Focus Groups are an Endangered Species

I recently came upon a thread in a Linkedin group about focus groups that ask the provocative question, “Are focus groups an endangered species”. What a wonderful question.

My first experience with focus groups was in the late 1980's when I came to work for a mid-sized food company.  They loved to take ideas and new products to focus groups to hear what consumer’s thought about a new ad, a new brand, a new line extension or even packaging.

To me, the best part of the focus group was always the food behind the glass wall. I didn't really put much credence in the findings or what we said we learned because it was such an artificial setting. There was a voyeuristic pleasure in listening to people talk about your brand but I knew it wasn't representative of how they might act in their local convenience store. If you put me in a room and asked me to respond honestly to questions about something, I can share what I think but is there a real link to behavior? I'm skeptical. 

I think focus groups are an endangered species because what people say isn’t what they will do. 

Focus groups always struck me as an odd way to predict behavior. If you ask me questions about things I don’t care about, think about or know about, I’ll be able to give you my opinion. Even if you ask me about brands or products that I am passionate about, where is the link between words and actions? Do I really know how I will behave when faced with your brand in a real world setting? Doubtful. 

I would never have told you I'd enjoy $3.00 cup of coffee at Starbucks until I experienced it as a place away from work and home. I know I would have had a strong dislike for Facebook until I realized how I could have a sneak peak at the daily activities of my my 86 year old mom, daughters and other distant relatives. For years I can't saying that I didn't want a smart phone because I prefer to read email on my laptop, until I experienced the iPhone 4S. 

Focus groups have been maligned for group thinking, herd mentality and the way that a dominant individual can take over the conversation.  They have been chastised for being too small a sample and too easy to manipulate. These are my concerns too.

But, my own irrational behavior when buying goods and services always leads me to question what I would have said if asked in a focus group.  I buy very expensive food ingredients sometimes and will also buy really cheap bargain basement stuff too. Context matters. I love private label brands for delivering value on low engagement categories like dish washing soap or shaving creme but am totally confused in a toothpaste aisle and often buy based on TPR’s. (temporary price reductions). 

I’m loyal to two toothpaste brands but will buy on price some days and pay list on other. I don’t care about my brand of shoelace but I care a lot when I have experiences when they break on me. I can tell you that I want a trustworthy reliable brand for my car's brakes but I don't know the name of any brake brand. Ask me my opinion, and I may not want to look ignorant as I shake my head along with others in agreement to the moderator's questions. I may be able to tell you what I think but how does that translate into what I'll do, buy or share with my friends? 

Focus groups are really helpful for brand managers to help them manage internal marketing expectations not to predict behavior. Don’t worry Ms. Vice President of Marketing, we focused grouped it and all is well, they love our new insect-scented candles…and everyone agreed! 

I prefer seeing how people behave in small market tests. Can you get a few stores to put product on a shelf (at no cost to the store) for 4 weeks to determine whether your packaging stands out? I know all about planograms but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a way to get this to happen. If 95% percent of all behavior occurs on a subconscious level, can you construct learning from how the consumer acts versus what they say they will do? 

Read Doug Van Praet's great book called Unconscious Branding to understand this thinking in more detail. 

I remember one series of focus groups for a meat snack brand that we were developing in the late 1990’s called ROUGH CUT. It received a powerful response from consumers in 6 different markets. They loved the brand, they loved the packaging, they even loved the price point. We got strong buy signals from everyone and it gave us confidence to do a big launch. We put some significant bucks behind the new brand.  And guess what, in the first 3 months it sold like hotcakes.

Unfortunately, consumers only bought it once. They didn't really like the taste and texture. They had other options they significantly preferred. Somehow we didn't glean this from our $100,000 of focus group investment. They told us they loved the taste but I think they collectively didn't want to hurt our feelings. What they said in focus groups wasn't what they did in the real world. We should have known better but we believed what they said. A better test would have been based on a bigger sample size where in private they could have rated our product versus the competition. 

My fondest memories of focus groups will always be the snacks.  I miss the free M&M’s and the Twizzlers behind the glass mirror. I enjoyed attending focus groups and as a VP Marketing, thought it had a cache about it that made it a special event. I fell in love with attending these activities and believed what consumers told me they would do. Big mistake. 

Today, I rarely put much credence in the what consumer's say. I'd rather observe what they do when they are just being themselves in a store rushing through the grocery aisle. 

What do you think? What role do you see for focus groups today?  What has your experience been with focus groups in your world? Do you have success stories where focus groups helped you launch a product? Will these techniques continue in the next decade? Why? 

Just tap on the glass window or slip the moderator a note. I'm listening. 

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