How effective are Focus Groups?

29 Apr,2014

 

By Rahul Sachitanand, Shephali Bhatt, Amit Bapna & Ravi Balakrishnan

 

“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” That was Steve Jobs, back in 1998, just before Apple launched the hugely successful iPod. If Jobs’ statement had a touch of swagger to it – much like everything Apple – his words were prescient. A decade-and-a-half later, creatives and marketers are coming face-to-face with the decline of one of the most preferred qualitative measurement tools. As consumers get smarter and more connected, companies find it harder to keep focus groups honest. A tool first used in the 1940s at The Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia University to study the then revolutionary medium head – radio – is now struggling for a sense of purpose.

 

 

THE DUBIOUS WISDOM OF CROWDS

Focus groups may be the most popular mode of qualitative research, but things can get hilariously out of hand

 

KV Sridhar, CCO, LEO BURNETT

“Focus groups are sometimes like award jury members: if one dumb guy doesn’t get it the entire group gets muddled. Once we tested an ad where someone attempts suicide and from the time of him jumping off a building till he falls there is a courier company that delivers a safety net. It was trying to demonstrate the criticality and speed in a hyperbolic way. They never got the connect. They said “Woh toh mar jata tha.” (He would’ve died.) The van was painted in brand colours and they said it should’ve been an ambulance to help the guy.”

 

Sarang Panchal, CO-FOUNDER, MRSS INDIA

“A focus group in Egypt we once conducted bombed because of one incident. A group of female smokers included some non-smokers (of course, a wrong recruitment). We ended up asking all the women to smoke. The non smokers were also made to carry a pack of 10 with lighters. The moment we asked them to smoke, a nonsmoker actually held the cigarette the wrong way – filter ahead and tobacco end in mouth and started praying! “I am sorry Allah to commit this crime, I know it is haram.” We cancelled the whole group before she could light up. In the end, all we got were a few belly laughs at her expense.

 

Ambi G Parameswaran, ADVISOR, FCB ULKA

“The same set of women attends a focus group every day. At a group in Delhi, we overheard the women remarking “Kal ke group mein snacks better the.” (The snacks were a lot better in yesterday’s group).

 

Prasoon Joshi, PRESIDENT – SOUTH ASIA, MCCANN WORLDGROUP

“This was in 2002. We were working on creating a campaign to spread the word about HIV for NACO. Researchers were asking men from men Tier-2, Tier-3 towns if they were inclined to wear a condom. One respondent told them that he wears a condom everyday but added that it gets loose by the evening. He didn’t know a condom is to be worn during sexual intercourse and was wearing it as an accessory that he believed was magically helping prevent STDs like AIDS. It was a great insight to create a campaign.”

 

Ajay Kakar CMO – FINANCIAL SERVICES, ADITYA BIRLA GROUP

“Hum to sab jaante hain. Hum ko koi bewaqoof nahin bana sakta” (We know everything and cannot be fooled) is a very common refrain, capturing the macho attitude of Indian males. If you are knowledgable and sitting on the marketer side, you soon realise such a person has nothing but confidence.”

 

Focus groups use a set of people to test what they are thinking about specific new products or solutions. For example, Café Coffee Day may put together a team to tentatively consider additions or subtractions to its menu and overhauling the ambience of its stores. HDFC Bank has used these groups as a sounding board for new products such as offers for the Solitaire credit card specifically targeted at women. They helped Godrej Tyson Foods build a market for its packaged chicken. “In 2002, consumers were not exposed to fresh packaged chicken,” recounts Sushil Sawant, associate vice president with the firm. “Findings culled out from focus groups were used to position and communicate our strategy,” he adds. Companies such as Britannia have even avoided missteps: putting an Indian sweet – Kaaju Katli – as a filling between biscuits, got an emphatic thumbs-down.

 

Despite their uses, focus groups are under sustained fire. Saji Abraham, EVP – planning, Lowe Lintas is dismissive: “They are a misnomer,” he argues. “They usually ramble all over the place, trying to pass superficial observations off as insights.” Focus groups are under siege because of the lack of depth and limited interpretation of the data provided, he adds. “Directly asking a question or keeping it thinly disguised through projection techniques is useless, as it alerts the consumer and influences the answer.”

 

The madness, it appears, is in the method. For most marketers, the biggest concern is the quality of the audience. Ajay Kakar, CMO – financial services, Aditya Birla Group likens it to visiting the filthy kitchen of a dhaba reputed to serve excellent food. A provider of men’s grooming products discovered the perils of the technique on putting together a small group to try to explore the nuances of men’s fairness creams. Soon after they assembled, not only were the guys reduced to monosyllables; previously talkative men spent their time examining their shoelaces. It turns out even the vainest men preen only in front of their mirrors and not before complete strangers. Instead of getting nuanced insights, the company ended with a bunch of stilted, predictable reactions.

 

A bigger problem is when companies and agencies discover their audience is, if anything, a little too much “on message”, or as an agency head cheekily puts it “have lost their research virginity.” Rajesh Mehta, the former marketing head for Western Union and founder of marketing consultancy Agora recounts: “I have seen agencies and field work where recruiting agents have the same respondents across categories.” He adds, “Sometimes the agents are housewives who hold groups at home and reach out only to acquaintances, family and friends. Maybe 20 or 30 people rotate across groups.” Agrees marketing consultant Suvodeep Das, “Unfortunately, there is a widespread incidence of ‘professional respondents’. Seasoned researchers can easily identify them – they are usually asked to leave within a few minutes.” However there are cases where they aren’t and these appear to be on the rise according to most of the people we talked to. Suave respondents with studied and deliberate answers are of no use to anybody – especially not a company trying to extrapolate their opinions to a larger set. And then there are the bullies; the superficially knowledgeable assertive types who speak for the group, not letting anyone else get a word in edgeways. To the point where several agencies and marketers are thinking of alternative routes to consumer insights.

 

Research agencies say companies give them little notice and then expect miracles. “They can give us as little as three days,” says Rohini Abraham, senior vice president, IMRB. In this time, she argues, it is challenging to assemble a strong group, a moderator who can guide attendees through questions and then expect cogent findings. Research agencies offer options to standard focus groups. Sarang Panchal, co-founder of MRSS India, suggests “A better use of say conflict groups or jury groups helps meet the client’s marketing objective, compared to a plain vanilla discussion.” In the former, brand advocates face off against a neutral set of consumers. However, most companies are yet to evolve, since they prefer using ordinary groups to meet their needs.

 

Of course it’s unfair blaming just the research agencies. In ad agencies too, research and consumer outreach are low on the totem pole. Leo Burnett’s CCO KV Sridhar says wryly, “Everyone wants to come for a shoot with Amitabh Bachchan. But try getting them to show up for discussion on the same film in a small town and they’ll immediately talk about how there are no direct flights and only poor accommodation options.”

 

For too many clients, the group is a box that needs to be ticked. It becomes less about uncovering insights and more about playing safe, claiming a course of action was ratified by research. And so, in this as in so many other industry issues, marketers and agencies are their worst enemies. This time around though, there’s a convenient scapegoat.

 

Source:The Economic Times

Copyright © 2014, Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved

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