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Sounding Off: Johnston, Perez-Korinko “Managing Cultural Barrier in Latino Consumer Research”

Even when both researchers and respondents speak the same language and are from the same Latino culture, communication can become garbled in either direction. That is, respondents misunderstand the questions or researchers misunderstand the answers, now, throw in a language/cultural barrier


Even when both researchers and respondents speak the same language and are from the same Latino culture, communication can become garbled in either direction. That is, respondents misunderstand the questions or researchers misunderstand the answers, now, throw in a language/cultural barrier, and the chances of misinformation expand dramatically. Being this the case, how do we manage the risk of misinformation? Just combine professional expertise. That’s right! Make sure that when you are selecting your next research agency, the team is structured by an insider (native) and an outsider (non-native).

There are significant advantages to being an outsider looking in, first and foremost being that your perspective is fresh and everything is potentially new. When a brand begins ethnographic research it is a good idea to consider looking for a research provider that consists of a team with both an insider and someone outside the culture rather than assuming a “native” knows best.  Membership in a cultural milieu does not constitute training in research, and indeed, it isn’t even necessarily expertise. 

This isn’t to say that members of a culture make poor research resources. Indeed, building rapport is often easier and there is a wealth of knowledge carried in the minds of natives. It is to simply note that the outside perspectives often lead to insights that are extremely powerful because these perspectives are detached and genuinely exploratory. When immersed in our own cultural milieu it is easy to take for granted those things that are simply part of our everyday lives but of rich, powerful meaning. It would be like asking a fish to explain water – it is such a pervasive part of the animal’s life that it would be inclined to dismiss the question, but without that water the fish would die. 

But there is a solution to conducting research in the Latino market that allows a company to harvest the most insights in the least amount of time. It need not be an either or solution. Rather, the research team can and should be a bridge between cultures and perspectives, relying on a co-created implementation of research design, fieldwork and harvesting of insights.  Co-creation is the best option, allowing the research team to draw on the anthropological training of a seasoned ethnographer who is outside the cultural structure of the population being investigated and the cultural knowledge of a native with a rich, personal understanding of the population.

Looking at the research team, there are several advantages for the “native” researcher. First, there is a deep, internalized cultural knowledge which leads to increased speed in navigating the cultural setting. The researcher is able to avoid mistakes and grasp the culturally relevant elements of the project. This means that time simply getting up to speed on the basics can be avoided and the researcher isolates those elements most crucial to the business needs of the client. The downside is, as mentioned, that some elements may be overlooked simply because they are so completely internalized that the researcher ignores them or filters them through their specific cultural lens, ignoring or disregarding an analytical perspective that an outsider might bring. This, of course is mitigated by the non-native researcher, for whom everything is new and therefore a point of learning. Non-natives see things that natives might overlook, taking nothing for granted. It is the eye of a child as he or she explores a new world, which means that the non-native sees connections that others would miss. Working together, the insights are richer and more meaningful.

Second, native researchers are frequently able to establish rapport with participants quickly because 1) they are already familiar with customs of interpersonal interactions 2) there is a shared sense of identity and 3) understand the intricacies of the Spanish language from one culture to another. This is particularly important when dealing with populations that have been in any way disenfranchised by the larger population. Any sense of threat is mitigated and the native researcher helps smooth the way for the non-native. For the non-native, a different kind of rapport develops that a native, as a member of the culture being studied, can’t achieve. Namely, the non-native becomes the student. People have an inherent need to teach and guide others. Pride in one’s culture and the need to establish cross-cultural bonds of understanding drive participants to take non-natives under their wings and guide them, providing deep insights along the way. The result is that more information, often rich in significance, is uncovered.

Finally, there is the issue of translating what it is the research team finds. We translate culture and behavior into business applications. The goal is to help our clients develop better products and services that will meet the needs of a range of audiences. The nature of fieldwork is such that it produces vast amounts of information that can be unwieldy at times, all of which requires translation into something the client can understand. Collaboration between a native and non-native in the analysis and reporting phase leads to language and insights that more accurately reflect what was seen in the field, filtering out the “noise” and providing materials the client can truly understand. The combined perspectives of the researchers ensure that the findings are both accurate and understandable by all members of the client’s organization, whether they are natives of a culture or not. It ensures that misinterpretations do not occur and that insights find their way to implementation.

When all is said and done, it is wise for a company to look for a research team that takes nothing for granted. Exploratory field research yields the best results when there is a mix of cultural identities from which to draw. Uncovering cultural patterns is a messy, difficult process and every element of a research plan should account for processes that will streamline the data acquisition, analysis, and presentation processes. Relying on a multi-cultural team in the field does just that.

Gavin Johnston is Chief Anthropologist for Two West. With over fifteen years experience in the US and internationally and advanced degrees in cultural anthropology and HCI. Gavin has conducted research for a broad range of clients including American Funds, Chrysler, BBDO, GSK, Kimberly-Clark,, Miller Brewing, H&R Block, Thomson Consumer Electronics, and Sprint to name a few.

Claudio Perez-Korinko, President Latino Consumer Insight at IM International Marketing, LLC. Claudio is an accomplished researcher with two decades of experience in Latin American and Hispanic consumer research.Claudio is recognized for his innovative approaches to insight discovery and he is a public speaker and writer, a university adjunct instructor in international marketing and author of “Brand Latinization®.” Claudio earned a BA and a MA Degree from Baker University.

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