QRCA Research Korean Red Ginseng Style


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Article on qualitative research in Korea, Autumn issue of QRCA\'s \'Views\' magazine

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QRCA Research Korean Red Ginseng Style

  2. 2. • INTERNATIONAL RESEARCH • BY FRANK JELLINEK Synovate Korea • Seoul, South Korea • frank.jellinek@synovate.com AND JEEEUN SEO Synovate Korea • Seoul, South Korea 46 QRCA VIEWS FALL 2009 www.qrca.org
  3. 3. C O N T I N U E D Research, Korean Red Ginseng Style you think you know what research would There is a saying in Korea: If be like here in South Korea (e.g., at least all countries have some similarities), then you are right to a degree. However, I would “Yes means no, and yes means no again, and only the encourage you to think again. As always in life, the little things and under- lining meanings make all the difference. And this third time, does it mean yes.” is certainly the case on the Korean peninsula. We To the Western mind and have a saying here — “Yes means no, and yes means no again, and only the third time, does it culture, this makes no sense, mean yes.” To the Western mind and culture, this but to the Asian world, it makes no sense, but in this part of the world, it sums the culture up in one simple sentence. sums the culture up in one You may now wonder, if that is the case, how on earth can a Western company do any research here, simple sentence. let alone interpret and make sense of it? Well, as compiling the data. Seniority, hierarchy and a with martial arts, one element is the style, and the general shyness among focus group participants other is the secret in the technique. Most impor- become apparent, but there are unique ways of tantly of all, however, is the philosophy behind it all. breaking the ice. In Korea, the famed Korean red ginseng is very Some consider Korea to be a homogeneous important. Many shops are dedicated to this one society, with no room for personal expression and herb, with expert masters selling it and advising on individual freedom. On the surface, that might be its usage. To a Westerner, red ginseng is just an true. To a careful observer, however, Koreans can herbal remedy. To a Korean, it is a magical ingre- be as lively, forthcoming and caring as your best dient holding secret life energy that is capable of friend. Qualitative focus groups can be considered keeping the body and mind in balance, turning this a microcosm of this rather unique society, whose rather unusual-looking herb into a way of life. main population of around 12 million people lives in a comparatively small area of Seoul (South Impressions of Korean Research Culture Korea’s capital) and neighbouring Incheon. Trying to apply Western thinking to the Korean Most groups take place in the evenings, and research world is probably the most difficult the quite formal setting — boardroom-style round undertaking — and the biggest mistake — a table, writing pad and nametags — is softened by Westerner can do. Assuming that the Western way the moderators themselves. Personal introductions, is better and making no effort to understand the speaking about their personal lives and the offering Korean culture will quickly lead to a dead end. So of food and drinks suddenly turn the (to the much is so deeply ingrained in the Korean culture untrained eye) ubiquitous formality into an open that unwary Westerners will quickly find themselves and productive discussion. Even sensitive issues can exposed to the unwritten rules of a society that be discussed in depth, and the participants happily proudly looks back at a very long and eventful share their own experiences, knowing that they history. One example is that you always respect the have the mutual support of the group and that eldest or most senior person and ask for his or her there is a collective effort to “save face.” This is opinion first. By doing so, you give permission for where Korean society and Korean red ginseng go the others to speak and take part. hand in hand in a careful balance of Yin and Yang, Another concept, which is at the heart of Korean cementing together what belongs together for the society, is “the loss of face.” This is commonly greater good of the whole society or, in this case, unknown in the West, but what you should never the focus group. do is put anyone into a difficult situation or criticize Putting the research findings of those groups a person publicly and hence cause humiliation and together is, in comparison to the way Westerners embarrassment. That goes for personal life and collate data to provide insight, a different exer- especially in the business world. cise altogether. Again, the fine balance between This is where the Korean red ginseng and the providing clients with insight (regardless of balance (or the Yin and the Yang, as it is known whether the results are encouraging or not) and here) come into play. Disturbing this sensitive showing respect towards the client becomes very equilibrium — one that has been the cement of much apparent. Whereas clients in countries like this society for millennia — can cause unwanted the U.S. or in most parts of Europe consider a and unnecessary frustrations and dismay. 30-page PowerPoint presentation with a top line In qualitative research, this becomes very much of the key findings and action points suffi- apparent while conducting focus groups and when cient (providing they get the complete set of data Q U A L I TAT I V E R E S E A R C H C O N S U LTA N T S A S S O C I AT I O N 47
  4. 4. Research, Korean Red Ginseng Style C O N T I N U E D Several hours of presenting Korean household, so indispensable in Korean day-to-day life, and how can they become so big the client with a full report, and powerful in such short time? A simple answer would be nationalism and including detailed data, is pride. Whereas this might be true to a degree, as not uncommon. This is you dig deeper (with the desire to find the root cause of this behaviour), you will soon find out seen as a reassurance of it is the same collective adhesive that joined our the relationship between qualitative focus group together from earlier on. Did you know that Korea is one of the best- client and research agency. connected places on this planet? It has the highest broadband penetration per capita and one of the in a separate document), Korea has its own most advanced electronic systems in the world. For unique ways. example, the Korean government recently started Reports and presentations are very thorough. to back a scheme that allows any form of payment Several hours of presenting the client with a full — and I do mean any, from taxi fare to grocery report, including detailed data, is not uncommon. shopping to personal or business banking — to This is not to catch out the researcher but is seen as be made using one’s mobile phone. Not only does a reassurance of the relationship between client and Korea have probably the most advanced mobile- research agency. By observing the rules of Yin and phone system, but also it strives to constantly Yang, those relationships can last for years. do better in a variety of other fields. One of those fields is qualitative research. Holistically Connected Internet research or research using SMS (short We may all have heard about the technological message service) or MMS (multimedia messaging advances of Korea during the past two to three service) technologies are common, and research decades and those big conglomerates (or chaebol, agencies are constantly improving and fine-tuning as they are called here). But, how can corporations those techniques, which allow researchers to gauge with their brands become so omnipresent in every feedback even on highly sensitive issues from a wide
  5. 5. Did you know that Korea is one of the best- connected places on this planet? It has the highest broadband penetration per capita and one of the most advanced electronic systems in the world. range of respondents. With Korea (and particularly the capital of Seoul) being a truly 24/7 society, the respondent rates are phenomenal and speak for themselves. Offering a great opportunity to the Western qualitative researcher or Western company to get a foothold in this market, these technologies make Korea a unique test- ing ground for other qualitative techniques. Some of those techniques might still be in their infancy and relatively unexplored. However, the existing technical infrastructure and the openness of the Korean people to participate will make it an easy task to push those techniques further and further. Korea is a unique place to conduct research, not only because it offers a testing ground for new ideas but also because the insight the people provide (with their ability to think collectively with an unusually strong communal spirit) should be an inspiration. And using the power of the Korean red gin- seng and remembering the principles of Yin and Yang, the sky is the (research) limit.