When you started working in market research in Vietnam, what was the state of the industry here?
In 1994 it was all very basic. Although the lead companies could offer the usual qualitative and quantitative approaches, the level of strategic insight was not very good.
Looking back, our work was not great — but clients were typically starting from a very low level of knowledge about their customers, so even a fairly basic level of insight was appreciated.
What kind of projects did you work on? How interesting was it researching a new market?
Market research generally is fascinating. Even a category that seems quite mundane can lead to amazing discussions. For example, a project on something as everyday as washing powder; you start by talking about blue speckles in washing powder and end up exploring really fascinating topics as to what it means to be a Vietnamese woman in their role in family and society.
Some of my favourite FMCG work was in alcohol. The beer and spirit companies were some of our big clients and I spent many an evening in bia hoi bars around the country drinking and chatting to men in the name of ethnography.
At the time, what difficulties did you have getting people to respond to surveys?
In the early days, we had excellent response rates. People were more likely to be at home for face-to-face interviews and open to take part. This has changed as response rates have dropped significantly.
Vietnam needs to get up to speed with what is happening in the rest of the world in terms of data collection. Surveys are still way too long and are delivered in ways that are just not convenient or interesting.
How easy or difficult was it to get local firms to understand the benefits of market research?
Many companies saw research as a cost rather than an investment. This still remains a key challenge not only in local but also many global companies here.
The research industry is partly at fault. Too much research is still focussed on describing behaviour and attitudes rather than telling our clients how to influence it.
What led you to shift your work focus towards healthcare?
When I started my business in Australia 10 years ago, the focus on healthcare was partly a business decision and partly based out of personal interest. We felt that there were not many research companies that really understood the healthcare business and saw this as a far less competitive space. I think this is even truer in Asia, and we are very optimistic about what we can do in this part of the world.
How different was working in Australia to working in Vietnam?
The big difference is the relationship you have with a client. Most of our clients in Australia are global health science companies and typically making multi-million dollar decisions based on the behavioural insights we deliver. They respect us and we respect them and we really feel a trusted partner.
In Vietnam, clients can be quite prescriptive in the type of research they want to do rather than sharing what the business problem actually is.
What made you decide to come back?
Much as I love my adopted home of Australia, Vietnam remains one of the most exciting places I have ever lived and worked in. There are few places in the world with the same amount of energy. Even though I was away for 12 years, I always felt I would be back here at some point. I see massive potential here in terms of not only the market but also the talent.
In terms of your industry, how much has Vietnam changed?
One of the sad things about coming back is how little has changed. The market research industry globally is undergoing massive shifts in developing not only better methods but also better models of understanding human behaviour. Little of this is being applied here in Vietnam.
With so many firms now in the industry, how difficult is it to survive in market research in Vietnam?
The market research industry has got itself into a dead-end. Too much focus on simply describing rather than understanding and influencing means as an industry we are not seen to add much value. Therefore, market research inevitably gets treated as a commodity. Because we are seen as a commodity we get beaten up on pricing.
What key insights are you able to give into this country’s present state of healthcare?
As a healthcare marketer in Vietnam there are considerable challenges around cheaper generics and parallel imports. However, there is still scope for adding value in the face of similar and often cheaper products. The healthcare market in Vietnam is highly fragmented and we are finding that business opportunities are often in specific niches; a particular clinician personality and/ or patient profile. Meaningful segmentation is going to be critical to identify where you can win and where you cannot.
Dr. Neil Doyle PhD works for DeltaMV. For more info click on deltamv.com
Photo by Mike Palumbo