Qualitative research gives us several other interesting methods of understanding rural behav­iour, which can be used in participatory approaches or as part of interview techniques. Sometimes these methods are also used as standalone exercises. Rural consumers must be understood in the context of their behaviour, beliefs, opinions, emotions, culture and relationships. These are very difficult to uncover with the help of only traditional, urban-based market research techniques.

Qualitative methods help in identifying intangible factors, such as social norms, socio­economic status, gender roles, ethnicity and religion, and community roles, which play a very important role in rural areas. These methods, thus, are especially effective in obtaining culturally specific information about the values, opinions, behaviours and social contexts of rural people.

Such techniques include narratology, storytelling, classical ethnography, projective tech­niques and metaphor analysis. The basic advantage of these methods is that they study consumer behaviour as it occurs naturally and villagers in their own settings. No attempt is made to manipulate the situation.

They help in getting a holistic perspective, rather than looking at a set of variables and help to discover underlying causes. Companies looking to develop new products or modify products for rural areas will find such techniques especially useful. Such techniques also help in discovering hidden needs which lead to making products that can be successful in rural markets.

Method # 1. Hidden Need Analysis:

Goffin, Lemke and Koners (2011), in their book Identifying Hidden Needs, describe methods to find out about consumer needs that may not be stated or described. The authors write that companies using traditional market research often end up developing incremental, me-too products. This, however, does not work in rural areas. Companies therefore have to use sophisticated methods from psychology and anthropology to uncover customers’ hidden needs, needs that they are unable to articulate or have not even recognized themselves.

To achieve this, direct questions are not adequate to interview villagers. This is because, when direct questions are asked, they speak within their own area of experience and are unable to relate to new products. For instance, while motivating rural children for washing hands, Gupta and Kumar (2015) describe that people thought that merely washing hands with water or mud was enough and there was no need for using soap.

An approach of fighting disease was more suitable to inculcate better hygiene habits among them. Thus, it is important to use alternative methods to discover hidden needs rather than use traditional market research methods and direct questions.

The methods used in hidden needs analysis are repertory grid analysis and lead user groups. Together with participatory research, these techniques are very effective at uncovering cus­tomers’ hidden needs. However, organizational barriers need to be overcome if new meth­ods of market research are to be adopted, because managers are mostly trained in traditional research methods and are reluctant to adopt hidden needs approaches.

Method # 2. Repertory Grid Analysis:

Repertory grid analysis is an instrument that helps to describe how people give meaning to their experiences. It helps to decipher mental maps that people form of themselves with respect to their surroundings and experiences. It is in this personal construct that an indi­vidual lives and makes sense of one’s existence.

The repertory grid explores these personal constructs and attempts to see other peoples’ world as they see it. Based on George Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory, it consists of making a grid or matrix regarding people’s percep­tions. The method is particularly useful in rural marketing, as it helps find out the beliefs and attitudes of the rural consumer.

The repertory grid method consists of a semi-structured interview in which the respondent is given a triad of elements and is then asked to specify an important way in which two of the elements are alike and different from the third, which are called constructs. Often surprising results are obtained, that is, something that the researcher did not expect, which is the point of the exercise. On discovering the constructs, the participant names its polar opposites and is asked to rate them on a scale. Then, the interviewer moves on to the next triad of options. Typically, these steps are repeated until the respondent mentions no new constructs anymore.

The key is to elicit as many constructs as possible, without any suggestions from the researcher.

The method uses indirect questions and stimulates users to compare and contrast their experiences of existing products. This technique is ideal for developing new product ideas or for modifying products for rural areas.

Method # 3. Lead Users:

Lead users are large users whose present strong needs become general in a marketplace in the future. Such customers use products under demanding conditions, such as rural areas with­out stable electric power. Lead users can serve as a need-forecasting laboratory for marketing research. For example, by studying needs of lead users for medical machines, General Electric invented portable machines for rural areas with a battery that could sustain long hours with­out recharge.

The lead user process can be used through a four-step process:

i. Identify an important market or technical trend.

ii. Identify lead users who lead that trend in terms of experience or usage.

iii. Analyze lead user need data.

iv. Project lead user data onto the general market.

Method # 4. Observational or Ethnographic Research:

Ethnographic research, that is, of observing rural people in their own environment, offers insights as to how rural people use products. Anderson (2009) writes that ethnographic research is “central to gaining a full understanding of your customers and the business itself.” It consists of simply watching people as they go about their lives, their response to or adver­tisements, using products, and so on. It is based on the assumption – “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

Defined as “systematic market research observing customers in their own environment using products and services,” it gives valuable insights about how people regard products. Anderson explains (2009) –

“Unlike traditional market researchers, who ask specific, highly practical questions, anthropological researchers visit consumers in their homes or offices to observe and listen in a non-directed way while this observational method may appear inefficient, it enlightens us about the context in which customers would use a new product and the meaning that product might hold in their lives.”

