I have written previously about the power of context: thinking outside the survey beyond the survey and how single studies produce data, not insights. I want to follow that up with a story about a great paper I saw presented at the 2017 ESOMAR Congress. It’s a wonderful example of how sometimes you can obtain great insights without even doing a survey. In fact, doing a survey probably would have led the team to only dwell on what is instead of plan for what could be.
Ritanbara Mundrey, Head of Consumer and Customer Insights at Nestlé India, delivered a paper at the conference that beautifully illustrates what she, in her subtitle, calls “the power of cross pollination.” She presented a story about coffee in India. Coffee consumption in that country is extremely low compared to the consumption of tea with only a 0.003% share of the combined tea and coffee market. But Nescafé has an almost 90% market share in coffee, so they wanted to grow category consumption.
“In a market where in-home coffee consumption is still occasional,” she says, “cafés are contesting Nescafé’s leadership and redefining coffee for the emerging consumer.” The burning question is: “What could Nescafé do to uphold its position as the coffee expert?”
Using cultural framing to rethink research
The standard approach would be to run another wave of their usage and attitude tracking, and look at drivers and barriers to consumption. While that would provide a good understanding of the current market, she realized it would not help her learn “how to shake the status quo.” She decided to explore three questions:
- What can be learned from tea consumption in other tea-drinking nations?
- Why is tea consumption so high in India?
- What can be learned from other categories with similar challenges?
They identified the UK and Japan as useful comparators because they were strong tea drinking cultures where coffee consumption had increased. They explored coffee’s historical evolution, how it was advertised, and current consumption metrics and trends.
What they found is that the cultural movements of WWII made all the difference. American soldiers in the UK had coffee in their rations, and that sparked growth in a moribund market. In Japan, the post-war wave of Americanism swept in coffee—along with many other aspects of American life.
They also discovered that coffee in those markets had found a way to co-exist with, rather than displace, tea. It was not being sold in a niche. Its usage occasions were diverse: “Morning start, social connections, mid-day recharge.”
Understanding cultural context helps Nestlé shift opinions
In seeking to understand why tea was so strong in India, they looked at its history. They were shocked to find that, while India had a long history as a tea exporter, widespread domestic consumption was relatively recent. Fifty years back, tea was considered elitist and expensive. People didn’t know how to make it; they thought it was a health hazard, and adoption was slow. That’s exactly the image coffee still has in India today. What changed everything for tea was widespread advertising and sampling, a decrease in cost, a dispelling of myths, and very strong and specific positioning.
Mundrey sought to learn from the lessons of another category. She picked chocolate. It competes against Indian sweetmeats (mithai) and, like coffee, is led by a dominant brand and has struggled to get much use. In this situation they employed a semiotic approach, decoding mithai’s cultural role in Indian life. They found: “In India, sweetmeats are more than just pleasure. Sweetmeats and their associated occasions range from offerings to Gods at temples, to the symbolic desire and blessing for good times ahead, to communal celebrations like a wedding or a festival. These are far removed from the individual, hedonistic, lustful code of chocolates in the west.” Chocolate makers radically changed its positioning by adopting the codes of mithai in its advertising and gained considerable share.
She concludes, “Employing such an approach took us beyond the conventional research outputs of a need state analysis. At the same time, a studied review also avoided the pitfalls of opinion-led decision making, leaving the facts to speak for themselves. It helped us understand how tea and coffee coexist – what are the routes available to coffee. That tea drinking was of recent origin and addressing barriers and growing familiarity were key to consumption. And lastly it highlighted the need for an India-specific, culturally relevant discourse.”
Think big to get the answers that matter
For me, this paper is an outstanding example of embracing the power of historical information, cross cultural comparisons and semiotic analysis. Using these methods, she was able to step back and identify real opportunities to completely change the market for coffee in India. That’s thinking outside the survey!