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My guests today are Dominic Carter, CEO, and Debbie Howard, Chairman, of The Carter Group.
Founded in 1989, The Carter Group is a strategic market research agency that has been helping clients engage with consumers and businesses in Japan.
Prior to joining The Carter Group, Dominic served as the Managing Director of Japan for Millard Brown and Debbie is the President Emeritus of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.
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Jamin Brazil: Hi, I’m Jamin. You’re listening to the Happy Market Research podcast. My guests today are Dominic Carter, CEO and Debbie Howard, chairman, of The Carter Group. Founded in 1989, The Carter Group is a strategic market research agency that has been helping clients engage with consumers and businesses in Japan. Prior to joining the Carter Group Dominic served as the managing director of Japan for Millward Brown and Debbie is the president Emeritus of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan. Debbie, Dominic, thank you both for joining me on the Happy Market Research podcast today.
Dominic Carter: Thank you Jamin.
Debbie Howard: Absolutely. Thank you.
Jamin Brazil: I rarely do two people at the same time for these podcasts because I like to do deep dives. So this is going to be a little bit of a unique episode format wise. We’ll be asking a few less questions but of course I expect there will be a lot more kind of feedback across both of you. But I do want to take time in the beginning to get to know you a little bit and create some context for our audience and myself. And Debbie let’s start with you. Tell us a little bit about your parents, what they did, and how that’s impacted who you are today.
Debbie Howard: Thank you so much Jamin. My dad was a salesman. He was selling mainly construction equipment and [INAUDIBLE]. And he was said to be one of the best salespeople anyone had ever seen and that’s from my uncle who was the other best salesman we’d ever seen in our family. But it wasn’t because my dad pushed or sold per se. In fact, I know for a fact that he wouldn’t have been able to sell anything he didn’t believe in. And he probably wouldn’t have been able to sell anything to someone he didn’t like or think was honorable. Rather he seemed to have the ability to connect with people at a really deep personal level and he really cared about what it was he was selling and who he was selling to. My mom was an executive secretary. She graduated from the well-known Katharine Gibbs secretarial school in Boston. And she worked her way up in the 70s from an executive secretary position to be a purchasing agent for a Fortune 500 industrial company that specialized in building electronics components. And I think my mom and dad both inspired me and my sisters mainly from a motivational and values viewpoint. We were raised to think we could do anything if we worked hard. And our parents showed us by example how that could be true. I like to say that my dad taught me how to dream and reach for the stars while my mom taught me how to get things done.
Jamin Brazil: It’s interesting. Having an executive assistant will, as an executive will 3X your overall output because they’re actually the arms of what your office, of what you’re trying to get done. The, your father, I’ve been saying this for quite a while and it’s not new for me but we build our terms of trade so that we can actually make money. But at the end of the day we work with people that we like in organizations, I think. It’s really interesting how they’ve, how both of your parents connected and have raised you up that way. But I am very interested to understand chamber of commerce is different then market research. So how did you wind up making that transition?
Debbie Howard: Well I didn’t make a transition. I did it in addition to the market research. And in fact I used the market research to gain publicity for myself and to help the organization to put in a customer satisfaction system at the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan. And it’s- I basically, I started there in a really typical way. I became a committee chair of the marketing programs committee and I was basically lining up speakers and it was a natural extension of what I was doing in the market research area anyway and then I, somebody invited me to run for the board. We do elected positions there at the ACCJ and I was lucky enough to win. And so then I was on a 20 person Fortune 500 board in Tokyo because we have a real I’d say treasure trove of Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Tokyo. And so I was fortunate enough to be on the board and then I just kind of got really, I was more and more active. I helped them put in the customer satisfaction system and that gave me a lot of high-profile work and publicity for myself. And eventually I ran for vice president and then I became the first female president. But I can chalk all that up to market research actually. Does that make sense?
Jamin Brazil: Perfectly. Thank you so much for going into that detail. I love that.
Debbie Howard: And if I may Jamin, it actually expanded my ability to look at things from a wider viewpoint when it comes to looking at client’s business because that organization happens to be super involved in advocacy between the US and the Japanese governments. So I had never really done any advocacy work. I’d done some research projects that kind of touched on it but it really got me into a different area that gave me some more sensitivity to what happens in the wider world.
