Rafael Cespedes has been a partner of Greenbook for years. From crossing paths with Lenny Murphy to co-creating IIEX, his influence on the organization and the industry has been extensive. His trajectory adds up to over 30 years of experience in market research and insights and includes experiences with several different Latin American markets.
Rafa’s unique history makes his perspective on the evolution of market research in Latin America one of a kind. Apart from his accomplished professional life, Rafa is also a father of two who enjoys cycling, playing soccer, reading, and engaging in social activities, especially when he can give back to his community.
A brief story of Rafa, from local entrepreneur to Greenbook’s IIEX founding partner.
Rafa sat down with us and walked us through his steps, from being a local employee to entrepreneur to one of the main figures in the Lain American market research community.
Rafa: “I am a psychologist, that is, I am a human being first and foremost. I have been working in market research for a little over 30 years. I started in the qualitative area, working for the local companies that were in fashion at that time in Chile before the multinationals arrived. At the age of 30, I started life as an entrepreneur in market research.
My business partner and I developed some models that were very well received by the market, and we were invited to work across Latin America. We started working outside of Chile, and we developed mathematical demand estimation models for Coca-Cola, then Coca-Cola also invited us to work in other markets. And with Nestlé, we also developed a brand value program, which quickly expanded. That led us to open operations in different countries.
Between 2000 and 2002 we had seven countries under our responsibility. Those were Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Costa Rica, and an operation in Mexico. We sold that operation in 2008 to Sinovate. Sinovate did not last long in Latin America because it was acquired by Ipsos. After that, I retired from Sinovate, then Lenny Murphy appeared in my life, who is now in Greenbook.
We invited him to Chile to present at a conference when I was the president of the Chilean Association of Market Researchers, and we began to talk about innovation in Latin America. From there came the idea of setting up an innovation competition in Latin America. We went together to the United States to raise funds for this event, and what is now known as IIEX, the Insights Innovation Exchange, was born.
The first event we did in Sao Paulo was in 2013, the same year I founded Provokers here in Chile, the company with which I am working today. I stayed connected with Lenny, and during these last 10 years, we have collaborated on the different developments of IIEX in the region, in the United States, and in Europe. I am the representative of Greenbook in LATAM.”
Ten years of evolution in Latin America: what the last decade was like to the research industry
Thinking back to the past decade, Rafa has seen everything, from struggles to growth. He feels as though the market’s push for cheaper and faster results has made the industry turn its back to more critical approaches, which, to him, are extremely important. This focus on automation and cost reduction brought on a standardization of research practices that, although useful in many cases, should not be the only tool researchers have at hand.
Rafa: “The last ten years are marked by the pressure we had to do everything faster, cheaper, and better. This pressure was very strong in the first. In the first cycle of these ten years, stimulated the incorporation of technologies. This put pressure on Latin America. I believe that [Latin America] was not prepared to take on this challenge, and I believe that it did not impact us positively; that is a self-criticism that I have…. The pressure to automate everything and reduce costs made the industry lose value and research was becoming more standardized and losing a little bit of the consultant’s critical perspective. I feel that this is something that we lost ten years ago, and we must recover it.”
“… qualitative research has been put back in value, to connect with reality through ethnographic techniques or through online communities, in a digital case”
To further drive home the point of how the industry lost value, Rafa took examples from major companies like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Unilever, which have direct access to data, making them less reliable on research firms. Furthermore, there’s the issue of panels; once beneficial, they have now turned against us. That is because probabilistic research, where samples are randomly selected, has decreased, and stratified sampling on panels has become the norm.
With that, researchers can’t extrapolate data to the entire population. Still, the market research industry has become dependent on panels. To make matters worse, these panels are also extremely constrained in some Latin American countries. For instance, El Salvador struggles with having strong panels, leading to the need for old-fashioned telephone studies. However, he’s also seen an uptick in interesting methodologies that may give back to the industry some of its relevance:
Rafa: “I think that something very interesting has also happened in recent years, which is that qualitative research has been put back in value, to connect with reality through ethnographic techniques or through online communities, in a digital case. Accompanying people in their daily lives, observing their behaviors and learning from how they live… to be able to take our clients to connect with people, more than with what people say.”
Comparing countries: why some markets are more challenging than others
Our team asked Rafa if he sees some methodologies thriving more in certain markets than others.
Rafa: “Look, I would say that nowadays, the technologies and methodologies at the service of market research are available for any country. No matter how small it is, they can use them. The problem is economic access. A large company like Pollo Campero [from Guatemala] can access high-value research technologies and methodologies, online communities, they can bring high-level social network analysis, they can have passive information gathering systems because they have the economic resources.
Data for data’s sake is no longer valid… automated systems allow us to know the rest of the Aristotelian questions. ‘What’ does it do, ‘When’ does it do it… but when you’re getting to the ‘Why’ or the ‘What for,’ you need to reconnect with the human being.
But if you go to a country like Brazil, which is a very large country with a tremendous economy, there are industries and companies that do not have access to pay for high-level research. That is why I say that rather than saying that Latin America does not have access, it has more to do with differences within each of the countries.”
Human-centric research: going after the why
Rafa: “What happened to us is that, from automating so much data and even applying surveys with robots, we moved away from people. From a discourse of being consumer-centric, we realized that we had to go back to being human-centric. I think the big challenge we have is to bring the person back to the center of our client’s strategy. Data for data’s sake is no longer valid… automated systems allow us to know the rest of the Aristotelian questions. ‘What’ does it do, ‘When’ does it do it… but when you’re getting to the ‘Why’ or the ‘What for,’ you need to reconnect with the human being.”
To Rafa, asking “Why?” is the core of what Insights is all about. And when understanding what moves people is the ultimate goal, deciphering different markets becomes an easier task. To him, going back to being human-centric also means standing by the commitment to truly try and understand each other.
Rafa: “Above all, we must understand what moves our people. And going back to Latin America. Where social life is very important, family is very important. In many of our countries, children do not leave home until they are very old, and many times they do not go elsewhere, they go to the next floor of the house where their parents live.
Or next door, of course. Or a block away, but they still live in the community. So, that kind of thing, brands and companies must keep in mind when they develop service strategies… And that’s why we need empathetic companies. That’s extremely important, empathetic companies that put themselves in the place of the people with their culture and their community.”