James Parsons

First published in Research World July/August 2009

Here are some surprising insights from a westerner running a company specialising in qualitative research and brand consultancy in Tokyo.

As any home-cook will tell you, egg yolks and oil don’t mix, unless you learn the technique of making delicious mayonnaise. Similarly, creating great qualitative research and brand understanding here in Japan requires us to understand the inherent contradictions that place the very enterprise of qualitative research as conceived in the West at odds with some fundamental aspects of Japanese culture.

The borrowed language of the discipline in Japan (we too have modereeta, rikuruuta, obuzaabaa behind the majikku-miraa, sukuriiningu, sanpuru, fuaindingu and so on) suggests something broadly similar to its Western counterparts. But what is called qualitative research in Japan is often a very different species that has been created as the discipline has adapted to those local cultural circumstances that govern how it works in practise and what clients expect of it. We need to understand these contradictions if we are to resolve them.

Western researchers and marketers rely on the focus group methodology as a means of eliciting varied and emotionally involved responses to stimuli. It is this variety and emotional involvement they find useful.

Some take for granted that this kind of dynamic should occur in any cultural context, because that’s what’s supposed to happen in focus groups. But in reality, individuals behave according to the rules of their culture, not according to the rules of the focus group.

Easy sharing
In the individualist cultures of the West, there is a felicitous coincidence between the two. Putting six Americans together and asking them to share their individual thoughts, feelings and – witness the success of the self-help group – is not a big ask. Individual contributions are important in ‘e pluribus unum’ America. In free, equal and fraternal France, where individuals tend to disagree with others on principle, focus groups also work well. Focus groups can work well even in less individualistic cultures.

In China, for example, where focus groups are invariably generative and rich, it may be that research participants are approaching the focus group as a commercial transaction. An intelligent and energetic response may, in their mindset, bring the promise of further money-making opportunities. The point is that groups work well for all sorts of reasons connected, not with the original rules of the focus group that Westerners take for granted, but with the culture in question.

The Japan exception
Unlike Westerners, primed by their very cultures to believe that their individual points of view and emotions have inherent value, Japanese have no such priming. The laid-back, emotionally literate approach that Western marketers value from focus groups does not come easily to research participants. Indeed, the rules that govern interactions between strangers in Japan fly in the face of such an outcome. Strangers talking to each other must, in Japan, adopt a certain register of language (both verbal and corporal). This is not simply a nice touch of courtesy. For a moderator not to adopt this language amongst a group of strangers would be like scratching your nails down a blackboard.

Further, the notion of personal agency – the individual’s unquestioned belief that they have a unique identity and power over their own destiny, can by no means be taken for granted in Japan. Thus to ask a Japanese individual to express personal thoughts or feelings about a piece of stimulus, believing reflexively that they are valid, important and interesting, relies on dodgy assumptions.

The default (but not necessarily unavoidable) outcome for a focus group in Japan is of emotionally superficial responses, little assertion of personal experiences or feelings, reticence and a tendency to consensus. We have to recognise these deeply rooted problems before trying to solve them.

Japanese client expectations have also had their part to play in the trajectory of the discipline in Japan. There is a very long story to be told here, (which I presented at ESOMAR’s APAC Conference) but in a nutshell, three key factors seem to govern client expectations of the discipline in Japan.

The Japanese organisation
Japanese blue-chip FMCG organisations are large, and for a variety of reasons that go all the way back to the post-war period, have sought to monopolise their entire categories rather than seek specialist niches. A big company’s success is measured not by its profits but by its girth. Whereas Western companies seek ever more ingenious ways to surround their product with the aura of aspiration, the Japanese company concentrates on getting some shelf space for their broad product range. And in this sales-culture context, the marketing department hero in the Japanese organisation is not the individual who goes out of their way to hit the ball out of the park with a killer insight about consumer motivations. It’s the diligent worker who keeps their head well down in their cubicle and completes their role to the letter.

This breeds an obsession with process rather than outcome. Vendors of qualitative research in Japan, particularly the bigger quantitative-focused organisations, have wittingly or otherwise, pandered to this. Generally perceived as providers of processes, not of insights, useful hypotheses or consumer understandings, it is only those processes for which they can charge. But of course they must make their margins somewhere, and this may explain why it is not uncommon to see meticulously itemised charges featuring unfeasibly expensive bento boxes and expensive photocopying!

Qualitative research and advertising planning
Qualitative research, particularly in the UK, has grown hand-in-hand with ad planning. In Japan’s TV advertising environment, characterised by the 15-second spot, creating long-term narratives around brands is far less easy. It’s simple awareness that will win you shelf space in retail, so there’s less need for deep consumer insight. Often, just securing the services of the right celebrity is the bigger priority.

Whereas in the West, there are garlands for the researcher who can use their guile and intelligence to shed light on consumers’ likely or actual responses to the intangibles of advertising communication, in Japan, clients have not come to appreciate such inputs. Indeed, some mistrust these or even see them as ‘unprofessional’. Words such as intuition, feeling and instinct take pride of place in the Western qualitative research lexicon – it is unashamedly not an exact science. Such notions surprise the Japanese marketer.

And it goes even deeper than that.

The analysis of qualitative data
The work of Richard E. Nesbitt highlights the profound contrasts between Western and Japanese modes of thinking. Where the Platonic tradition underlying Western modes allows the individual with their unquestioned belief in their ‘personal agency’ to interpret events (in our case, of qualitative data), assert that interpretation and adduce evidence to support it, the Japanese cultural heritage affords the researcher no such right. Where Western clients happily pat the back of the researcher who sticks their neck out, comes up with a viable story as to ‘what it all means’, supporting their story with evidence from the research, the Japanese client may well ask the researcher to ‘stick to the facts’.

The solution to these difficult and deeply rooted contradictions must come in another article, but just as egg yolks can be coaxed into mixing with oil with a tasty result, we at Flamingo Tokyo believe that those contradictions can also be resolved.

James Parsons is president of Flamingo Tokyo.