Jamin Brazil: It’s a significant challenge for me because I think about- So I’m part of the Boys and Girls Club of America and on their board. And it’s, I’m not employing my core skills of market research in the way that you applied yours for the chamber of commerce. And I think that’s a really good lesson for all of us to take away in the nonprofits that we are involved in inside the industry to, hey, apply our skills for the betterment of the organization and it’s going to have far reaching implications for you. Dominic we’re going to shift gears a little bit. Same question. Tell us a little bit about your parents and how that’s informed who you are today.
Dominic Carter: Sure, well my father and I really different people. Dad’s an engineer and he’s very scientific and he knows a whole lot of stuff and I don’t know how he knows it but he’s an engineer and I’m much more, I was always much more interested in English and the humanities and that sort of thing. So I used to have to do things with him like get him to teach me the whole quantitative methods course in one night before the exam and all of- So when I grew up with my father I thought I’m never going to do what my father does. I have absolutely no interest in engineering. He always had a calculator on his desk and I was like this is not for me. But one thing my father did when I was very young is he was offered a partnership in the firm where he worked and I think my mother thought it wasn’t a very good deal. So he started his own business and he worked out of home for the next 25 years. And so I sort of always had that example of going out on your own and putting the sign up with your name on it and that was something that I think sort of really affected me and I sort of lived through all of the trials and tribulations that they had setting up that business. And I distinctly remember we- Mom had to stop buying name brand stuff at the super market and buy home brand stuff and it was weird the kind of home brand kind of stuff that she could actually buy that you never knew existed. But dad I think gave a really good example of sort of how to persist with a business and it started very small and then he ended up with, he was still quite small when he retired but he had five people working for him. My mom, well she had five children, so she had to spend most of her time looking after us. But she helped dad out with the business. She used to type up, she had a typewriter and used to type up all of the invoices but it’s fair to say that my mother was actually the business brains and my mother is actually a really good businessman and very insightful. So whenever I speak to my mother about anything that’s going on in business mom’s always got a really interesting point of view and is usually right which is very frustrating because you don’t want your parents to be right. So really interesting combination. Dad obviously had the professional practice and my mother was always in the background supporting and advising and I think it was a really good combination. So I’ve always felt, I always saw myself doing something like my father.
Jamin Brazil: Mother’s are the CEO of the household.
Dominic Carter: Absolutely.
Jamin Brazil: Where did you grow up?
Dominic Carter: I grew up in Sydney, Australia so-
Jamin Brazil: How did you wind up in Japan? I know it’s much closer than in the US but how’d you wind up in Japan?
Dominic Carter: Well I was quite interested in Japan as a teenager. At that point it was in the 80s and Japan was very topical and had become very successful at that point and in Australia at the time it was quite controversial because they were making large investments in real estate and buying companies and so forth. I think it was a similar situation to the US, but Australia’s a lot smaller. So I think Japan loomed very large for us. So it seemed like it would be a good idea if I studied Japanese at university. So when I graduated I went to the University of New South Wales which is one of the big state universities in Sydney and I did a commerce degree with a major in marketing and Japanese studies. And somewhat uncreatively I’ve ended up in Japan working in the marketing research area and have a linear thing in some ways but- So I studied Japanese at university. I wish I had studied more because when I made it to Japan I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying. Even at McDonalds I was like what did this lady just say to me. So I think learning the language takes a very long time and it’s actually still an ongoing process for me after more than 20 years. But I started working in a market research agency in Sydney called Yann Campbell Hoare Wheeler and at the time they were the longest independent agency in Australia and I sort of forgot about Japan for about a year or so. And then it just so happened that they were mentoring a [INAUDIBLE] at Millward Brown in Tokyo that they were going through the process of selling out their business to Millward Brown at the time and I just put my hand up for that and said I’d really like to be involved in that project at some point and so they kind of planned it out for a couple of years and I landed there at the beginning of 1999 to take over the licensee.
Jamin Brazil: When you landed there, the composition of the people that you worked for, were they Japanese or?
Dominic Carter: Well actually it was just me and they sent me, I was 24 and they, it was, I remember my boss saying to me, Mr. Hoare said to me, well if it doesn’t work out you can always come back. So I thought that was kind of weird because people usually say it’s going to be great and you’re going to kick butt and all the rest of it. But anyway, so, but I think that was OK. It made me feel loved in a way. But they kind of, they set me up there and I was joined by a lady who worked for the Miller Browns licensee and basically they threw me in there and said get started. Do whatever you’ve got to do and- So there were a couple of big accounts that needed rescuing at the time. But I was basically on my own.
