Sri Lanka is rarely on the global radar for market research. When one thinks of Sri Lanka, the first thing that comes to mind might be tea plantations, a low cost winter sun holiday destination, or the more serious issues of civil conflict or the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami.
However, despite this and its small size (dwarfed by the giant Indian research market to the North), the market research industry in Sri Lanka is fully functional, diversified, and utilizing the range of market research techniques one would encounter in Europe or the US.
Sri Lanka’s state sector has always maintained an efficient system for gathering statistics on almost all aspects of Sri Lankan life. However, the reports published by the various government bodies usually present masses of numerical data with little or no analysis, which for the most part tend to be outdated.
With the liberalisation of the Sri Lankan economy in 1977, the country found itself flooded with an enormous variety of consumer goods, each competing for a share of the market. Businesses realised that in order to survive in this environment, they needed to have access to accurate and timely market information to assist them in their decision-making.
The demand thus created for an independent, professionally managed research service of international standard, led to the setting-up in 1981, of Lanka Market Research Bureau Limited (LMRB), a joint venture between the UK based MRB Group (parent company of the British Market Research Bureau), the Indian Market Research Bureau and a local Partner. LMRB has since become an associate company of the Kantar Group, the research wing of WPP Group UK, able to offer world class methodologies developed by BMRB International, Millward Brown and RI to Sri Lankan clients. Over its 27 years of existence LMRB has been successful in introducing a Socio-Economic Class (SEC) system for Sri Lanka as well as a more meaningful urban-rural classification for use by the local marketing industry.
More than a decade after the setting-up of LMRB, two other international market research companies, the NFO-MBL Group and Org-Marg Smart (OMS), began operations in the country. Subsequently NFO-MBL was acquired by TNS and with the global takeover of A.C. Nielsen by VNU, the Dutch parent of OMS, the latter underwent a name change, initially to ACNielsen Sri Lanka and more recently to The Nielsen Company Lanka (Private) Ltd.
Local companies involved in market research include Survey Research Lanka, Sri Lanka Business Development Centre and Key Research (part of the Ceylinco Group). Quantum, a relatively new entrant, specializes in qualitative research.
The majority of these research companies offer a full professional service, including research design, data collection, in-house data-entry & processing, as well as dontevaluation and presentation of the results. Most are also able to undertake both qualitative and quantitative research studies. Fieldwork is usually conducted in Sinhala, though Tamil and English speaking interviewers can be made available for conducting interviews in those languages. In the case of qualitative research, viewing facilities and simultaneous translation into English can be arranged on request. Interviews are pre-dominantly conducted face-to-face, but with increasing telephone penetration in the country, telephonic surveys are beginning to make a growing contribution. Quality control-wise, at least one leading agency gives clients a guarantee of a 30% back-check of its fieldwork. Whenever the need arises for conducting interviews in the troubled North & East, most agencies outsource fieldwork to registered operators having offices in those areas.
However such facilities do not exist in the island’s South, where the bulk of the fieldwork is conducted, compelling MR agencies to undertake their own fieldwork and data-entry.
The Clientele of the established MR companies mainly comprise multi-nationals such as Unilever, Ceylon Tobacco Company, Dialog Telekom, HSBC, Coca-Cola, Nestle, Glaxo Smith Kline and a host of large local companies, government bodies as well as international organizations.
Although FMCG companies such as Unilever still hold a dominant position among research users in Sri Lanka, their share is being rapidly eroded by the telecommunications and banking sectors. In terms of the types of research commissioned, media, brand health monitoring and employee satisfaction studies have shown the most impressive growth in recent years. The demand for B2B research however still remains modest, partly due to the relatively small size of the industrial sector and partly due to the reluctance of key players to share information about their operations.
The MR Industry today:
The current value of the market research industry in Sri Lanka is estimated at around 4 million US dollars, with good prospects for growth. The continuing civil conflict in the country’s North remains the major inhibiting factor.
While multi-nationals and large local companies generally opt for continuous market research programmes to assist them with their brand building, the commissioning of research by other organizations is more sporadic.
Continuous research studies conducted in Sri Lanka include:
- Consumer Purchase Panel
- Retail Audit
- Brand Health Tracking
- Omnibus Surveys
- National Media Survey
- Television Ratings
- Radio Ratings
The larger market research companies operating in Sri Lanka voluntarily subscribe to the Code of Ethics for the Profession, laid down by reputed international market research bodies such as ESOMAR and MRS UK. These codes require complete confidentiality for clients and respondents, and high standards of reporting on survey results.
A large amount of publications are made available by the Department of Census & Statistics covering areas such as population, education, health, agriculture & fishing, trade & industry, mining employment and consumer expenditure. The Central Bank of Sri Lanka is another valuable source of information, especially about the country’s economic performance, while import & export statistics may be obtained from the Department of Customs & Excise. The Board of Investment (BOI) provides information on incentives (i.e. duty waivers, tax holidays etc) and the regulatory framework governing different forms of investment.
Career opportunities in market research:
University graduates or those with full professional qualifications having 1-2 years working experience, who join as Research Executives can expect an annual remuneration package equivalent to US$5,000. This can more than triple at Project Director level.
Key facts on the market:
Population: 19.3 million (UN, 2007)
Largest city: Colombo
Major religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity
Life expectancy: 69 years (men), 76 years (women) (UN)
Main exports: Clothing and textiles, tea, gems, rubber, coconuts
GNI per capita: US $1,160 (World Bank, 2006)