Ethnographic research is very useful in villages, where an insight into people’s lives will show what kind of products they need. For instance, many villages do not have piped water supply and villagers depend on hand-pumps or fetch it over large distances from a water source. Such water may not be clean and this gives the opportunity to develop a low-cost water purifier that does not need either piped supply or electricity.

Products such as Tata Swach and HUL’s Pureit fill an important need in villages. CavinKare was also able to develop breakthrough packaging by observing that rural customers wanted small amounts of products such as shampoo and powder and do not like to invest in a big pack.

It follows a ‘fly on the wall’ approach. Through observation, companies learn about the problems faced by rural people and the context in which customers use products. It thus helps to spot opportunities for breakthrough innovations. Systematic observation allows market researchers to understand the role products play in people’s lives. It is a non-intrusive method that does not depend on judgement of the consumers, and is therefore unbiased.

The key methods of ethnographic market research are:

1. Visits to Villages:

The researcher visits customers in their homes and collects qualita­tive data, such as videos of product usage and contextual interviews. Some prepared and some spontaneous questions may be asked. The researcher looks for contradictions in buyer behaviour, identifies the cultural characteristics of the customer and observes cus­tomers as they use products, which helps in discovering customer problems and needs.

2. Audio/Visual Recordings:

The researcher can use recordings, if allowed by the vil­lage community. For instance, if consumers keep good care of a product or display it prominently in their home, it means that companies can associate a status with it.

3. Product and Consumer Photos:

Sometimes the researcher can take photographs dis­creetly, for example, having a camera during a demo organized in a village. Photographs can show whether consumers are stimulated. For example, close-up pictures of consum­ers’ eyes show the size of their iris, which expands involuntarily when stimulated.

4. Product Demos:

The effect of product demos and BTL techniques on consumers can be seen in videos and photographs, which can also show whether the consumer was stimulated or bored.

Ethnographic research is fast gaining popularity in consumer research. However, although it is the only technique that really allows companies to really know their customers, it is labor-intensive and expensive. Another problem is that if the researcher is not experienced, certain important cultural behaviours can be overlooked. Furthermore, it involves getting the trust of the villagers, otherwise they will hesitate to let anyone take pictures.

Some other qualitative research methods are described below:

i. Depth Interviews:

An open-ended, detailed conversation with an individual conducted by a trained researcher is called a depth interview. The idea is to deeply explore the respondent’s point of view, feel­ings, attitudes or perspectives. Such interviews are wide ranging, probing issues in detail. They are semi-structured as they do not have a set of predetermined questions.

Instead, people are encouraged to speak and express their views about products at length. Depth interviews help to understand individual motivations about products and brands. However, they are time consuming and responses can sometimes be difficult to interpret. Further, it requires skilled researchers as interviewer bias may creep in.

ii. Laddering:

Laddering is an interview technique in which the interviewer probes step by step or ‘peels the layers’ of the participant’s experience by asking probing questions to discover people’s core values and beliefs. It is used in marketing to describe the link between customers’ values and their purchasing behaviour.

The laddering process uncovers the hierarchy of consumer perceptions and product knowledge from the following:

a. Attributes (A).

b. Consequences (C).

c. Values (V).

a. Attributes:

Individuals recognize the attributes of a product easily. For example, a consumer may say, “I like this tractor, because it has a powerful engine.”

b. Consequences:

Each attribute has consequences for the individual. In our tractor example, it may make its driver feel strong and powerful. There may be several conse­quences for each attribute.

c. Values:

Each consequence is linked to a core value of the person’s life. For example, the powerful tractor makes that driver feel attractive.

These three form a chain, or ladder, that connects a product attribute to a core value. Ladders result in forming a Hierarchical Value Map that illustrates all the linkages between customers’ values and their purchasing behaviour. Product attributes are means through which consumers achieve their ultimate values. We see that products are not chosen and purchased for them­selves or their characteristics, but rather for the meaning they form in the minds of people.

iii. Focus Groups:

Focus groups are very useful in rural marketing research. In this, a group of about 8-12 people is formed and are asked by a moderator about their perceptions, opinions, beliefs and atti­tudes towards a product. The interview is conducted in an informal manner where respond­ents are free to give views from any aspect. Focus groups are used in trying out products and getting feedback on them and also to develop, package, name, promote or test market a new product. ‘Whiteboard’ exercises and using visual stimuli are helpful in focus groups.

iv. Projective Techniques:

Quite often, indirect methods are required to be used. A set of methods useful in rural market­ing are projective techniques, which help in discovering the rural mind. Projective techniques are unstructured and indirect methods that encourage participants to project their feelings, thoughts, beliefs and attitudes to situations, product or brand. By projecting their feelings on something else, they reveal their own prejudices and beliefs.

