In this episode, we’ll hear from Iris Yim, Principal and Chief Strategist at Sparkle Insights on her opinion and experiences about diversity in consumer insights.
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Jamin Brazil: Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research podcast. My guest today is Iris Yim, principal and chief strategist at Sparkle Insights. Founded in 2015, Sparkle Insights is a full service research and strategy firm with extensive experience in insight development for Fortune 500 companies. Iris, thank you very much for joining me on the Happy Market Research podcast today.
Iris Yim: Thank you, yes, happy to be here.
Jamin Brazil: Can you give us a little bit of context about yourself. Tell us about your parents and what they did and how they informed what you do today.
Iris Yim: OK, so I am originally from Taiwan. I’ve been in the US since 2000. My father is an artist based in Taipei, Taiwan. He practices classical, old masters oil paintings like the ones that you will see in a museum. And my mother is a housewife and both of them, they are very open minded and, as you see, I’m very lucky. They never imposed their opinions on me and I have had the luxury to make major life decisions such as college major, graduate studies, and marriage by myself which is quite unusual for an Asian family. So, I majored in foreign literatures and languages in college, decided to pursue graduate studies in the US. And I married a Dane, my husband is from Denmark. So, all these decisions resulted in what I do today, and I live and breathe different cultures, both professionally as a market research because I specialize in multicultural research, and also in my personal life.
Jamin Brazil: A Dane, that’s a big – so, like the Vikings.
Iris Yim: Yes. And he teaches Asian studies at UNC Chapel Hill and that’s why we ended up here in North Carolina.
Jamin Brazil: That’s so funny, so he teaches Asian studies and then – that’s such an interesting way of being able to have a full cultural immersion because he has really informed, I should say, point of view. What were some of the key challenges with creating an integrated relationship coming from very different cultures?
Iris Yim: I think, first of all, was to the education, right? Like, what language should you speak at home. I think that, fortunately, we are in agreement on this one. We speak Mandarin 100% at home. My husband speaks fluent Mandarin.
Jamin Brazil: That’s awesome.
Iris Yim: And I know that there are interracial, intercultural couples that each of them, they’re from a different country. Their native languages are different so then their children do not learn either language and they speak English at home, which is fine, but I sometimes hear from my friends who are in similar situations that they kind of feel that it’s a pity that their children do not pick up any other languages.
Jamin Brazil: That’s super cool. And you have two children, for our audience.
Iris Yim: Yes.
Jamin Brazil: I imagine that’s been something that’s carried over into them as well, right? So, you have this – so, my wife’s fluent in Spanish. We speak a little bit of Spanish in the house. It’s much more like a Spanglish way of communicating but our kids are like – I don’t know, we don’t speak any Spanish, very little. Very little Spanish.
Iris Yim: It’s a decision that you have to make so we made that decision. We do it on purpose and they were only exposed to Mandarin the first three years of their life and then we started sending them out to a regular preschool where they learned to speak English. But, yes, before they turned three it was all Mandarin.
Jamin Brazil: Your parents, are they still in Taiwan?
Iris Yim: Yes, they are still in Taiwan and my in laws are in Denmark so our international travel is either going to Taiwan or going to Denmark.
Jamin Brazil: Both spectacular places. Give us a little bit of context, Sparkle Insights, what is that business?
Iris Yim: Like I said, it’s about multicultural research and personally I’ve been doing this for close to two decades. So, yes, Sparkle Insights is a boutique multicultural research consultancy and we like to say that we translate the voice of consumers and cultural insights to help companies communicate effectively and authentically.
Jamin Brazil: This is really important for companies that are operating at a global scale but it’s also actually really important for companies that are operating just in North America alone because there’s lots of different cultures that are represented here. Your customers, are they limited to Fortune 500 or I can see this, you business, branching out to even supporting other agencies.
Iris Yim: Correct. Yes, it’s actually makes Fortune 500 companies usually, larger companies, they are more likely to, I would say, make investments in multicultural insights and multicultural marketing. They have more resources for this and also we support multicultural advertising agencies and sometimes we will partner with general market research companies on the multicultural portion of a project.
Jamin Brazil: Do you have an example of a project that you were brought in on that could have gone badly if they wouldn’t have had the voice of multicultural impact in the room?
Iris Yim: Could have gone bad? I –
Jamin Brazil: I kind of used a lot of words on that.
Iris Yim: Not –
Jamin Brazil: I used a lot of words on that questions, basically what I’m trying to ask is or curious about, do you have a practical example of a time that messaging may have been misunderstood by a specific ethnicity but that didn’t happen because you were brought in?
Iris Yim: You know what? I am pretty lucky in that companies, clients that we work with, that they have been doing multicultural marketing for a while so they’re pretty –
Jamin Brazil: They’re pretty astute?