Jamin Brazil: Did you, so you were obviously immersed in the culture which is very different than Australian, imagine from where you grew up. How did it impact you being a minority?
Dominic Carter: That was really interesting. I- It was the first time where I’d experienced discrimination I guess. Petty discrimination. Kind of sort of interesting. Japan’s not too bad of a place in that respect but definitely, certainly at that time there were much less foreigners around the place. Just the fact that you’re foreign creates a bit of a difference in the energy there and I was very sensitive to that. And of course that’s given me a lot more sensitivity to those issues in terms of how they play out in our, in the society back home. So I felt that was kind of very interesting. Also as a foreigner in Japan you have to be very careful to pay respect to the culture that you’re working in. And when I first went to Japan I thought I was there to teach everybody and I can’t believe what I used to go around saying to people. But I guess when you’re in your 20s that’s what you do.
Jamin Brazil: You have it all figured out.
Dominic Carter: And I used to go into these companies and this is how advertising works and you’re doing it all wrong and [INAUDIBLE]. And they were very polite. I’m impressed by how polite people were with me at that point. But, so I think it kind of, you sort of, there was a point where I realized I really had to learn more than I was, more than sort of be trying to teach people all the time because it’s a bit of a joke when you think about it. Not that, I don’t think I had nothing to offer but you know what I mean. It’s kind of like getting-
Jamin Brazil: I do. The how you go about that is very important. So our topic today is about conducting international research and I think the underpinnings get to exactly what you just were talking about which is we have to approach international research with a high degree of humility. But what do you see as common mistakes that companies make when they’re conducting research in other countries?
Dominic Carter: I think it’s, you really need to listen to your local partner when they’re giving you advice on the project. And so when you try to force things through that the local partner doesn’t think are advisable it can cause problems. A classic example was when we tried to do mobile ethnography with doctors and we just didn’t feel that this was going to work. But- And it didn’t work. It was like doctors don’t want anything to do with mobile ethnography or downloading an app or a web cam or something like that, but they may be perfectly capable of doing it in America. But in Japan it’s just kind of not something that they would do or they’re just a little bit, their relationship with technology is a bit different than the average doctor. But it can be, if you’re asking for that work to be done it can be very hard for you to imagine why this thing would be difficult. So, that kind of advice that people give I think is something that it’s well worth listening to and I think a lot of mistakes could be avoided.
Jamin Brazil: Debbie.
Debbie Howard: That’s one of the- I mean I- The first thing I had written down was about applying your own standards and ways of being and doing to what is often an entirely different pattern or paradigm and expecting things to be the same as they are in your home country. That’s a real mistake. We’re just simply not in Kansas anymore Toto when we get into a foreign country. And it doesn’t even, language is one thing. So we could talk about English speaking markets like, let’s say a US company going to Australia or Canada or England. But then we layer on the nuances of language. So operating in Japan for example or South Korea or somewhere where they don’t really speak much English that’s a whole different ballgame as well. Any country is different from your own home country and I think keeping an open mind and I loved your phrasing of humility. Approaching it with humility. That’s really important because things are different. I remember the case that you said, that you just mentioned Dom and I also remember a couple of, I had a couple of examples that came to my mind when you mentioned the doctors are definitely something that is, they’re treated like Gods in Japan if you will. They’re kind of Gods in any market but definitely in Japan there’s a certain structure around interviewing them. The incentives are set. The recruiting time is set. The methodologies are often set. Another example that comes to my mind is just a simple exercise that we might do in the states or in Europe. Let’s call it the bar exercise where you ask the respondent to go into a, imagine they’ve gone into a bar and start personifying the various people there with different brands. I see that guy over there, he must be Glen Fiddich and then you, then the moderator goes why and you sort of get a little more color around that. And you get more color around the brand. In Japan, we couldn’t do that bar exercise, because they don’t really have those kinds of bars, the same way. And when we tried to do it with respondents, when we were piloting it, they couldn’t even get the concept of a bar in their head, and it became a real resistance point. So we changed it to an eating and drinking place. They call it an Izakaya in Japan. And that made it a lot easier. Because that was something that people were more familiar with, and they could relate to.