The situations may be vague and ambiguous, which makes the respondents project their emotions, revealing the working of their minds. Projective techniques use a disguised approach and direct questions are not asked, as in other types of research. Such techniques are especially useful because it is hard for consumers to express their deep feelings and views regarding brand images and allow par­ticipants to express their feelings without requiring them to put them into words.

To get over language barriers, respondents can express themselves through stories, photographs, drawings and collages, through which all relevant brand associations are captured. Second, participants can express their opinions intuitively. For example, when respondents assign photographs or metaphors to brands, they need not explain their meanings of motivations. Such techniques are very useful in rural marketing research when respondents cannot express themselves.

Projective research is used in the following ways:

1. Associative Techniques:

This is a method to discover what a person associates a brand, product or company with in his/her mind. The researcher captures the thoughts immediately brought to the respondent’s mind by the stimulus and this helps to deci­pher consumer imagery and spontaneous emotions.

It shows what consumers actually think of brands or products and thus is ideal for finding out consumers’ perceptions of products and their loyalty. Associative methods have been used to find out brand posi­tioning and imagery in respondents’ minds with respect to brands.

Examples of associative techniques are asking questions such as:

a. Which celebrity comes to your mind when you think of X brand? (It helps to answer the status of the brand or which celebrity should be used in promotions.)

b. If Maruti was a person, which one would it be (show pictures of different people)? (It helps to discover brand personification.)

2. Word Association:

This method consists of showing respondents a list of words, one by one, and asking them to respond by the first thing that comes to the mind on seeing a word. This exercise reveals a person’s subconscious mind as it shows the things he/she associates with. Alternatively, a list of words is prepared in advance and shown to con­sumers, who say whether that attribute matches or not with the brand.

Another variation is that the words and brands are written separately and respondents are asked to match the words with the brands. The words written or selected by the respondent shows the ‘consumer vocabulary’ associated with brands or products. Word association test is used to find out whether proper words are used in a brand’s promotion. Other methods used in association tests are imagery, brand personification and brand obituary.

An example of the word association technique is given below:

Word association – Which words would you associate with Maggi?

Easy, Difficult, Tasty, Not tasty, Nutritious, Useless, Snack, Meal.

3. Narration and Storytelling:

Rural consumers love stories. A number of people can be engaged at a given time and they will love it if the story is humorous or otherwise engages them. Cayla and Arnould (2013) write, “ethnographic stories give executives a unique means of understanding market realities.” They further explain about the explanatory power of ethnography and write, “ethnographic stories help firms organize ambiguous or complex human behavior into actionable fields.” Researchers can under­stand consumers by listening to their stories about brands and their market experiences.

Example of Storytelling:

Amul has very effectively used brand stories to reach out to people—the story of the cooperative movement founded by Dr. Verghese Kurien is at once inspiring and generates interest in the brand. It resulted in a film, Manthan, which shows how the movement was built and the difficulties were overcome.

4. Brand Mapping:

Brand mapping is a technique for visualizing the relationships between brands. Respondents are asked to group together brands according to a given characteristic and identify the key factors that differentiate one brand from another. Such an analysis helps in identifying opportunities to introduce and position products in rural areas. It also shows what attributes a company should introduce in brands to be successful in villages and how to tackle the competition.

For instance, a company can elicit from consumers what a local brand means to them. Respondents are asked to illus­trate the local brand in the centre of a circle. Then, consumers map what they associate with the brand and show how they are connected to one another. They are then given a few minutes during which they, working from the centre, create branches of thoughts and feelings. When completed, the respondents circle the branch most significant to them.

Participants then share and discuss their mind maps with the group, making additional connections and associations. Finally, researchers aggregate these individual brand maps and their associated data to produce a consensus brand map. The com­pleted mind maps show satisfaction, frustrations, pain points and unmet wants and needs with regard to the local brand. Core brand associations are differentiated from non-core associations. This exercise helps discover what attributes a brand should high­light or place its selling proposition on. It will also help in identifying fake brands.

