The secret recipe for a successful sensory panel
A sensory panel functions like a small business. The goals, methods and interpersonal climate must...
What is the difference between consumer tests in Europe, the USA, and South East Asia?
Consumer tests are only successful if they are adapted to the culture and reality of the country they are being tested in. Even between supposedly similar countries like Germany and the USA there are great differences. Not recognizing them or ignoring these differences risks incorrect results. Here isi uncovers where the pitfalls lie and how they can best be avoided. When the test design is right and the partner laboratory is a good match, a long-term cooperation is formed that benefits everyone.
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It started with the noodle soup. At least that is what Robert Röttgen remembers from his first experience with a field test in South East Asia. The isi field partner network manager was visiting a test studio in Bangkok, Thailand, and wanted to make sure that the test was carried out according to the way it was planned and carried out in Germany. When 20 minutes after the planned start of the test, not all test subjects were on site, the Göttingen native began to get worried. A test participant in Germany under these circumstances would possibly have left the test studio after 15 minutes of waiting time in a fit of annoyance or - even worse - stayed and took out his frustration on the questionnaire and disparaged the test products. But when the test finally started in Bangkok, none of the test participants were displeased. On the contrary, they tasted the chicken soup (Sup kị̀) with curiosity, put on the eye masks to evaluate the feel of the instant soup packaging and typed in their results in an unhurried manner. There were no signs of resentment, just a successfully run test.
The explanation is obvious. Around 15 million people live in Thailand's largest metropolitan region. Whether by bus, sky train or motorbike taxi - it is seldom possible to be on time, especially not to the minute. Delays are a normal part of the day and tardiness upsets the people there less than it would a test subject in Munich, who needs a maximum of 20 minutes from the edge of the city to the isi laboratory on Stachus. When the isi team draws up a test plan, these local conditions and realities are considered and the timing of the test is adjusted accordingly. This can result in an earlier test start or longer breaks between the test sessions.
This is just one example among many of the modifications that need to be made when adjusting a consumer test for a specific country. The goal - reliable and meaningful test results - remains the same, but the way to get there is somewhat different in each country.
"Most people think that there aren’t such big differences between a test studio in Germany and the USA. But that just is not true," explains Robert Röttgen. In Germany and many other European countries, for example, test labs are often located in the city center or at the least where test subjects can find their way to without having to walk too long.
In the USA, by contrast, people must travel much greater distances. There is often no city center with a shopping pedestrian zone in which test subjects could be recruited. A shopping mall is often the best place to recruit people for consumer tests. For this reason, many test studios are located directly in a shopping mall. However, this results in a few special idiosyncrasies. Often people from different socioeconomic groups shop in different shopping malls. For example, a manufacturer who wants to test a particularly inexpensive frozen pizza will not find the right test persons for his product in a mall catering to luxury consumers. "We know which malls have which customers and can therefore advise our customers as to where and how the recruitment makes the most sense," emphasizes Robert Röttgen.
A second special feature in the USA are the so-called test professionals. Some people go to the malls hoping to be asked to participate in a consumer test. But the test professionals are not welcome guests in the test studios. The ideal test person should go into the test without any previous experience and take part in the test mainly out of curiosity. Test professionals, on the other hand, already know too much. For the test professional the financial incentive plays a greater role. A test studio in the malls is therefore well advised to screen out test professionals in advance so that the results are not distorted.
In Germany or other European countries, curiosity usually plays a greater role because the remuneration or incentive - such as a shopping voucher - for participating in a consumer test is not too high. Often the test participant receives a gift certificate. "Remuneration in the USA is traditionally high," says Robert Röttgen. The motto “time is money” is taken to heart and test subjects expect to earn money on the test. This makes testing in the USA more expensive than in other countries.
The focus on money also plays a role at other steps in the testing process. For example, test studios in the USA are used to billing for every service they provide. The questionnaire needs to be copied 50 times. The print job and working time will be placed in the invoice as well. In other countries this service is usually included in the price. This should be considered when preparing the cost plan. Otherwise there is a risk of an unpleasant surprise.
