OPINION14 November 2018

Data from the front line – research in Vietnam

Asia Pacific Opinion Trends

Vietnam exemplifies the importance of cultural context in research, as there are clear differences between the north and south of the country that researchers must bear in mind, says Greg Clayton.

Vietnam rice fields_crop

With a rich and complex history, Vietnam is a fascinating market for conducting research. Vietnamese culture has been influenced by a thousand years of Chinese rule, French colonisation, a Communist regime and traumatic events such as the Vietnam war.

These influences have created a strong distinction between the north and south of the country, a distinction that is further exaggerated by its physical geography – Vietnam is very long and very thin, 1,650 kilometres long and just 50 kilometres wide at its thinnest point, meaning it’s far easier to get from east to west than north to south. Those looking to gain insight into Vietnamese customers need to be conscious of how this divide impacts data collection. Even within the same country, cultural context is key.

It is essential that researchers collect data in both the north and south to provide clients with a full picture of Vietnamese customers’ needs. Because of the proximity of the shared border, consumers in northern Vietnam are influenced by China, rather than the French colonialism in the south, and consequently share many characteristics with Chinese consumers.

As a result, they tend to be more materialistic and aspirational than consumers in the south and often see research as an opportunity to show off their possessions and wealth. Consumers often project the life they want to lead to their interviewer, so researchers should be aware that although a respondent might look like they can afford a Porsche, and might even say they can afford a Porsche, the reality is that they often can’t.

There are also differences in how consumers in the north and south respond to surveys. Southern consumers tend to be highly pragmatic when it comes to products, brands and services. They care mostly about the practical considerations of what a product can do for them, rather than how a product makes them feel. When completing face-to-face interviews in southern Vietnam, it is good to keep the questions easy. Consumers’ answering styles are generally straightforward and simple and consumers can be put off by questions that may be considered to require a lengthy response.

On the other hand, consumers in the north engage with surveys and interviews in more depth. They tend to evaluate concepts and pay attention to detail in a way that southerners don’t, looking past just the practical side of a product and instead engaging with tactile, emotional dimensions of products, services and brands.

Because education levels are often better in the north, responses are generally more carefully considered, although responses are often vague because respondents like to talk about the general topic, rather than answer a specific question. This has led to respondents’ answering styles being associated with those of politicians in the region (the north is the political hub). It can therefore take time to acquire the specific data that is needed, but the data is generally better quality once it has been collected.  

There are also differences in preference between the two areas. Southerners are generally easier to please – if northerners like a product, brand or service, southerners probably will too. But, when southerners like something, it’s quite probable that northerners won’t. So, it’s crucial that brands really understand the likes and dislikes of the different regions and don’t just take a ‘one size fits all’ approach to their marketing. Researchers have a great opportunity to help companies tailor their approaches to these different tastes by voicing the needs of the consumer.

Vietnam provides a great reminder of just how important cultural context is to research. Even within a single market, there are different nuances to data collection in different areas and researchers must bear these in mind to gain accurate, actionable insights.

Researchers who don’t recognise the cultural differences between the northern and southern areas of Vietnam will not only find collecting data more difficult, but may mislead their clients into providing products and services that do not meet people’s needs.

Greg Clayton is managing director of Kadence International