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Sometimes, Ethnic Difference Is Not So Different

January 29, 2013

Watching focus groups in the province of Quebec, in French and broken English, with the occasional joual thrown in for colour, it strikes me how strongly our preconceptions of cultural difference can color what we see and hear.  Group after group of participants unanimously say it is important for foreign brands to respect their Quebec values – yet struggle to articulate what they mean.

Meanwhile, behind the focus room glass, an equally fascinating phenomenon is at work. The client, who expected these consumers to be different, and believes there should be differences, is nonplussed when evidence suggests the opposite.

This points to an important, somewhat counterintuitive challenge for market research consultants:How do we look beyond the hype to guide our clients to the cultural or ethnic differences that really matter to their businesses?

The reality is that market research is about targeting and segmenting; focusing on differences is what drives our industry. We identify groups and determine how their needs are different from those of other groups. We help our clients find under-served populations to help increase market share and sales. Or we recommend focusing on specific segments that make up the majority of a company’s revenue. And we develop mathematical models to identify clusters of customers that have greater long-term growth potential.

But what happens when a company buys into the hype – has whole-heartedly accepted that a minority group is important, but struggles because the differences are irrelevant to a specific initiative? Typically we face the opposite challenge – to convince companies they should focus on a specific minority group. It took at least a decade before Canadian companies started to realize the growing importance of Chinese and South Asian consumers; now most companies operating in Canada have at least some specific marketing functions geared towards these ethnic communities.

But is it really true that a Quebecer or Hispanic is choosing a Kindle over an iPad for different reasons than the general, aggregated population?  Maybe — or maybe not. This is a case where fact-based consulting is needed. The research must be executed flawlessly, but the data cannot speak for itself. The research consultant must show the value and ROI of the research, and help clients draw the right conclusions – sometimes contradicting seemingly obvious assumptions.

In this case, it is less about an insight to be leveraged in a marketing plan, and more about the money saved because there is no need for a separate strategy or marketing plan to reach a specific target group. The research results may not be as expected, but this does not mean the research was unsuccessful.  On the contrary, it may have saved the client more than any other research study conducted that year!

Sandrine Maheux is Senior Research Consultant with GfK Canada. She can be reached at

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