Iris Yim: – savvy in including multicultural consumers voice early on but I think it just depends. And I found it interesting that multicultural marketing has been practiced for a while, it started in the 1980s, became very popular since 2000. But to this day thought, there are companies, they are at different points on the spectrum of multicultural. There are companies, they’re still thinking about what to – thinking about getting involved. And there are companies, they have evolved from segmented marketing to total market. And, of course, different companies, they have different models, different interpretations for total market. The companies that I work with, they tend to be, I think, either corporate clients or agencies, they tend to have been involved in multicultural marketing for a long time.
Jamin Brazil: Got it. Do you have a favorite story or project that you might be able to reference, obviously you can’t disclose the company, where they employed the insights and had a successful launch or application of the insights?
Iris Yim: Yes, I think one example I can think of is that there’s one global company that we recently conduct a project for them, and they are working on refreshing their master brand, the positioning for their master brand for the US business. And they are working with a general market consultancy on building that master brand. And we were brought into conduct multicultural research for that project. We were able to add voices from Hispanic, African American, and Asian American consumers to that process, which I think that it’s great because what they think about incorporating these consumers voices early on when they are building the master brand, refreshing it. Not a lot of companies would take this step which is very important. A lot of times multicultural research or marketing is an afterthought that we are brought in in the execution phase.
Jamin Brazil: Yes, so my favorite example is Chevy launched Nova, you might remember the automobile. And because they didn’t incorporate multicultural research they missed the fact when they rolled out to Mexico that Nova means no go, of course as everybody knows, and that’s a really bad name, it’s a terrible name for an automobile. And their sales, short term, suffered from that. So, the need and importance of thinking about the brand and how it would be perceived and how you talk about it at a multicultural level is vital and that needs to happen very, very far upstream.
Iris Yim: Right. I can think of another example that if the client had, or the brand, had done some minimal research to – like a safety check would have helped them avoid costly consequences. And have you heard about Dolce and Gabbana’s chopstick ad?
Jamin Brazil: No, I haven’t.
Iris Yim: So, that happened in 2018 and this happened in China with Dolce and Gabbana. They had an ad, it was pulled, and they apologized for it later and it featured a Chinese woman using chopsticks trying to eat Italian food. But she appears to be very clumsy in the ad and couldn’t pick up the food and there’s a voiceover that it said, too big for you. That, you cannot use chopsticks to pick up the Italian food. It was very condescending, and I cannot understand that they would create such an ad and air it in China. And you could imagine the reaction from Chinese consumers. They ended up having to cancel a show in Shanghai because of that and their sales suffered in China in 2019. There were other factors, but it was a, I think, a good example that you should build in cultural sensitivity, you should conduct safety checks before launching any campaigns.
Jamin Brazil: Yes, safety checks I completely agree with. I’ve not heard that framework but I really like it. The other thing is just the importance of having a diverse team that is subsequently doing the – well, really at the highest levels because that would ensure that those kinds of mistakes don’t necessarily happen or are less likely to happen. When you think about consumer insights, what is the role of diversity in research? And I’d like that to be framed really in context of the team that is doing the research.
Iris Yim: OK, I think that in general it’s a good practice to have a diverse team because team members with different upbringing, different cultural background, they can bring different perspectives. But when it comes to market research I think ideally if you could have somebody who has the same cultural background similar to the research target audience that would be ideal. But, obviously, companies would – no research companies would have, I guess, researchers of all types of cultural backgrounds on staff and in that case it’s not uncommon for consultancies and research companies to bring in consultants on a project basis to help them out, which is fine. I think the key is that to remember to have somebody who is familiar with the culture to provide insights to review research documents and to help you fill in the gaps, interpret the differences, the numbers. In my research practice I frequently work with researchers of Hispanic, African American, of different Asian culture backgrounds although I, myself, I am of Asian background. But when it comes to Asian Americans it’s a very diverse community. There are a bunch of different cultures in it. Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, and I frequently work with researchers of different cultural backgrounds and I would have them review the report, review research documents. I ask them a bunch of questions and although myself, have been in multicultural research for many years, each time I would always get some insight from just talking to my partners. I always learn something new that could always bring more depth, more richer insights to the report for the client.
Jamin Brazil: Do you think the role of diversity is increasing in importance thinking about at a brand level whether it’s marketing, or branding, or however it is that they’re framing their go to market and voice?
Iris Yim: I think that it has become more important because for one thing, we all know that the demographic of the US have become more diverse and marketing needs to reflect that, right? So, in order for your campaign to reflect that diversity in a changing demographic, in order for your communication to be more authentic I think your team needs to reflect that diversity as well.
Jamin Brazil: Also, my hunch is that because we – there is no North America only brand, the internet has completely demarketized access to everybody or mostly and in this world where so much of our time globally is spent on social media, the voice becomes very, very important that you use to communicate because you have highly successful and sophisticated brands that are making big mistakes publicly now. So, it feels to me like we’re at this – we’ve hit this spot where it’s just unacceptable for brands to not incorporate a global point of view on how their message is going to be received.
