Avoiding Wasted Focus Groups

When testing concepts in overseas markets, whether the concept is for a brand positioning, a new product or an advertising campaign, one step in the process is to have these concepts translated into the local language in preparation for focus group evaluation. Market researchers take various steps to ensure a proper translation. The first obvious step is to either hire a translation agency in country staffed with translators from the target overseas market or to recruit the aid of the end-client’s advertising agency if they have a local presence in the target market. Some of the more particular research agencies will even request the original translation be back-translated so as to monitor the translations’ accuracy.

Yet, when testing concepts in China, regardless of these precautionary steps, it is more often the case than not that after testing the concepts in the first few focus groups, it is evident that the original translation is misleading respondents away from the intended message. Hence, time constrained, on-the-spot revisions must be conducted to ‘save’ the research and obtain enough evaluations based on accurate interpretations of the concepts to make a confident recommendation to one’s client. Regardless of whether the revision is successful, the time and efforts spent conducting those first few focus groups is wasteful and contributes to a great deal of pressure experienced by overseas market researchers attempting to understand Chinese consumers’ attitudes and perceptions of the concepts. What is happening and how can this be avoided?

First one must consider that China’s uninterrupted cultural history of 5,000 years has yielded a language system that is extraordinarily rich with words laden in historical references and interpretations. While at first look, the words used in written concepts may appear to directly translate between Chinese and English (or any foreign language), but upon deeper evaluation, these words can actually trigger ideas and interpretations running counter to the overall intended message. For example, while testing car concepts a while back, there was a concept developed around the ‘spirit of the engine’ (its ability to anticipate the needs of the driver to deliver optimal driving performance). This concept earned extremely negative feedback from every respondent it was tested with because the message around  ‘spirit’ led to interpretations of the ‘spirit’ as a ghost inside the car and causing many respondents to link the concept to poor vehicle safety and deaths from auto accidents.

Other factors that can hinder accurate concept translation are related to translation sources lacking exposure to and understanding of research objectives. For example, translation agencies are generally not privy to details regarding the research execution nor do they have experience in market research, thus limiting their ability to anticipate alternative interpretations that may arise when evaluated the concepts in depth. This goes the same for local advertising agencies unless they are directly involved in the concept development, testing and execution. Further compounding these obstacles, it is possible that these sources would hesitate to clarify any linguistic interpretation questions they may encounter, for fear of giving the impression to the client that they are not completely adept in providing accurate translations, hence the client would have no idea about problematic areas of the translation until it is tested in focus groups.

As a local research provider, Anovax takes the task of reviewing concepts prior to fielding very seriously. Not only are wasted focus groups a frustrating and pressure-inducing experience for overseas market researchers and their clients, but also for the local researchers providing moderation and local analysis support. With our team of experienced and multi-lingual researchers, we work diligently to review test concepts in advance of the fieldwork and provide our clients with feedback on areas that may be problematic while offering potential solutions. In this way overseas researchers can feel confident that no focus groups are wasted as a result of erroneous concept translations and instead can maintain the focus on collecting all the various consumer insights needed to make intelligent and well-informed recommendations to their client’s marketing strategies.