The World: Insider's view - Russia

Market research in Russia is failing the big companies, Gene Zarkin writes, but it isn't just the fault of the agencies. Clients must accept some of the blame.

It is estimated that $150 million a year is wasted on market research in Russia. And when you take into account the high percentage of marketing failures, I suspect that figure is true. The reason for this is that focus groups are being used as key tools for making strategic decisions.

Their methods aren't scientific, and it's been shown that they don't lead to success in the mass market. No Russian companies are investing in research that's worth the money.

Research agencies are not adopting clear standards, which lead to results that can be used to build sales and services. And this goes back 20 years.

At that point Russia had no concept of advertising, so Western technologies were used to make up for this. Unfortunately, Russian marketing and ad specialists have not always adopted the best developments from Western cultures. Focus group technology, to which no mathematician would put their name, is often used by Russian companies.

The failures of market research are leading to brand blunders that even a child could avoid. A prime example concerns Russia's biggest mobile service provider, MST, whose rebranding was greeted with indignation and derision by subscribers.

For years, MST was the country's most popular service provider.

The company was particularly known for its long-running ad campaign that showed a silver mobile phone in a tuxedo pocket. The TV spot unambiguously expressed the provider's leading position.

Suddenly, MST decided to change its image. It chose an ordinary white egg to be its new symbol; and the new campaign caused mass public bewilderment. It's still not clear why the company decided to change. This would not have happened had the new advertising been tested.

Every so often Russian marketing specialists will claim their surveys haven't worked. But a closer look will uncover flagrant mistakes in the process of qualitative research.

Often the technology is wrong. Just one mistake made in the technology cycle can cost you success. Research should not end with vague recommendations, but with a well-grounded positioning.

Also, the situation is not helped by the fact that Russian clients don't often permit agencies to finish the marketing cycle. After getting the agency's recommendations, they may assign the development of the advertising to somebody else.

This isn't just related to branding. It's common in other spheres of the Russian market, and to all the post-Soviet countries, where debate over the need for research continues.

It doesn't make sense. It's impossible to market with a high level of professionalism without real communication with customers. Unfortunately, this is still far from the case in today's Russia.

- Gene Zarkin is the founder of Zarkin & Partners Brand Consultancy in St Petersburg.

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