Whoever approaches market research in the Far East with a Western mindset will soon hit a wall. No matter how far the lifestyle in the Far East, and especially in the major Chinese cities, is modeled on the Western way of life, the framework of cultural psychology – on which consumption is based – is rooted in traditions which have existed for thousands of years and are fundamentally different from the history of ideas in the West.
Therefore, it is crucial (as practiced by concept m since the beginning of operations in China) to include the cultural background in the survey, ideally by employing people from the respective country who are able to understand the nuances, which are not accessible to foreign market researchers who are influenced by their own cultural psychology.
This applies to the insights on the research topics and to the actual conducting of the research. Consequently, the question “opinion research without freedom of opinion?” is one which people in China wouldn’t actually ask themselves. “You say it best when you say nothing” is a figure of speech in China. But as we all know, it’s impossible to say nothing. So the question arises for the market researcher: How do people in China express their opinion? And how can market research decode these messages?
Once we leave behind the rational Western way of stating an opinion, it is possible to discover countless, more or less elaborated strategies used by Asians to express firm views in their everyday lives. Only these views are not put into words but are articulated, for example, by wearing a certain fashion, preferring certain art genres, or decorating the home in one way or another. A pair of jeans or the sofa also expresses an opinion.
For the market researcher in China this means having to learn to understand this often non-verbal, culture-specific language. What is actually signified by an apparently friendly comment? Only by combining psychological method with cultural setting do we get valid results. For example, concept m was one of the first companies to point out the significance of the Chinese signs of the zodiac for the understanding of brands and markets.
Knowledge of these correlations also led us to break new ground in the fieldwork, e.g. by focusing on in-home interviews, which allow an undisguised view of the lifestyle and give a material context to the words that may be less substantial. The friendship interview is another subtle method to generate insights because the friend present at the interview is also an unconscious form of communication on preferences and needs.
The market researcher should also be aware that, although Westernization can generally be observed in China, its manifestations can take different forms. For instance, rapid economic growth is matched by methods of payment. Cardless systems (Wechat, Alipay) have mushroomed – they perfectly express the feeling of restlessness just like the delivery services do, which bring the goods on the same day.
How long and how far China will retain its own culturally influenced character is another matter. Young Chinese are eager to interact more with the world. There are numerous video apps (e.g. BliBli) which make it possible to anonymously comment on the posts in real time, indicating that there is a growing tendency in the young generation to overcome traditional barriers.
On the other hand, booming e-commerce could be a sign that precisely these aspirations are contradicted by the focus on consumption and expression through possessions. The greater the perceived gap between the actual and the desired self, the greater the need could become to minimize this gulf through consumption.
In which direction the pendulum will ultimately swing cannot be said at present. However, it can firstly be said that all these trends of cultural psychology must be observed and understood by market research in order to obtain dependable results for the clients. And secondly that even in a country that is restrictive by Western standards, there is a wealth of possibilities to express opinions. The market researcher also grows with his tasks.
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