TOKYO —No company is going to succeed in Japan unless they research the market. But the market research industry has undergone many changes in the last 7-8 years. Despite its outward modernity, Japan remains, in so many ways, a country of masks. Market research company Carter Associates “unmasks” Japan for its clients.
Founded by Australian Dominic Carter in 2004, the company provides the full spectrum of market research services, from group discussions, depth interviews, ethnographic/observational exercises and quantitative surveys to customized data collection methodologies and techniques such as Ameritest to research the likely consumer response and to make appropriate adjustments to advertising before it is placed in the market.
Japan Today editor Chris Betros visits Carter at his office in Kita-Aoyama to hear more.
What is your background?
I’m from Australia and I came here in 1999 to set up a Japan office for a British market research company. I did that for 4 years. I returned to Australia for about six months, but then realized my opportunities were back in Japan, so I came back set up my own business.
How was it at first?
Fortunately, we had some supportive clients. In fact, at first, we had more work than we could handle.
Did the Lehman Shock in 2008 affect business much?
Prior to that, we were having a mini-boom, but after the Lehman Shock, we lost a lot of ad-hoc business. However, the strength of our existing relationships got us through that.
What about the March 11 disaster?
Our biggest client is in Osaka, so we were lucky that the earthquake didn’t affect us too much. A lot of our business is based on long-term contracts and repeat clients, so we haven’t been too badly affected.
What services do you offer?
We specialize in continuous tracking research, but we carry out all types of market research projects. We also do advertising testing and use a methodology that we license from the U.S., called Ameritest. That’s a very interesting methodology which speaks to the unconscious process of advertising. It allows us to assess television and print advertising campaigns for their ability to provoke and persuade their audience.
How does market research differ in Japan from overseas?
In Japan, there is not the same value placed on insight generation that there is in, say, Australia. The idea that the market research supplier is being paid to generate insights is not something you see a lot of in Japan, but it is something that clients in Australia demand. They expect researchers to be creative, think out of the box. In Japan, while there isn’t a total absence of that, Japanese clients tend to focus more on the precision of the process and the results. In your analysis and recommendations, they like you to stick to what is clearly seen to be a result of the process.
Japanese clients are less open to receiving advice than their Western counterparts. They tend to want to have more control over the market research process. Japanese companies do surveys and questionnaires but they don’t make important business decisions just on the basis of a survey. But I have seen many Western clients make very important decisions based largely on survey results
Who are your clients?
We work primarily with foreign companies. Some are looking to come into the Japanese market for the first time. Others are long-time clients with whom we do a lot of repeat business. For example, our biggest client is a theme park called Universal Studios in Osaka. For them, we do research 365 days a year. We have interviewers there every day asking a range of questions.
What trends are happening in the world of market research?
The industry has been going through quite a few changes in the last 7-8 years. The Internet has become a lot more important as a data-gathering methodology.
Last year in a JV with an Australian company, we launched a software company called Potentiate that. Potentiate provides market research software that facilitates the collection, analysis and communication of consumer feedback. This enables clients to take control of their surveys, carry out unlimited analysis and disseminate the findings throughout the organization. We also offer a monitoring tool to let clients know what their targeted buyers are doing in social media and who is influencing them. On that side of the business, we work with advertising agencies and end clients and I see a lot of growth there.
One of the hottest challenges in market research currently has nothing to do with traditional surveys and focus groups: Namely what passive measurement methodologies can we develop to allow us to analyze unstructured consumer feedback? For example, how do I turn something that is just a company feedback page into something that gives me some measurable results that I can actually make a decision on? On a wider level, we are very interested to know what we can mine from conversations and postings on the Internet to give us an idea of the emerging needs, attitudes and likely behavior of the market. That’s one of the areas where market research still has a lot of new methodologies to develop.
How do clients act on your research results?
Often, there is a process of adaptation and adjustment that companies need to make to succeed in Japan, and research can really help guide that. Sometimes, foreign companies are not prepared to do that. It depends on the client. Some clients like to test their assumptions. Some are inherently curious. A lot feel passionate about their strategy and don’t want to have research slow them down or contradict some of their ideas. If you build up a level of trust, then the results of the client’s research are more likely to be followed, always to their own benefit. The ideal engagement we have with a client is like a journey that we take together.
How do you market your company?
We have advertised a little bit and I created a video series last year that is online. But in the end, it’s your reputation that brings you the business. A new client may be referred to us by someone they know and trust.
Tell us about your team.
We have a very talented and efficient team that can handle quite a lot of work. Here in Tokyo, there are five of us and soon we hope to add another three. We’ve got 10 in Osaka.
What sort of people do you need?
We need energetic people who will do whatever it takes to get the job done. We always have deadlines and clients stretch us in terms of what we can deliver. It helps to be curious, because caring about the results of our work helps us to be that little bit more passionate.
Are you a hands-on boss?
No, I like to delegate. I believe in hiring good people and letting those people take responsibility. Nobody can grow personally or professionally unless they have experienced responsibility, even if that means making mistakes – which happens very rarely, I am pleased to say.
What is a typical day for you?
I come here about 10 but I do some work from home before. I tend to focus on developing our new businesses, building relationships with companies outside Japan, setting up deals and guiding the software business. I still do some market research and enjoy it. I go home between 6 and 7. I also don’t believe in having lunch at your desk and try to avoid working on weekends.
What are your hobbies?
I’m a serious foodie and I write a food blog. I’ve been doing it for 3-4 years and a lot of people have come to know me through it.
(Original Interview: Japan Today)