of methodologies were employed including ethnography, focus group interviews and a quantitative survey using a nationally representative sample.

The study identified two distinct groups among Egyptian consumers – The Republic of the Gatekeepers and the Youth Empire.

  • Gatekeepers live in the world of shattered dreams and abandoned aspirations. They struggle to survive and juggle between priorities to address family needs. Their spending behavior is largely governed by security and survival.
  • In Youth Empire, on the other hand, the focus is on “Me, Myselfie and I”, while the spending behavior is driven by pleasure, enjoyment and status.

It is critical for marketers to understand the needs of each group and to tailor communication strategies accordingly.

“The lipstick effect” is another very interesting insight that the study uncovered. In view of the economic challenges, gatekeepers in Egypt gave up on all big dreams. They no longer consider upgrading their lifestyles or buying more expensive houses and cars. Some of them even gave up on summer holidays. But even though they cannot afford expensive luxury goods, they increasingly need affordable simple pleasures, which translates into new opportunities for FMCG companies in Egypt.

In Iraq, the challenge that Pharma Business Partners and Iraq Market Research Initiative faced, was to understand the healthcare market and to estimate an opportunity for private medical insurance companies.

With the population of 36 million people, and a growing consumption rate, Iraq offers a great potential to international businesses.

For the market sizing exercise, a number of data collection methods including intercept interviews and online survey were employed.

Intercept interviews: Due to cultural / religious norms, it may not be possible to conduct a face-to-face survey with female respondents. As a result, with intercept interviews, female consumers ended up being underrepresented.

Online research: According to the official data, the Internet penetration in Iraq is currently less than 10%. This explains the tendency of companies to avoid using online data collection methods in Iraq. However, the actual Internet penetration appears to be substantially higher, and online research methods can be used effectively.

In addition to exploring new research methods in Iraq, Walid ElAsmar of Iraq Market Research Initiative, recommends companies not to consider Iraq as a single market, but rather as a collection of multiple markets. Marketers tends to see Kurdistan as a different market while treating the remaining regions as homogeneous. However, regions vary in terms of retail landscape, supply chains, consumer habits and other characteristics, and require different approaches.

Innovative Data Collection Methods – WhatsApp Messaging Service

Companies in the Middle East increasingly embrace digital methods, and leveraging WhatsApp messenger for data collection became one of the forum’s highlights. There were two research agencies – Feedback Market Research and AMRB – that presented their case studies showcasing how they successfully used WhatsApp for data collection.

WhatsApp, the popular messaging service, is now the leading social media platform in a number of markets across Middle East, including Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE. According to TNS research, WhatsApp is the preferred social media channel for 41% of social media users in the region.

When AMRB was presented with a challenge to help their client achieve greater revenue in the snacking category in Saudi Arabia, they decided to leverage WhatsApp as a data collection approach. The goal was to enable consumers to become photographic chroniclers sharing real-time insights into their eating habits and preferences.

Some of the characteristics that made WhatsApp a preferred platform for this qualitative market research exercise are:

  1. Familiarity and ease of use.

Saudi Arabia ranks 14th in terms of WhatsApp users globally. WhatsApp is top preferred social network among 42% Saudi consumers, and 97% use it on a daily basis.

  1. Ability to generate rich insights.

WhatsApp allows consumers to share text, emoticons, photographs, audio and video. In this research study, consumers provided detailed information in relation to the eating occasions including time and date, who they were with and photographs.

  1. Unbiased results.

Due to the cultural norms in the Middle East, it can be difficult for a consumer to voice a different or unpopular opinion in a focus group setting, whereas with WhatsApp approach one-on-one interactions with consumers can take place.

  1. Accurate data.

It can be difficult for consumers to accurately recall details of the eating occasions during the past week, but with WhatsApp approach, they are in position to share the real-time information.

Studies using WhatsApp as a data collection approach delivered rich insights that could not be possible to obtain using traditional methods. Market research professionals should continue to explore the potential of this data collection approach and to embrace other innovative digital methods.

Future of Market Research

How can market research industry continue to create value?

It is critical to move away from the role of data providers. Data is becoming a commodity, and as Paris Arnold of Spark Consulting highlighted, clients have access to larger volumes of data, however they face challenges in managing / integrating data and ultimately generating insights from it. Despite facing competition from technology providers, insight professionals have expertise and skills needed to take the lead in this area.

While we should master our ability to translate data into insights, we should remember that in today’s VUCA world clients become increasingly more interested in foresight, and helping them predict what the future will look like in 3-5 years will enable us to deliver greater value and to stay relevant.

Companies also increasingly require partners that can provide guidance on how to achieve growth, as Jaikumar Menon of McDonalds Corporation pointed out.

In VUCA world, market research professionals are well placed to play a more crucial role by becoming business partners for achieving growth and delivering foresight to drive new market and business opportunities.

Victoria Zagorsky is General Manager at Insight Enterprises and Editor at Insights MEA and Insight World. 

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