By Nick Drew

Canadians may not like it, but really they should just accept that they’re part of the USA. After all, they share similar tastes in cars (generally big trucks), they watch the same TV shows, and their accents are basically an American accent with the occasional “eh” added for flavour.

That at least is how the world looks to marketers and market researchers, if you believe some of the ad campaigns and research surveys one can find in Canada…

The truth, of course, is quite different, perhaps illustrated most starkly through the different political landscapes in Canada and the US. But for marketers and researchers, success in Canada depends on knowing more than just the differences between (former French teacher and Canadian PM) Trudeau and (billionaire businessman and US Presidential candidate) Trump, and understanding the deeper nuances that define the country and its people.

Politics aside, language is perhaps the best-known difference from the US: with one province officially French-only, and two officially bilingual, research at a national level often needs to include French language options. And just as Canadian English differs in spelling and vocabulary from both British and American English (colour, metre, tire and poutine being a useful selection from the Canadian lexicon), so Canadian French is noticeably different from European French. What’s more, with a growing marketing and research focus on New Canadians – about one fifth of the population nationally, and nearly half of residents in the biggest cities, are foreign-born – other languages are increasingly a consideration. Use of Tagalog, Mandarin and Punjabi is increasing in Canadian market research, to ensure representation across ethnic backgrounds; research recruitment techniques are also evolving to reflect this greater diversity in research audiences.

It’s not just the nature of the Canadian population that dictates study design, though; scale is also a defining aspect of the research industry. With a population one tenth that of the US, budgets for marketing and research in Canada are often a fraction of those south of the border; and when conducting research around particular marketing campaigns, or among niche audiences, sample sizes can get very small very quickly – even while fixed costs (such as survey development or data analysis) remain constant. Scale also comes with a cost in terms of research product innovation: multi-channel tracking panels like those found in other markets are also hampered by budget and population size, and researchers in Canada are all too accustomed to hearing “sorry, we only offer that in the US” when asking vendors about their capabilities.

The business needs behind those research budgets are as pressing as in any country, of course, and so successful market research projects are often a product of tenacity and ingenuity – attributes that have not always been strengths of Canadian business. Canadians are generally known as being consensus-focused, and less outspoken than their counterparts in the UK for example; in a similar way, Canadian companies have traditionally been quite conservative and risk-averse. This steady attitude served the country well in the financial crisis of 2007 and subsequent global recession; but in recent years a lack of innovation has been identified by various experts and stakeholders as a significant challenge for Canada.

Fortunately, although the research industry has not been immune from these headwinds, researchers have plenty of experience in being scrappy and thinking laterally to squeeze value from every dollar of research budgets. In recent years, numerous research agencies have sprung up to provide qualitative and quantitative insights for clients on shoe-string budgets and tight timelines; and to deliver both bespoke and off-the-shelf solutions to those looking for actionable data-based insights. And a tour of Canada’s research and marketing conferences demonstrates a thriving business in studies that combine the latest methodologies (such as EEG and biometrics) with established robust approaches without breaking the bank.

In every country, it’s fair to say that local expertise is the key to success, and Canada is no exception. With its size and similarities – both real and otherwise – to its much larger neighbour to the south, there is sometimes a view that Canadian research studies can be run as extensions of US projects, or through a US research agency, but it’s not always that simple. Just as nobody new to politics would look at Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau and think they’re basically the same (they are, after all, both involved in politics) so successful market research in Canada depends upon understanding what makes Canada – and Canadians – unique.

Nick Drew is VP, Insights & Strategy, Fresh Intelligence

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