Dominic Carter: Could I add something to that?
Jamin Brazil: Please.
Dominic Carter: I think one of the- you also have- you have those issues that we were just talking about. But also, you have, also- in Japan, you have sort of- there’s an added job in interpretation that you need to do. Because Japan is what they call a high-context culture. So a lot of communication is nonverbal. And a lot is communicated in what people don’t say. And that can be really hard for outsiders to interpret. And it’s hard for- I’ve lived in Japan for over 20 years, and it’s hard for me to interpret, still. And I live with Japanese. And it’s just- it’s something that- when you’re working in this country, you really need to have a good relationship with people who are local and native, who can help you interpret what you’re seeing. Because you might be seeing the same thing, but arriving at quite different [INAUDIBLE]. So I think a very common mistake is, really, just taking things very literally, placing your own interpretations based on your own experience. A good example we had- he shall remain nameless, but we had a very famous guy come and do a project with us a while ago. And he was working with the consumer in-home, creating his narrative around what they were thinking and feeling. And of course, my team were polite at the time, because that was the way that it needed to be. But they came- I remember them distinctly coming back and telling you that they absolutely disagreed with every single conclusion that the guy had come up with. And this is a really famous guy, too. And I thought, “Well, was there really the opportunity to have that dialogue with him? Is this something that he was open to hearing the interpretation of the local team?” And I think, when clients- the good clients will kind of be much more open to having that dialogue, even with the very young people on our team, or more junior people. Because they’ve got some really interesting perspectives. So I think it’s not a case of, necessarily, just taking everything that the local researcher says, and taking it onboard, and not having your own input. But I think there’s a really great synthesis of points of view and almost- you can get to these transcendent insights, where you have the local insight and the foreign insight, and then you can make some real progress. But that’s a big one for us, is getting the real-
Jamin Brazil: Collaboration.
Dominic Carter: Exactly. Because you’re just not going to get the right story unless you do that.
Jamin Brazil: So if you- great job of articulating some of the mistakes that are made, coming into the market. Let’s think a little bit about some of the solutions. Let’s say that you are in the US, and you want to conduct research in another country, like Japan. What are three tips that you would like to give yourself? What are three tips that researchers should follow, in order to have a successful project in another country?
Debbie Howard: Well, I have a few. I think keeping an open mind is extremely important. Remembering that nuance is everything. And using local expertise. I think we’ve already mentioned the importance of doing that. But I would like to also say one more. I know you asked for three, Jamin.
Jamin Brazil: It was three, but I’ll go with four.
Debbie Howard: Well- and Dom will probably have a couple of others. So the fourth one, I would say, is to immerse yourself in the culture, so that you can see something outside of the research facility. Get out in the street, look at the retail environments, look at the homes. And try to understand how those differences might impact the way that people are living and feeling and reacting to the products and services that you’re testing.
Dominic Carter: I think that’s so important, Debbie. I remember, we had- we took basically the executive board of a very large company in the US on a safari, about a year ago. And of course, we felt that we were dealing with complete neophytes. We were, to a large extent. But that client had actually, off their own bat, had actually spent some time just walking around in advance, and on previous trips. And that really added to their ability to empathize. And that’s really important. One thing I’d add. I agree with everything Debbie said. One thing I would add, in terms of tips, is ask lots of questions. And there’s a lot of- and this is especially true with Japan. There’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t get spoken about, and people don’t tell you things unless you ask them. So asking lots of questions. Ask lots of questions about process. “Can I do the same thing that I do back home? How long are things going to take?” Those sorts of questions are very important, because the answers can be different than what you expect. And then also, before you’re working with a supplier, too, I would ask around, other people who have worked in that same market, who they would recommend working with. That’s- so I’d get as much- in terms of the partner that you’re working with, I’d get as much informal feedback from people that you know in the industry, about who they’ve worked with and who they’ve had a good experience with. Because of course, it can be a bit- there’s a lot of trust that you have to place in people who are doing work for you in another country. You can’t necessarily go in there and fix it, if it’s not happening the way you want.
Jamin Brazil: Are there Google groups or other resources that you would recommend for people that may not have a network that extends internationally?
