Focus Groups: Truly Useful In Brand Innovation?

Thomson DawsonSeptember 23, 20114134 min

Focus groups have been the go-to method many marketers employ to gain insight on how certain people think, feel and behave. In our social media connected world, are focus groups an effective forum for driving creativity and innovation in brand development and marketing?

Henry Ford said “if I gave people what they said they wanted, I would have made a faster horse”.  Mr. Ford instinctively knew then what still holds true about people today­­–people simply don’t know what they want, or what form an innovative idea should come in to solve a problem they don’t yet know they have. Nobody needed a car. Yet once realized, the automobile was arguably the most significant game changing product innovation of the last century.

A more contemporary version of this example is alive and well at Apple. Apple never conducts focus group research to guide their product innovations or drive their marketing. Innovation isn’t about giving people what they say they want. Asking people want they want or need is not a very useful tactic in driving new ideas for innovation. Yet, many marketers continue to rely on this artificial “laboratory” research to gain insights into what specific segments of people might be thinking about, what products they may use, and why they favor one thing over another.  Rarely will focus group research shed any useful light on the deeper needs people have that are, as yet, unrealized in their minds. If we assume this to be true, why do focus group research at all?

“I notice increasing reluctance on the part of marketing executives to use judgment; they rely too much on research, like a drunkard uses a lamp post for support rather than illumination”.
– David Ogilvy

What do you need to know?
Instead of asking consumers contrived questions to reveal their preferences or their intent to purchase, as marketers, we need to discover what truly matters to people. To break through the slush pile of our crowded marketplace, your marketing must be perceived as genuinely valuable and useful to the people you’re hoping to win over. Beyond product features and use benefits, if you want to engage consumers today, your marketing (not just your product) must improve (in tangible ways) the condition of people’s lives.

Focus groups have become marketers default button.
I have witnessed too many times how quickly marketers jump into focus group research to learn some information they think they don’t have. ( I am as guilty as anyone else in this regard) Truth is, there’s a ton of research out there. Combine this available information with solid intuition, and the collective (paid for) experience already within your organization or industry, and you can find all the information you need to form and support a compelling marketing or brand positioning idea.

Focus groups are artificial settings.
People live real lives. Gathering a group of people into an artificial environment and probing them with over simplified questions only creates artificial results. Plus people usually don’t know what they don’t know.  It’s very difficult to get useful insight from people who are not in their natural environment.  And there are always those participants whose energy can dominate or influence the perspectives and opinions of others in the group. The results in this artificial setting are almost always biased.

A focus group is not quality time with consumers.
The reason focus groups are so commonly used is because they are easy and cheap to execute. However spending an hour with groups of 6-8 people in a room can hardly be called quality time.  Chances are the thoughts going through participant’s heads during the session go something like this:

I don’t like the guy next to me… I really don’t care about this product, but they’re paying me $75…I don’t feel comfortable sharing my real opinion in a group…this is boring!

Get out in the real world and be with people.
Instead of sitting behind the glass, get out into the real world.  Be everywhere your tribe is gathering online and off, be where they do their laundry, shop, eat, play, relax. Spend quality time with them in real-life settings.  Learn how your target customer not only uses your products, but how they live in their real lives. Much of what we humans think about is unconscious, and our emotions are intertwined with our reasoning. It comes down to understanding basic human nature, and what higher level emotional needs are currently unmet within the context of your target consumer’s overall life.

Put your efforts toward spending quality time with real people in one-on-one natural settings. Through these interactions, you’ll gain far richer consumer insights that will directly lead to more relevant, compelling, meaningful and valuable brand building strategies.

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Thomson Dawson


  • Luiz Stevanato

    September 23, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    I think there is a problem with the premise of this text. First of all, focus group (FG) isn´t a magical way to transform customers into designer, advertisers and R&D professionals. The problem came from the wrong use of the methodology. Consumers invited to focus groups must be listened to about their experience – good or bad – with products and services. Researchers must ask consumers to tell what is going right or wrong, but not ask for solutions and specific responses to marketing, advertising and R&D problems. This is a task for expert facilitators.

  • Alex Young

    September 28, 2011 at 11:55 am

    I wouldn’t say that Focus Groups are easy and cheap to execute. Productive ones at least. I also don’t understand what is meant by “much of what we humans think about is unconscious” – it’s a tautology. Also the author says: “It comes down to understanding basic human nature, and what higher level emotional needs are currently unmet within the context of your target consumer’s overall life.” Have you been reading Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? I don’t think you can apply that in this context.

  • Mike Daniels

    September 28, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    I agree Luiz. Focus groups are good for certain things – exploring imagery and perceptions. Not so much for understanding behaviour – I’d use observation and participant approaches for that.

    Also I think there is a difference between asking people to RESPOND to something as distinct from asking them their OPINION about it. The job of the good qual researcher is to interpret responses not report on opinions.

    We just need to match the right methodologies to the right problems, and be well trained as researchers 🙂



  • KarenMLynch

    October 4, 2011 at 8:24 pm

    Caveat: I’m a qualitative researcher and focus group moderation is in my repertoire.

    I so agree with Mike Daniels here … the key to a successful research initiative is to choose the best methodologies for your objectives.

    That being said, when it comes to focus groups specifically? The right questions, creative and/or projective exercises, intuitive/in-depth probing … well, focus groups can be so much more insightful than (unfortunately) many have experienced. It’s a shame they have such a bad rep.

  • Mash Bonigala

    February 12, 2013 at 8:54 am

    I agree. Focus groups are not a magic solution. I think focus groups are a great way to test out your products or services. In fact with the emergence of social media, getting access to focus groups is even easier – almost any one can be part of the focus group. I believe focus groups, when properly approached are always effective.

    Of course, one should not use focus groups to flesh out seed ideas etc. Because the focus group would be unfamiliar with the idea, they may give biased opinions or may even shoot the idea down.

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