Defining the Problem and Establishing Research Objectives

The research process should begin with a definition of the research problem and the establishment of specific research objectives. The major difficulty here is converting a series of often ambiguous business problems into tightly drawn and achievable research objectives. In this initial stage, researchers often embark on the research process with only a vague grasp of the total problem. A good example of such a loosely defined problem is of Russian airline Aeroflot. The company undertook a branding study to inform marketing decisions regarding improving its long standing reputations for poor safety standards and unreliable service. This is a tough challenge for international marketing researchers.

This first, most crucial step in research is more critical in foreign markets because an unfamiliar environment tends to cloud problem definition. Researchers either fail to anticipate the influence of the local culture on the problem or fail to identify the self reference criterion (SRC) and so treat the problem definition as if it were in the researcher’s home environment. In assessing some foreign business failures it is apparent that research was conducted, but the questions asked were more appropriate for the US market than for the foreign one. For example, all of Disney’s years of research and experience in keeping people happy standing in long lines could not help Disney anticipate the scope of the problems it would run into at Disneyland Paris. The firm’s experience had been that the relatively homogeneous clientele at both the American parks and Tokyo Disneyland were cooperative and orderly when it came to queuing up. Actually so are most British and Germans. But the rules about queuing in other countries such as Spain and Italy are apparently quite different creating the potential for a new kind of intra-European warfare in the lines. Understanding and managing this multinational customer service problem has required new ways of thinking. Isolating the SRC and asking the right questions are crucial steps in the problem formulation stage.

Other difficulties in foreign research stem from failures to establish problems limits broad enough to include all relevant variables. Information on a far greater range of factors is necessary to offset the unfamiliar cultural background of the foreign market. Consider proposed research about consumption patterns and attitudes hot milk based drinks. In the United Kingdom, hot milk based drink are considered to have sleep inducing restful and relaxing properties and are traditionally consumed prior to bedtime. People in Thailand, however drink the same hot milk based drinks in the morning on their way to work and see them as being, invigorating energy giving and stimulating. If one’s only experience is the United States, the picture is further clouded since hot, milk based drinks are frequently associated with cold weather either in the morning or the evening or for different reasons each time of day. The market researcher must be certain the problem definition is sufficiently broad to cover the whole range of response possibilities and not be clouded by his or her self reference criterion.

Indeed, this is a problem that Mattel Inc ran into headlong. The company conducted a coordinated global research program using focus groups of children in several countries. Based on these findings the firm cut back on customization and ignored local managers’ advice by selling an unmodified Barbie globally. Not only was it dangerous to ignore the advice of local managers; it was dangerous to ignore parents’ opinions involving toys. Kids like a blonde Barbie, but parents may not. Unfortunately, poor predictions about Barbie in the last edition of this book proved correct. As we mentioned, ales of blonde Barbie dramatically declined in several foreign markets during the last two years. Only a 2004 make over slowed – perhaps even reversed the sagging sales of Mattel’s most important product.

Once the problem is adequately defined and research objectives established the researcher must determine the availability of the information needed, If the data are available that is, if they have been collected already by some other agency the researcher should then consult these secondary data sources.