By Carolyn Wu

Working as a market researcher in a so-called ‘dark’ industry, such as tobacco, alcohol, finance, and pharmaceutical, there are more stringent rules at both client-side and agency-side. The risk of not doing marketing research properly would not only lead to mistakes and client complaints, but also law cases and fines.

But how can things can go wrong when conducting marketing research? The main reason lies in differences in law/ regulation around the world because no one-size fits all approach exists for a multinational projects.

When doing business with these savvy marketing research clients in highly regulated industry, accounting for more than 20% of all market research revenue in 2015, there’s nothing more critical than understand the risks and how to prevent stepping over the line.

Here are 5 tips to keep you safe and be more prepared when managing a research project from proposing to reporting:

  1. Proposal: Always Consult The Local Legal Team First

Legal environments can be very different in individual countries. Consulting local experts would always be the first step when you form a draft research proposal, which you want to make sure the risk level to be manageable. Taking the tobacco industry for example, markets can be divided into 3 levels of marketing activity feasibility and linkage to allow market research types:

  • ‘BRIGHT’: where advertisement and sampling are possible – you can basically do all types of researches (FEW markets)
  • ‘GREY’: where implicit communication is allowed – need to be careful when showing branded packs/products, testing brand concepts, product trials, etc. Avoid too much marketing material shown during interviews. (MOST markets)
  • ‘DARK’: where branding or brand-associable elements are strictly forbidden – only unbranded tests, pricing studies and very limited types of consumer U&A tracking and B2B studies are allowed (SOME markets)

You can apply general legal categorisation for your research activity design, but small differences remain – a compliance check is a must for individual cases.

Including certain risks of cost implication considerations into your proposal would be a wise idea. Don’t expect to count on your client when it comes to a law case, because usually government authorities will fine the execution party directly, so be prepared at the beginning for the worst case scenario.

  1. Research Design: Risk Information Should Be Shown Beforehand

You win a project and start working on questionnaire or discussion guide design. Then next step is to make sure you have risk information before going into questionnaire content. Ensure respondents sign off and acknowledge the product you are going to survey is not risk-free, and it’s respondents’ personal decision about usage. The survey doesn’t intend to promote but obtain consumer opinion. In case it leads to government investigation, the signed record of risk information would be a protection proof that the research was conducted under agreed, informed and clearly stated warning.

  1. Recruitment: Keep Away Inappropriate Respondents

Besides respondent agreement on risk information, researchers and anyone who is responsible for recruitment needs to bear in mind all the time who are ‘inappropriate’ audiences that should be kept away from the project.

For instance, when conducting tobacco research, some obvious groups need to be excluded, such as pregnant women, underage teenagers, or interviewees who have kids with them. If it’s in a real-life situation, it’s easy to tell; however, it takes further effort to identify these people when conducting online or telephone research, so it relies on recruiter re-confirmation, and/or pre-warning upfront questionnaire.

  1. Fieldwork: Watch Out! Peeping Tom is Next To You!

In some countries, there’s no clear definition in law to distinguish between marketing activity and market research for regulated industries. Therefore, sometimes respondents would report to the government if they see too much marketing material tested during interviews, and in some extreme cases, government could send undercover respondents phishing, because they want to gain performance by reporting more violations (and confuse market research with marketing).

Strict execution control is the only way to prevent such situation, fieldwork supervisors need to be aware of people in the venue, inclusive of respondents and those who accompany respondents by constantly checking whether they wear spy cameras, take photos with mobile phones, make audio recordings, or take materials without permission. Stop interview right away if you find suspicious person.

  1. Reporting: Bear In Mind Social Context Bias

Consumers know they’re using ‘controversial’ products, and at times tend to hide themselves from unfamiliar people, which makes it hard to obtain accurate results. Researchers need to bear in mind possible bias to research results and reflect them when analysing and reporting. Again, taking tobacco research in Asia for example, females tend to hide the fact that they’re smoker, because they would be labelled as ‘bad’ or ‘rebellious’ in society. This causes under-estimation in survey incidence of female smoking penetration. Other bias includes smokers who use illicit trade products, they reluctant to admit they use cheaper, illegal products because of price.

Lastly, besides legal aspects, some researchers struggle when it comes to controversial industries’ projects, or even start doubting whether they should sacrifice sales instead of getting their hands dirty.

As a marketing researcher working for both agency and client side over the past 7 years’ research, having countless projects for controversial industries/products, my personal suggestion towards the mind-set is that an industry can have controversial and risky products and regulation should be supported. Nevertheless, there would be no way to compromise in terms of the right way of doing business and executing marketing research.

Carolyn Wu is Regional Insights Manager at a FTSE 100 Company