Iris Yim: Yes, I totally agree with you because we live in an era of globalization. There’s no fluid national borders and you will never know, a piece of communication, a video, a tweet will end up somewhere and have unintended consequences.
Jamin Brazil: What is one recommendation you would give me, a podcaster in market research, to be able to add more value to consumer insight professionals relative to multicultural topics?
Iris Yim: Have you done episodes for a specific segment? For example, Hispanic research, African American research, LGBT, Asian American. I don’t know whether there’s a segment, I think maybe not –
Jamin Brazil: That’s a really –
Iris Yim: – so disabled.
Jamin Brazil: That’s a –
Iris Yim: I’m thinking about another word. There must be another word for that.
Jamin Brazil: Yes, I’m with you. It’s funny too, just understanding what the nomenclature is that’s appropriate because that has had some level of evolution over my lifetime. That’s a whole, ‘nother topic. Sometimes I’ll have a conversation with people and different ethnicities, and I don’t know how to reference them so that it’s not potentially offensive. Which is – I’m even afraid, it’s funny, on this podcast right now, I’m literally afraid about disclosing it. I grew up in a very rural environment. My parents were small farmers, my grandparents were small farmers. In fact, in World War II when the US created the Japanese internment camps, my grandparents were – they were Scottish but some of the neighboring farms were owned by Japanese Americans. And those farmers were thrown into camps and my grandfather helped create a, I don’t know what the right word is, a group, a coalition of other farmers that actually took care of those people’s farms so that when they were released they were having active farms, they weren’t just dead properties. And then subsequently after World War II was over, he was the first to import cows to, milking cows, to Japan to help with reestablishing of their economic base. Which is a really fun story I never get to tell. I’m saying that to say that I didn’t grow up in a place that was – there was this KKK mentality. We’re very –
Iris Yim: That’s very rare. That’s very rare today, right?
Jamin Brazil: I’m saying that because I want you to understand the intent of what I’m trying to communicate which is, I thought the term and the way I was raised – and I hope this doesn’t offend you, Oriental was a correct way to frame people of the Asian culture and it turns out it’s very offensive. And I didn’t find that out until my friend, my best friend at the time, Jamie, and still, Jamie Plunkett, he was dating a woman who – and from Stanford. She was a moo shu artist and anyway, I said that word and she goes, I’m not a rug. And I had no – I didn’t even know how to respond to that because I just didn’t – right? So, I didn’t even realize that –
Iris Yim: It’s not your fault but – OK, so don’t worry, I’m not offended. And also, there’s I think difference between foreign born and US born Asian Americans. So, like I said, I didn’t grow up in the US and I’m not that sensitive to, I guess, terms like that because, for me, there’s no negative connotations. I’m also interesting although I’m in multicultural research, personally because I didn’t grow up here, I’m not that sensitive to racial divides and racial issues.
Jamin Brazil: Super, that’s really interesting.
Iris Yim: Because I grew up in a one race environment. For me, somebody from the US whether this person is white, or black, or brown, whatever color, he or she is American.
Jamin Brazil: Right. Yes, I know and –
Iris Yim: Yes, so for me, there are no – what I say, I’m a little bit color blind in this sense anyway.
Jamin Brazil: Yes, and I see – I like to think of myself in the same way. I do think it’s one directional so what I mean by that is I think that I might perceive everybody as the same but at my CrossFit gym there’s only one African American guy. So I imagine his point of view is probably different coming from the other direction as the only person.
Iris Yim: I understand.
Jamin Brazil: Right? And that’s where I feel like there’s a conversation that I want to be able to have. How do I reference you, to you and there – but yet there’s this feel that holds me back of saying, dang, I don’t want to do it.
Iris Yim: I know that Asian American is the right word. Although for me, it’s Asian, it’s rather ironic because that there’s no Asian, there’s Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese but there’s no Asian. What do you mean by Asian anyway. So, took me a long time to embrace the term Asian American because I’m a US citizen but because of my upbringing, my experience I do not identify with the term Asian. Like I said, there’s no Asian and I was not born here so I’m not – before I became a US citizen I’m not an American. So, Asian American, for me, didn’t exist anyway.
Jamin Brazil: All right, last question, what is your personal motto?
Iris Yim: My personal motto is, live and learn. That’s why I love the market research profession and I learn about any product category new cultural insights from partnerships with clients, agencies, and other research companies and I always learn something new from each project.
Jamin Brazil: My guest today has been Iris Yim, principal and chief strategist at Sparkle Insights. Thank you Iris so much for joining me on the Happy Market Research podcast.
Iris Yim: Thank you Jamin. This has been fun.
Jamin: It has been a joy on my part too. I appreciate you going easy on me. Everybody else, I hope that you have a wonderful rest of your day. As always, share, tweet, LinkedIn. I love you, have a great rest of your day.