However, employees in US test laboratories generally bring a high level of initiative to the job. By asking questions and offering constructive criticism, they optimize the way tests are carried out.
In the eyes of customers from Europe, however, this enthusiasm sometimes overshoots the mark. "In such cases, the prescribed test procedures are modified by the customer without prior consultation," recalls Robert Röttgen. This is no problem if you are familiar with this peculiarity (viewed from a German perspective) and if you approach the employees in the US laboratory about it and keep an eye on the procedures. Sure, there is a way to get the bratwurst from the test kitchen to the consumer even faster. But with a given test procedure, standardization is more important than speed.
Another point to consider when planning tests in the USA is the preference of some test persons to tick the extremes on a scale. For example, the number nine appears in the results, with no gradations below it. However, the subtle differences help to distinguish product variations in the analysis. For this reason, the isi team encourages the studio managers to instruct the test persons to use the entire scale.
Another peculiarity of this clearly capitalist oriented system is the highly competitive nature of the providers. Some excellent consumer test providers have conquered the market, but they also demand high prices for their services. The cut-throat competition means that other providers can only survive by offering cut-throat prices themselves. "But these suffer for the most part at the expense of quality," reports Röttgen. Due to data protection laws in Europe, it is not possible to carry out random checks - so-called validations. The customer can therefore not check whether the data originates from test persons or were made up out of thin air.
For these reasons, isi relies on smaller family- or owner-managed providers. The prices are reasonable, and the person to person contact builds trust. In addition, isi obtains support for data verification from the USA. "In this way, we ensure through random sampling that the data is reliable," explains Robert Röttgen.
Even if US-American culture may seem relatable to a person from Europe, it still ticks differently, at least in the field of consumer research. Robert Röttgen is pleased to have the cooperation and experience of consultants like Jan Ruwe. The Dutchman has over 25 years of experience in international consumer research, has lived and worked in the USA and knows where the stumbling blocks lie. Together with Jan Ruwe and another US-American colleague, Robert Röttgen has created a network of test studios over the years that can be relied on, that know what European clients. Additionally, these network partners are able to adhere to the strict isi quality criteria.
If Robert Röttgen writes an e-mail to a head of a test laboratory in Germany, a few lines are enough. This short and direct manner is a characteristic of German culture. In Asian countries, however, it is enough to upset people. Robert Röttgen knows this from experience. He lived in Malaysia for several years and still spends a lot of time in Southeast Asia. He is the Southeast Asia expert for isi and knows how to navigate the differences between European and Asian test studios.
Roughly speaking, Asian culture emphasizes family and group relationships. Possibly, at least that is what the "rice theory" claims, the differences between rice cultivation and wheat cultivation leads to a different way of working together. Rice cultivation, traditionally widespread in Asia, is costly and only succeeds when a large group of people work closely together. Wheat cultivation, on the other hand, which is more firmly rooted in the West, does not require the help of neighbors. The heirs of rice cultivation are therefore more interested in collectivity and harmony, according to the theory published in Science by Chinese and US researchers in 2014.
In contrast to the employee in the US American test studio, the team in an Indonesian laboratory will not take the personal initiative to modify the written test procedure, the test protocol. Rather, they are more preoccupied that some details that they might have been overlooked in the description. "That's why we are explaining the procedures for studios in Asian countries in even more detail and more precisely than we usually do," says Robert Röttgen. Anyone who does not do this runs the risk that test will not be carried out as desired.
A well-known study helps to understand the difference in the perception of Eastern and Western socialized people. In 2001, Richard Nisbett, a representative of transcultural psychology, asked test persons from the West and East to describe the contents of a virtual aquarium. While the western subjects mainly described the big fish, the subjects from the Asian culture group also mentioned the plants, the small fish, the background and what the fish or other aquarium inhabitants did. For example: "There's a frog crawling on a piece of seaweed that is swaying back and forth." This different mode of perception, object focused emphasis (West) versus complex contextual based emphasis (East), should be taken into consideration in the instructions delivered to the testing studios.