Dominic Carter: There are LinkedIn groups. We haven’t gone that far into them, as a way of getting this information. But for example, when we’re doing work in China, we will always ask people we know, who’s the best supplier in the particular area that we want to do the project in. So it’s not even a question, often, of who’s the best partner to work with? It could be a good partner that does very good consumer work. They could be one that does very good farmer work. So it’s very much a case of, who’s the right partner? Down to- if it’s qual, who’s the best moderator for that type of work, in that market, that you know? So I think asking a lot of questions around your own colleagues, maybe. I’ve gone to people that I used to work with in the past, old colleagues. And just sometimes reach out to people. And I’ll field queries about other- not just Japan, but other markets, as well. So who’s a good person to work with in Korea and Australia, and places like that? So I think that- getting that sort of informal feedback on who’s good to work with- and what are they good at, and what are they not so good at- is much better than just broadcasting a request for quotation, and getting back all the bids, and choosing the cheapest one.
Jamin Brazil: Which is how- let’s be honest- most of the time, it goes.
Dominic Carter: Well, you’ve got to be good and on the money, right?
Jamin Brazil: Yeah.
Dominic Carter: But obviously, we’d prefer it if people would take a more holistic approach.
Jamin Brazil: I think the word-of-mouth referral is always the best way to get the best solution, across the board, no matter what it is. If it’s somebody working on your car, or somebody doing your market research, you want to go with a trusted advisor. So I do want to dig in a little bit on the tips. The immersion into the culture stood out to me as very interesting. The cereal partnership between General Mills and Nestlé, which is the largest cereal company in the world- they sell cereal to 136 countries, I believe. The CEO takes time every quarter to visit consumers’ homes, and do on-site interviews. And the reason is that he understands, in context, how they’re using the cereal, which kind of seems- as I think about it, cereal’s fairly simple. But it’s actually relatively complex. And then that helps him connect and build empathy. And that’s something that, of course, has trickled down across that organization, which is fairly unique. How do you recommend your clients to- international clients to become immersed in the culture, given that they have a finite amount of time?
Dominic Carter: Well, just one example. We had a cleaning company approach us a few years ago. And the first thing that I said to them is, “Look, we’re just going to do three quick in-homes, while you’re here.” Because they had come to Tokyo just for a quick visit, [INAUDIBLE] visit. And said to them, “Let’s get you into three homes ASAP.” Because I knew that they will have absolutely no idea what they’re dealing with here. You’re dealing with smaller homes. The bathrooms are different to what- if it’s a European client, they’re very different to what they are in Europe. Much smaller. The materials that you’re cleaning are different. The issues are different, with mold and so forth. So just get them- before we even have any conversation about developing a market for your product here, just we’ll throw you in-home. And that was a very informal thing, but I think it was very important for them to have that, in a sense, experience or shock to the system, or whatever it was, to understand what they’re dealing with. So if a client’s completely new to the market, we’ll generally- it’s rare that we won’t recommend to them that they do some form of ethnographic immersion. So that can be in homes. It can be- if it’s gaming client, going to the gaming arcade, or whatever it is, going shopping with people. But there’s just a huge amount of contextual cues for conversation, and just things that you see and hear. And it’s not- I’m not saying focus groups are not fantastic in their context, which they are.
Jamin Brazil: Of course.
Dominic Carter: And we do focus groups a lot, as well. But just to- that kind of initial immersion, those questions that you would never even know to ask, come up a lot in those kinds of immersive sessions. So when you know nothing, you’ve really got to start with a very highly-immersive, exploratory stage. Otherwise- you have clients come to you and say, “Well, we have- here’s our product. Let’s do a survey.” And I always tell clients, “Don’t do quant off the bat in Japan. For goodness sake, just don’t do it. Because whatever the results are, you’re going to be locked into them. And you don’t even know the parameters of the way that the consumer makes decisions in that [CROSSTALK], what’s important.” So the idea of doing a survey is really crazy. And then, also, interpreting- when you ask a Japanese person their likelihood to purchase something, the way that they answer those questions is quite different to Americans and Australians. It’s actually quite different even to Chinese people. It’s very different. So just understanding how those dynamics work, and what the issues are. If you’re not- so to rush in and just implement the same survey, with a few different attributes that you’ve been using in your home market, to assess concepts, for example, is just not really the right approach.
