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Complexities of Belgium

Marc Dumoulin challenges pre-conceptions about one of the EU's smallest, but most accessible markets

Outsiders often view Belgium as a small country in danger of being torn apart by conflicts between its French-speaking and Flemish communities. Yet that view is exaggerated and perpetuated mainly by a vocal minority of extremists, separatist political groups and some sections of the media.

In fact, recent polls suggest that 90% of Belgians — almost as many Flemish as French-speakers — cling to the idea of a united Belgium and value the benefits of two very different cultures co-existing in one of the smallest countries in the European Union. It has a population of just under 11 million: 58% Flemish, 40% French-speakers and 2% German-speakers.

Despite this desire to co-exist, though, there are significant differences in the purchasing and consumption habits of the two main language communities. Studies of the "average Belgian", their purchasing habits and views, therefore need to encompass both groups.

Notable differences

More of this later, but first let's look at some of the major differences — and their causes — between consumers in the "North" (Flanders) and the French-speaking "South" (Brussels and Wallonia):

  • The Flemish and French-speaking electorates vote differently. Flanders tends to support right-wing, regionalist (and in some cases far-right or populist) parties, while Brussels and Wallonia are more left-wing (Socialist and Green Parties (Ecolo)). Consequently, the profile of regional governments and hence the political impetus in each region differ substantially.

  • Both groups watch different TV channels. Whereas the French-speakers opt for French TV and are heavily influenced by French market trends, the Flemish prefer own home-grown channels to Dutch ones. Despite the advertising "overlap", huge discrepancies in consumer product awareness and purchasing habits can occur. Certain markets and/or brands may be found in one region yet are completely unknown in the other.

  • People in Flanders read different newspapers to those in French-speaking Belgium. There is a radically different approach to news in both regions, with regional news being the primary focus in Flanders.

  • Average household income is significantly higher in Flanders than in Wallonia, which impacts on household spending. This divide reflects big differences in the economic status of both regions, although these are narrowing fast due to the rapid development of high-tech industries in Wallonia.

  • Flanders is more modern, trendy, and even a tad more eccentric at times, Wallonia more traditional and conventional. This often results in two different versions of any national ad campaign.

Shared Features

Despite major differences in the views and habits of Flemish and French-speaking communities, they share certain strong features which have a broadly positive impact on the work of market researchers operating in Belgium:

  • Belgians are generally very open-minded and easy to talk to, so getting them to take part in market surveys and share their opinions is fairly easy.

  • Belgians are generally very tolerant and are often ahead-of-the-game on issues liable to cause controversy in most European countries, e.g. giving foreign residents the right to vote, abortion rights, euthanasia, the wearing of religious symbols in society and the reception of illegal immigrants. Belgium has even become more forward-thinking on such issues than traditional progressives like the Netherlands.

  • Belgians are exposed to many influences — among them French German, Dutch, British and American — so are often seen as a "test market" for European trends.

  • Belgium is a very fragmented market and, as a result, rather free and versatile in its purchasing habits, displaying relatively little brand loyalty.

  • This position, at the heart of European trends, makes Belgians receptive to new ideas and among the "earliest adopters" in Europe.

  • They are generally individualists, wanting to stand out from the crowd. In Flanders this is demonstrated by the way home owners personalise their homes, leading to streets where often no two houses are the same.

Points to bear in mind

As far as qualitative studies are concerned, the main points to bear in mind are the following:

  • There is no point studying just one of the two regions: this will provide only a partial perspective. Brussels is fairly representative of the country's French-speaking population, although other Wallonia cities are equally suitable. Antwerp is the big city in Flanders, but more cosmopolitan than the average Flemish town or city, so it is preferable to hold focus groups in other large urban centres.

  • Conventional focus groups work very well and there's no real need to adopt sophisticated projective techniques in order to access highly qualitative information. Belgians tend to talk freely and openly even on more "delicate" topics such as health and money.

  • Response rates to both qual and quant surveys are quite high (albeit slightly lower in the North than the South). This impacts favourably on market research costs; indeed, Belgium is one of the cheapest places — if not the cheapest — in Europe to carry out market research.

  • Knowledge of English is good in the North and mediocre in the South. Pre-testing of ad campaigns/materials must be done in the language of the respective region rather than in English. Budgets supplied by local agencies always include the cost of translating interview guides, questionnaires and instructions for interviewers into Dutch (or "Flemish") and French, but not translation of pre-test materials as a rule.

  • Simultaneous interpretation of central-location focus groups and individual interviews tends to be more expensive than in other countries, and interpreters usually refuse to work more than two hours on the trot.

To sum up, Belgium is a valuable market comprising two very different cultures. It is quite an accessible market for market researchers, but has two sides to it which taken together provide a good indicator of major European trends.

 

Marc Dumoulin
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2009