A test protocol for an Asian test studio should have more exacting detail. Someone who is planning a test in Malaysia from Germany should try to think about the needs of the team in Malaysia. This means not only describing the big objects, but also including more context and providing smaller details.
A simple question from the European partner such as "You've understood everything, haven't you?" is usually not answered by people in Asia with a "No, there's something wrong in their test protocol". This criticism would communicate a loss of face for the foreign guest. Something that is avoided in Asian culture out of respect for the other person. In addition, a person in Asia associates the criticism not only with the thing being criticized, but also associates the criticism with the person. It is therefore important in Asian culture to always give face, never take face and to save face. Instead of making critical remarks about a process flow in an Asian test laboratory, it makes more sense to demonstrate the process yourself.
In Germany, on the other hand, a colleague may feel uncomfortable if no critical comments are offered and ask themselves: "Were they even listening to me?” Here, criticism is usually understood as something that is directed at the matter in hand and not at the person. Hierarchies are also important in Asian companies. "While in France or England I also discuss issues and look for solutions with the laboratory staff. In Asian countries I usually turn to the person who is in charge of the laboratory," reports Robert Röttgen. Conversely, employees from Southeast Asia sometimes find team meetings with European colleagues confusing. It is unclear to them who belongs where in the hierarchy. If, for example, a team member talks briskly to a superior, it seems impolite. Hierarchies are less pronounced in Europe and the USA, but they do have some advantages: clear distribution of tasks and fewer conflicts in the group. This reflects the widespread desire for harmony in Asia.
In many Asian countries, consumer tests are still something of a novelty, and the desire to participate is therefore all the greater. "As a result, recruitment is quite easy," says Robert Röttgen. However, the need for coordination is higher than in European tests due to the above-mentioned idiosyncrasies. Other differences concern the response behavior in consumer tests. "It has long been known that on a scale of 0 to nine, for example, people from Asia tend to give fewer extreme responses than Americans. If products are compared in different countries, such differences must be considered, otherwise this leads to an incorrect interpretation. "The points we have raised only offer a rough picture because Asia is big and varied. Each country has its own peculiarities - from the perspective of a European. China offers a different picture when it comes to consumer tests," explains Robert Röttgen. This will be the expanded upon in a future blog post.
It is difficult to look at one's own working methods from the perspective of other countries. What do Asian or US partners notice when working with a company from Germany? "I like working with partners from Germany," explains Jan Ruwe. "They are friendly, correct and reliable". That's flattering and probably due to the fact that the neighboring countries Germany and The Netherlands score quite similarly on the cultural map according to Erin Mayer. The countries are united, for example, by concise and precise communication, openness to direct criticism and the desire that decisions are taken jointly and not "from above". Countries further off on the cultural map need more help to arrive at a mutual understanding. Even if not every country has been dealt with individually here, one thing is clear: in order to transfer consumer tests to different countries, cultural sensitivities must be considered. If this is not done, there is a risk of financial losses, false test results and frustration. "We have learned a lot over the years about testing in other countries and we have learned from mistakes, especially in the beginning. I think that it is better for everyone involved - whether customer, studio management, test subjects or laboratory staff - if we work together to remove all obstacles during the planning stage," says Robert Röttgen.
You would like to get advice and learn more details about our worldwide fieldwork? We are looking forward to hearing from you. In addition, you can try our new Test Studio Finder, which enables you to easily and efficiently find the right test studio for your consumer test.
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Photos: Peter John Maridable/ Unsplash, Marcin Kempa/ Unsplash, Văn Ngọc Tăng/ Unsplash
Dr. Fabienne Hübener is a freelance science journalist specializing in the senses and sensory research. She has been writing for our blog since 2017.
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