A Comprehensive Guide to Market Research in Japan and China: 5 Proven Methods

Jul 6, 2023

From our experience as market researchers in Asia, Yuzu Kyodai has been testing different methods over the years in consumer research projects to refine those that work best with our consumers in Japan, China, and beyond. Today in this blog post, you will learn about the five proven methods we swear by when conducting market research around the world, and more specifically in Japan and China, and how to avoid common pitfalls. Let’s dive in!


1. Are Focus Groups Always Better Than 1-on-1 Interviews in Market Research?

When it comes to consumer interviews, we found out there is a huge gap between what works best in Western countries versus what works best in specific East Asian cultures. This is especially the case in Japan, a country where the concept of public vs. private persona is a commonly met pain point that can affect the relevancy of your consumer interviews.

Mistaking Japanese consumers’ public-persona words – called tatemae (in Japanese 建前 たてまえ), for their private-persona ones – or hon-ne (本音 ほんね), is a common pitfall when applying global methods to market research in Japan. The main issue here is that it prevents researchers from capturing the interviewee’s own genuine opinion in front of their peers, as by fear of being judged, they would rather express socially acceptable opinion than their real self. This is particularly true when talking about insecurities or personal issues that consumers are facing, as it is not a topic Japanese consumers would address confidently in front of a group of strangers. It’s not uncommon to witness diametrically opposite answers in two different settings from the same respondents.

In addition, Japanese people are not known for being talkative, which in a Focus Group context requires harder work by the moderator to get everyone’s opinion. As a result, one-on-one In-Depth-Interviews (IDIs) are most effective in Japan, making it much easier for moderators to assist respondents along the way by gently prodding and making them feel comfortable to say what they really think.

2. How to be Truly Consumer-centric in Market Research: In-home Interviews as the Gold Standard

Whenever possible in consumer-focused market research fieldwork, we want to observe people in the places they feel most at ease, their own houses. Therefore, in-home interviews are an effective observation method when developing a respondent profile.

Market researchers notice seemingly-trivial elements that often don’t seem noteworthy to respondents, such as what they have on their walls or on their shelves, how they decorate, what they put attention and/or effort – or not – into. Countless valuable clues market researchers would inevitably miss out if relying exclusively on other methods such as focus groups or one-on-one interviews over Zoom.

Arguably, in-home interviews are a more resource-intensive choice, and do limit the number of attendees to a handful to keep respondents comfortable in their home. Still, these mere inconveniences are largely outweighed by the rich additional layer of understanding in-home interviews provide to the research, as we are literally closely following consumers into their homes.

In the end, for the overwhelming majority of retail goods, the place where your product or service will ultimately be consumed is not in a shop or outside, but in their home. In addition, in particular for foreign entrants to the market, the sheer differences of how space is being utilised and how different people relate to their home compared to how many Europeans or Americans would relate to the home and use space, is often an eye-opener in itself for clients tagging along.

3. The Wrongly Underestimated yet Essential Tool of Market Researchers: A Good Discussion Guide

Now for consumer-facing interviews, paying attention to the quality of our basic tool – the discussion guide (also sometimes called interview guide) can make all the difference, even though writing a good interview discussion guide is a skill in and of itself.

Making sure you are in possession of a truly good discussion guide enables you two things: first, getting deeper insight; and second, making interview outcomes less dependent upon individual moderator skill. Better, you finally uncover patterns and behaviours, connections or disconnections that would otherwise remain unnoticed in your consumers’ subconscious. In fact, a good discussion guide also prepares and helps respondents answer increasingly detailed, deeper questions, while avoiding repetitions. We believe a good discussion guide is the key to making the overall fieldwork experience better for both researchers and respondents.

Because what makes a good discussion guide can differ from one respondent’s country/culture to another, having a locally experienced partner write a good discussion guide that is tailored to your project is the most optimal way to get all odds on your side and gather real insights from local consumers.

4. The Digital Spin Your Qualitative Market Research Deserves: Long-term Online Studies

In our ever-changing global context, having the latest, freshest insights is utterly crucial for effectively navigating your markets. Yet, organisational inertia is a real thing that can negatively affect the timely start of your consumer study and eventually missing out on trends or opportunities. This is where online studies (online diaries, online communities) become useful.

There are now a handful of online platforms for brands to conduct panels or long-term online studies. We like to use the LookLook® platform, as it skilfully supports many languages including Japanese and Chinese, but also because it boasts a quality built-in auto-translate tool for moderators and study observers. Long-term online studies allow us market researchers to detect shifts in respondents’ perceptions over time, and probe consumers on diverse topics – without it feeling like a hassle, while yielding swift results. For some time now we have been using this service with our own clients for long-term projects to hold monthly study discussions with consumers all over the world, including APAC countries such as China and Japan, providing businesses with local insights in a timely and continuous manner.

5. Analysing Consumers’ Frame of Reference: Semiotics for a Strong Base to Your Market Research

You have probably hardly heard of semiotics before, yet it might be just the solution to help your business.

We as humans navigate our world everyday based on the myriad of signs, i.e. words, concepts, images, ideas, that exist around us. We read, interpret, and shape our behaviours based on these signs without even noticing – it’s not too farfetched to say that this capacity is a kind of superpower.

Semiotics, the study of signs, closely observes the signs consumers come across in their daily lives. It is fair to say that semiotics is a lesser-known and widely underestimated part of market research, as trending research topics often revolve around big data, yet it is an extremely powerful tool for solving problems, understanding consumers, and analysing competition.

Doing semiotics is akin to archaeology, it is about uncovering existing pieces of meaning buried or forgotten (taken for granted) in our culture and subconscious. There is something truly thrilling when we uncover connections between concepts and behaviours and use these strong, meaningful foundational stones to build frameworks and strategies upon.

Semiotics is a great investment for your market research strategy because it focuses on culture and society where change does not happen overnight. Thus, a semiotics piece can stay relevant for many years and allow you to build your business or category challenges upon.

In Conclusion

These 5 proven methods constitute Yuzu Kyodai’s tried-and-true. We developed our expertise in these methods as they are the best options to deliver market insights rooted in culture. As semiotics specialists, we firmly believe that decisions on market research methods need to be intentional and thoughtful to be relevant, as the wrong fieldwork setup can make or break any study, and ultimately how useful the final output will be for your business.


If you would like to know how we can work together to help you understand your consumers better, feel free to contact us: hello@yuzukyodai.com

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