There are several other associative methods that are used in rural research: 

a. Pictorial methods are helpful to discover what cannot be expressed in words. This method helps uncover the imagery in consumers’ minds about a particular brand.

b. Mood-board approach consists of asking participants to make a collage to represent a brand from pictures or clips that they have collected. When they use pictures of people, it helps to understand brand personification.

c. Job-sorting requires that participants connect jobs to different brands.

d. Construction is a technique in which the respondents are asked to construct a story or a picture from a given starting point. For example, two persons are depicted in an ambiguous situation and participants are asked to tell what each of them is thinking, saying and doing. When a story is built around a picture, it shows the perception and attitude of a person.

e. Speech bubbles is a technique where respondents are required to fill in the bubbles of the characters in cartoons or pictures describing what they are thinking or doing.

f. Completion is a technique where respondents are given an incomplete sentence, story, argument or conversation and are asked to finish it.

i. Metaphor Analysis:

Anyone who has worked in rural areas knows that people like to talk in metaphors. Metaphor analysis helps in discovering which metaphors are used in describing products. Metaphors such as resham si twacha (smooth as silk complexion) impart linguistic, visual and symbolic meaning to the brand.

Visual or symbolic metaphors are extremely helpful, for example, showing a mother in the ad of child care products, a film star in an ad for brand imagery or a tiger in a motorcycle ad. Metaphors help in gaining consumers’ attention and recall, evoking imagery and provoking comparisons, explaining complex products through easy-to-understand unrelated image. The technique used in this analysis is the Zaltman Meta­phor Elicitation Technique (ZMET).

ii. Comparative Scales:

Comparative scales are used when there is direct comparison between objects or stimuli. Paired comparison is done when the consumers are required to choose between two products at the same time according to their preferences. For example, two objects are presented at the same time (Colgate, Pepsodent) and the consumer selects one. Assuming the respondent selects the first one, the selected object is paired with another brand (Colgate, Close-Up), and so on, till the final preference is arrived at.

In a Rank Order Scale the respondent is given a set of items and is asked to put the items in order of preference. It is a technique in which several objects or brands are given to consumers to rank according to their preference. It is a quick and easy method. Analysis is done by adding the ranks of each brand from several respond­ents. The brand with the least aggregate score will be the most preferred brand of the sample.

iii. Non-Comparative Scaling:

Comparative scaling is a technique by which feelings of rural consumers can be identified. Respondents are asked to directly compare products with respect to adjectives provided by the researcher. In non-comparative scaling, each item is scaled independently of the others by respondents on a continuous rating scale. They place a mark on a line which shows two extreme responses, such as best and worst at each end. Sometimes numbers are used to scale attributes. In rural areas, graphical aids such as smileys are used, which makes it easy for respondents to answer the question.

Rating scales are used to measure consumer attitudes such as perceptions, product prefer­ences, purchase intentions and service satisfaction. They are also used to rate products and promotions, packages and attributes.

Method # 5. Data Analytics:

As smartphones gain penetration in rural areas and Internet access becomes easier, rural market research of the future will be done through data analytics.

Data analytics refer to analysis of data from various sources about a person’s behaviour. By tracking Internet usage, social media, browsing history and data from the physical world, companies can make very accurate profiles of people. Data analytics goes through terabytes of data and hundreds of variables in real time. Barton and Court (2012) write that data analytics give companies “the ability to see what was previously invisible [and] improves operations, customer experiences, and strategy.”

For instance, a bank can improve the efficiency of its customer service through a 360-degree view by combining information from banking touch- points such as ATM transactions, online queries, customer complaints, and so on. However, this is not all. If we add the streams of data flowing in from other sources, such as local demographics to weather forecasts, we can develop predictive systems that can significantly improve customer service and experience.

As rural India gets online and smartphones become more popular, companies will be able to get granular data about the rural folk. That is why, data analysis is the market research of the future. Smartphones are also encouraging the use of social media in villages. Analyzing such data yields information about consumer behaviour and preferences.

Social media analytics help to:

i. Capture consumer data from social media to understand attitudes, opinions, trends and manage online reputation—the candid conversations on social media are key to useful insights on consumer wants and needs, brand and product perceptions.

ii. Predict customer behaviour and improve customer satisfaction by recommending next best actions.

iii. Create customized campaigns and promotions that resonate with social media participants.

iv. Interact with participants and measure their reactions.

Traditional market research methods rely on surveys and questionnaires to understand their target market. With social media analysis tools, researchers can get to know everything about their target audience—from demographics to consumer opinions and sentiments. One advantage is that it is a real-time analysis; one does not have to wait for the results of market surveys to know the market trends.