Jamin Brazil: So I am interested in how COVID has impacted you, specifically in Japan. Japan is one of the luckier or better-equipped countries, I guess. They peaked, I remember, around mid-April, and then have been on a steady decline since, in terms of new cases. Do you think that COVID is going to have a lasting impact on the ability to become immersed in a culture, given a short-term framework?
Dominic Carter: Look, we’re doing a lot of- we had to digitalize very quickly. Until COVID came along, nobody wanted to do focus group in Zoom and this sort of- But of course, we had to convert very quickly to doing that. And we’ve been doing studies, immersive studies. The way we do it we courier out the iPad and the iPhone, or whatever it is. And everything’s preloaded and nobody has to work out how to download or anything. And then- so it’s all very- the steak is cut up into little squares for the respondent, and they just have to-
Jamin Brazil: Which is probably a good practice, in general.
Dominic Carter: Well, no, absolutely. And we don’t- and we’ve been doing this. Debbie’s worked on projects where we’re talking to over-70-year-olds. And some of them over 80, aren’t they, Debbie?
Debbie Howard: Absolutely. And we had a little bit of trouble getting a couple of them on. But most of the time, it went really smoothly. And we’ve had people, Jamin, literally walking around the house with the iPhone that we sent them, showing us the inside of their refrigerator, for example. And we had 15 clients in the so-called backroom, the virtual backroom, watching that. So it’s been amazing to see. And our team has done such an amazing job. I don’t want to use the word, pivot, but they did pivot.
Dominic Carter: Well, I think the thing that- maybe it shouldn’t have surprised us- is just that we actually prefer digital in many ways. It’s just that there are certain aspects of it that are just easier. And for in-home work, we have the problem of everybody in the client team wants to actually go to the home. Which, for a start, is not obviously-
Jamin Brazil: Not feasible.
Dominic Carter: It’s not a natural scenario. But also, people’s home are really small in Japan, too. So if you’re going out, doing ethnography, you’ve got to sit on the floor. I’ve sat in the corner of many a home here, moving around uncomfortably. Because [CROSSTALK] crossing legs and that sort of thing. But you have all of these people. And then you’ve got to tell the client, “Well, no, you can’t come to the- you actually can’t come inside, because it’s too small.” And then they’re unhappy- so digital, it solves a lot of those problems. I feel, at the end of the day, though, we’re still going to benefit from doing work face-to-face. Digital will become part of- it’s more deeply penetrated into our repertoire of things that we can offer people. But generally, I think that there are some things that happen in the face- you may want to walk around the person’s home, or just there’s a more natural back-and-forth in the communication. And so I don’t think digital replaces. I think it sort of augments and will become a very valuable part of what we do-
Jamin Brazil: I actually think your thesis is correct. I believe it’s the case that we’re going to go back to face-to-face. Whether it’s focus groups or what have you. I even think that we’re eventually going to get to a spot where we can be a little more- it’s going to feel less like air travel, and more like- used to- little more comfortable and human. But- and intimate. Maybe that’s the right word for it. But I do believe that, because we’ve been forced to operate in a digital framework, especially for qualitative, for the very first time, it’s going to open up the data to people that previously would not have had access to it. And I think that is going to be a bigger lever for insights, which is going to functionally create bigger impacts. Which, in my opinion, means the democratization of research should mean that it has more value, organizationally. So I want to end on this last question. Then we’ll move into the final personal bit. So do you have, in just a very brief story- maybe a favorite story of how a foreign company leveraged research for an oversized or very positive return? And either one of you can answer that question.
Dominic Carter: Can I take that one? So we’ve worked with- and Debbie will have- I think we can probably take it on together. Because I think Debbie’s actually worked more on this account, of course.
Debbie Howard: I think I’ve got the same example in mind.
Dominic Carter: I think it’s just a great example. So these people came to see us about five years ago. And they were quite senior in the company, and they were looking at their international expansion, and they were looking at Japan. And they came in and met us, and we sat down. And they said, “Well, we don’t really think we need to do market research in Japan. Because we’ve got a really excellent product, and we think that the consumer here is going to love it, and they’re very excited.” And I- I have to admit, it sort of irritated me a bit. Because I knew that they didn’t know anything at all. So I basically said to them, “Are you crazy? This is not the way that you’re going to be successful doing it.” And they were kind enough to let me say that to them. And we started off doing our first project with them. And of course, everything was wrong, everything. The product was wrong. The packaging was wrong. The positioning didn’t work. Nobody got what was actually interesting about their product, the way it was presented, or anything. So it was a really juicy market entry project, because everything had to be fixed. And market entry projects are pretty much my favorite type of project, because everything’s problem solving the whole time. So we ended up doing a bunch of projects for them. But even down to reformulating their product, because it’s a skincare business, and Japanese skin is different. And I remember having these many conversations around, “Is it really different? Why is it different?” But they were great, because they just accepted that there’s different cultural issues surrounding skin, to start with. But also, there is a physical basis to the belief that skin is different. Which meant that stuff has to be reformulated. It needs to be tested.
