OPINION9 May 2018

Data from the front line – research in the Philippines

Asia Pacific News Trends

Western researchers in the Philippines need to be mindful of cultural differences, including the Filipino tendency to express feelings indirectly and downplay negative reactions, says Greg Clayton.


Over in the UK it might seem that the Philippines is a bit ‘wild’. Much of what is reported concerns the incredibly questionable human rights record of President Rodrigo Duterte, particularly his recent war on drugs. However, that’s a very skewed perception; the Philippines is a country of growth and opportunity. It is the world’s 12th most populous country, and 10th fastest growing economy, according to the World Bank, so represents an interesting prospect for global brands.

My connection with the Philippines is a little deeper than purely commercial. Little did I anticipate that 16 years after my first trip to the Philippines I would be married to a Pinoy (admittedly born and raised in the UK), and that together we’d have brought three children into the world whose genetic heritage is exactly 50% from at least some of the 7,641 islands that make up the Philippines.

Consequently, began my deep interest in the country, and the desire to be at least moderately conversant in the historical and current issues facing it – and particularly their impact on my chosen profession, insight and data. Such a rich and unique confluence of historical factors has shaped the Philippines, and it’s quite remarkable how they have in turn impacted the insight industry.

One of the most well-documented phenomena around Filipino research is their desire to please, which can cause problems for both quantitative and qualitative research. For example, rating questions regularly witness highly skewed positive distribution, where a 10 represents what other countries would view as a seven to 10, while a nine represents anything lower than a seven. So, what are the cultural factors that lead to this desire to please?

My colleagues in the Philippines have attributed this desire to an attitude of ‘colonial subservience’, mixed with a large slice of Catholic guilt, and this dual historical heritage manifests itself in many different ways.

When it comes to in-depth qualitative interviews or focus group discussions, it’s vital you are working with local moderators. The need from participants to save face and project a good Catholic image means that moderators need to dig deeper to find the real insights. Clients often don’t understand the need for a local translator (given that Filipinos speak English), but the Filipino tendency to express feelings indirectly, downplaying negative emotions or reactions means that the translator has an unconventional role in conveying this nuance.

Cultural factors around trust and understanding also play a huge role in data collection in the Philippines. Internet crime is a huge concern in the region, so online surveys can be very limited, with high incidence rates. What’s more, Filipinos rarely want to be interviewed on the phone, unless someone has personally vouched for them, so it’s more common to see street intercepts, but even those are fraught with difficulty.

Local scepticism (grounded in harsh experience) around pyramid schemes and a lack of awareness of the research industry stifle much goodwill with participants. At the same time, Filipinos are very open by nature, so the concept of being incentivised to provide information about their lives and behaviours is a rather abstract concept; it doesn’t quite scan and it breeds cynicism.

So how can researchers make these street intercepts work? Fieldwork teams need to be dressed smartly to highlight credibility and professionalism. Participants need time to assess whether you are a threat or not. And the researcher needs to be very cool, because if you run after people, they are only going to run faster! On the other hand, once credibility has been established, and other people are participating (and not getting scammed), then there becomes a herd mentality and you will have your hands full with participants volunteering.

One of the more surprising societal traits in the region that affects fieldwork is the structure of family. In many European Catholic countries, the religion acts as a way of establishing a very traditionally structured family unit. However, in the Philippines, where divorce is illegal, you’ll find a lot of separations (without divorce) and far more common-law spouses (live-in-relationships) than you might expect. This means a lot of children are born outside of wedlock, which leads to very different family structures, where ‘broken’ families are very common. However, unlike some regions in the west, there is no stigma surrounding this at all. The Philippines has quite a progressive attitude towards family structures.

But it’s not all challenges; there’s light at the end of the tunnel. The Philippines is the Facebook capital of the world, so social media research in region is vital and works well. And from a Western brand perspective, the colonial mentality impacts massively on product preferences. Foreign is usually perceived as better than local, and historically Western products do well in the region.

Cultural understanding is central to the selection and deployment of appropriate data collection techniques in any market. Specific to the Philippines, the rich colonial, religious and cultural heritage combined with a sometimes-progressive contemporary push toward modernisation throws up unique challenges for research. However, for brands cracking the Philippines, it can potentially be extremely lucrative. 

Greg Clayton is managing director at Kadence International (UK and Europe)