Market research in India is mostly fraud. There, I said it.

Market research in India is mostly fraud. There, I said it.

“I think I met you in the detergents group. I am heading to the biscuits group after lunch. Aren’t you coming too?” Loosely translated from the original Hindi, this was what I overheard a couple of ladies speaking to each other in the lobby of the Suba Galaxy hotel in Andheri East in Mumbai a couple of years ago.

They had just walked out of a focus group for financial services and were waiting to collect their ‘incentive’. These people are what is commonly known to insiders in the marketing field as “professional respondents” — people who earn a significant part of their living by participating in focus groups and depth interviews.

You can see this scene repeated in focus group venues across the country. So much so, that going to these groups gives you a feeling of déjà vu. “Haven’t I been here speaking to these same people, hearing the same things before?”

One classic tell for outing a professional respondent is their tendency to give you sound bites. They all talk about your category in metaphors, very poetically about products, ads, etc. If you happen to meet regular people who lead normal lives, for the most part, they are unaware, or not that deeply connected to the category in question. Because they are too busy with their morning commute, worrying about their kids, and the million other things that are more important to them than the client’s brand. But these professional respondents speak in metaphors like the talking heads who speak to Arnab Goswami or a Sean Hannity every night. When he lets them.

The problem of fake respondents is so endemic, that hotels like Suba Galaxy exist in every major Indian city, where the hotel’s primary source of income is in arranging these “focus groups”. These hotels now have a core competence in arranging the furniture to suit different types of groups, in multiple rooms simultaneously and arranging all the paraphernalia associated with it — respondents, food, CCTV, recordings, incentives, the works.

We used to wonder whether the clients who pay for this “research” knew about this horrendous state of affairs. As it turns out, not only do they know but also it is with their tacit approval that all this continues. And I am not talking about a specific client. All of them know. Whether they are in packaged goods, finance, automobiles, telecom, etc., they all know that focus groups in India have been corrupted by the presence of only fake respondents.

The reason is simple. Market research fees for recruiters in India are abysmally low when compared to western countries. But the salaries of the market researchers, the people who conduct the “interviews” and present the “findings” are in line with their peers in the client organizations. So how does one manage this discrepancy? Simple. You pay pittances to the external recruiters. And on top of that give them very little time to recruit and pull together these groups.

One recruiter we spoke to in Chennai said that he gets a hundred rupees per questionnaire completed for face-to-face quantitative surveys. At this abysmally low rate, how is he to make money to survive and feed his family? So he has innovated and has a bank of professional respondents who are “pre-qualified” and can answer questions on anything from nasal sprays to NASA. For our depth interviews, we told him we would pay him hugely over the normal rate, but we wanted honest respondents. He refused by saying that it would take a lot of effort now to find honest qualified folks. But at the same time, he could make a few phone calls and book respondents for groups for five different market research companies. So why bother looking for honest respondents. There was no money in honesty as far as he was concerned. Just pain.

The problem is the systemic infection of this fake respondent disease. Competition among market research companies ensures that the fake respondent companies will outbid any honest company that charges the true value of recruitment. So they have no incentive for doing it.

So while they use fake respondents, all market research firms claim that they manage their quality by doing quality checks and callbacks — QCs. We have done the quality checks on many of these market research companies. We sent people to physically track down where the respondents lived and most of them were untraceable.

Clients don’t take a stance against this fake recruitment cesspool because as many clients have told us now, they do these “market researches” only because they are mandatory in their marketing process. And frankly, they only want market research to rubber-stamp the choices they were going to make anyway. So why spend more money on honest research?

Market research works only if recruitment is accurate. If we are speaking to the same choir that is trading metaphors in every group like trained parrots, it may be time to kill this industry and start over. In the meanwhile, it may make more sense for marketers to start getting out and asking their friends and family for the opinions of their products and services. You’ll find more honesty there.

Nearly 20 years ago I was a young account executive in an ad agency in Mumbai and one of the clients was a businessman from Gujarat. He was evaluating the TV shows that the media plan was suggesting for the ad campaign. His way of media plan evaluation was simple. He called up his wife and asked her if she watched the show. If she didn’t then it was axed from the media plan.

At that time we agency guys sniggered at the lack of sophistication of the client. Now I realize that while it may have been intuitive, that man was a savant. Given that our TRP ratings come from these same market researchers and this industry, I think he was onto something far more honest and accurate in his decision-making.

An even better idea is to start investing in building relationships with your customers and building communities of genuine customers. But more about that in another post.

Navin Narayanan is a partner at Centre of Gravity. He leads HumanWorks, the school of Centre of Gravity where we teach the philosophy and method of Human-Centered Thinking and its allied skills.

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