"We are cultural navigators, and contextual interpreters": insights from Qual360 in Washington, D.C.


Last week, Sarah and I had the pleasure of presenting at the Qual360 North America conference in Washington, D.C. It was a thrilling, thought-provoking two days, and we both came away with plenty to share with our teams in both the Boston and London offices.

Our own paper, exploring the importance of cultural context when conducting research with children across the globe, was built upon a range of case studies from across our offices in the US, UK and Singapore.

Our focus was on the differences between individualistic and collectivist societies, and the impact this has on how one conducts research with children who’ve grown up in these societies, and are heavily influenced by these world-views and mind-sets. From getting children to ‘show, rather than tell’ how they feel about a topic (for example, by acting out a scene they’ve seen in content we’ve tested) in collectivist cultures, to using parents to help kids open up in individualist societies, we explored a range of different tools to overcome some of the cultural barriers in conducting research around the world to deliver true depth of insight.

The importance of cultural context was one of the themes that emerged strongly from the papers presented, and in a number of different and interesting ways.

Elina Halonen from the Irrational Agency spoke about the opportunities to blend semiotics and cognitive science in our endeavours – merging the “outside-in cultural view of semiotics with the inside-out view of cognitive science”, while Rachel Lawes of Lawes Consulting ran an eye-opening workshop on semiotic approaches. She asked us to pick a cultural phenomenon that had surprised us (we chose the politically polarising merchandise we’d seen in some of the Washington, D.C. souvenir stores) and unpick:

  • How have things changed over time? (building on Jessica Reis’ excellent presentation the day before, we explored the increasing polarisation of the US political landscape)
  • How are things different in other parts of the world? (we looked to the UK for comparison here, and polarisation around Brexit)
  • Who has the power? Who benefits? (we thought about the role of the media, and different channels and platforms – as well as the outwards signs people use to attach themselves to a particular political group)
  • Is this a simulation of sentiment? (we discussed the extent to which people are willing to engage in dialogue vs. outwardly expressing their views)
  • What’s the hidden story? (we wondered about some of the people we’d seen in Washington wearing political logos – how had they come to be wearing them?)

Meanwhile Tommy Stinson of Maru/ Matchbox highlighted the importance of cultural-framing from an anthropological and micro/ macro point of view, pointing out that “culture is the web we spin to give meaning to the world around us.” He highlighted how it is vital to explore cultural context alongside consumers, to truly uncover the meaning of insights.

We also had the opportunity to explore first-hand the different ways in which VR and AR can be used in a research context, thanks to both Vanessa Campbell of RSG and David Bauer of Hemisphere. Budgets-permitting, we’ll look forward to exploring this in more detail in the future!

The importance of a nuanced and sensitive composition of focus groups really came to life when Jessica Reis of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner took to the stage to share her learnings from conducting research in politically polarised environments across the globe. Sharing examples from her work in Venezuela, the Philippines and the US (amongst many other countries!) Jessica highlighted the ways in which political dialogue is becoming increasingly polarised, and the importance of finding those in the political middle-ground to test messaging, in order to truly deliver insights that can make a difference. She also brought home the importance of recognising one’s own political view points and confirmation biases upfront, and how vital (but sometimes hard) it is to listen without preconception to different viewpoints.

Kelsy Saulsbury from Schwan’s Company shared some interesting tips on how to use the visual to land insights more effectively with internal stakeholders. We know the power of great design first hand at Kadence, where our fantastic designers across our offices support our insight teams on a day-to-day basis to deliver infographics and videos that bring insights together in Board-friendly formats. This is something one of our Insight Managers in the London office, Laura Jenks, spoke about recently at the Insight Show.

Beth Schwindt from Capital One introduced us to the 18th Century portrait of Mary Robinson by Gainsborough and the multiple hidden messages hidden in her portrait, to then take us on a journey to building ‘living, breathing personas’ that bring customers to life, and are agile enough to be adapted to differing functions across a business.

The ‘malleability’ of personas came to life further when Tasja Kirkwood of Viacom shared insights into Generation Z and Millennials, and the way in which, “they aren’t a single persona – they’re slashes.” That blending of different personality traits, and the way in which younger generations are expressing themselves in multiple ways mirrored our own experiences with younger audiences. For instance, on a recent study looking at the different types of food and drink Gen Z enjoy, we noticed the way in which respondents were drawn to healthy, natural food options, whilst also sharing a passion for sugary treats such as milkshakes – reflecting two differing sides of their personalities.

This idea of slashes – of the blurring between personas and segments is particularly interesting. As methodologies evolve, and as our understanding of how culture feeds into our motivations and behaviours as humans, it’s becoming harder than ever to place respondents into neat and tidy boxes. Beth Schwindt summed this up nicely when she proclaimed, “farewell black box – research out loud!” – showing just how important the exchanging of ideas, conversation, and above all – opening ones’ eyes to a broader landscape is in our world of qualitative research.

We are cultural navigators, and contextual interpreters.
— Beth Schwindt

At Kadence, we’re looking forward to navigating back towards our teams, and continuing our conversations about cultural context.