Debbie Howard: Absolutely. And they did have so many dimensions to their challenges in the market. And we were able to- Japan is a very sophisticated and highly-developed skincare and anti-aging market. You see products in the States, here, from Japan, that have been very successful in the US market. So this is a US product going to Japan. We did desk research to study the market landscape, and the competitive landscape. We did ethnography. We went into women’s vanity areas, Jamin, and had them empty out and show us their skincare routines. They met us at the door with no makeup, because we wanted to watch their skin cleansing routines, as well, cleansing and toning and everything. So we did some really interesting work there. We positioned focus groups. We did these in-home product placements, as Dominic said, where we were testing for the sting level of the skincare products. And we definitely had some reformulation that had to take place. Packaging adaptation, social media listening. And at the end, a lot of messaging research, to make sure that we were getting the brand laid down in the Japanese market, in a way that was close to what they offered in their home market of the US, and their other international markets. But it couldn’t be exactly the same, because some of the words just didn’t port over to the Japanese markets.
Dominic Carter: No. And they’ll say, in that category, skincare, it’s a classic area where there’s just really different cultural elements in Japan, compared to what you’d see in the US. So if it’s anti-aging, for example- let’s say, if you promise, in America, that the product will iron out your wrinkles in four weeks, and you’re going to look 20 years younger, everyone wants it yesterday. If you offer that in this market, people think they’re going to die, because they’re going to get poisoned. They’ll have a smooth corpse for the funeral.
Debbie Howard: It’s too much.
Jamin Brazil: Wow.
Dominic Carter: So you’re dealing with situations in this culture, where even your most basic assumptions of what works and what doesn’t work- another example is we did work years ago for Australian beef, in Japan. And Aussie beef is a really big brand, very successful in Japan. But their strategy was to start talking about iron content in beef. And this is a given in Australian market for the past 35 years, that beef has iron, so therefore, it helps you stay healthy, especially if you’re a woman. We just couldn’t- you can’t get that message across. Because it’s just so different to what people’s common sense is around eating, where it’s all about balance, and you’re not upweighting- drastically upweighting different types of nutrients and whatever. So it’s just different. But we worked with that client, too, on the relaunch of their band, as well. It’s another example. But we love those projects where you’re really starting from knowing nothing, and then you’ve got to work on adapting. And it’s a multi-stage process. It’s the product. It’s the brand strategy. It’s the communications. And we’ll bring copyrighters into the backroom- focus group. “They didn’t like that. Did they like that?” And you just try and fail, and try and fail, and try and fail, until you succeed. And that client we were just talking about has just literally launched in Japan in the last week. And we’re very proud of the work that we’ve done to get them ready for that.
Jamin Brazil: Last question. Debbie, I’ll ask you first. What is your personal motto?
Debbie Howard: I’m going to give you my personal motto for this year. It’s kind of a mantra. Intention, attention, no tension.
Jamin Brazil: That’s interesting. I really like that. Dominic.
Dominic Carter: My motto has always been, in this industry, that we’re here to give people a voice. So our role is to make sure that the consumer gets listened to, and is able to effect decisions that affect them.
Jamin Brazil: My guests today have been Dominic Carter, CEO, and Debbie Howard, chairman, of the Carter Group. Thank you, Debbie, thank you, Dominic, for joining me on the Happy Market Research podcast today.
Debbie Howard: Thank you, Jamin.
Dominic Carter: Thanks, Jamin.
Jamin Brazil: Everybody else, if you found value, please take time. Screen capture, share this episode. This is one of the more enlightening episodes, especially if you are considering doing work in Japan or other countries. I think you’ll find the lessons very applicable. Hope you have a fantastic rest of your day.