Tuesday, 16 November 2010

From Clipboard to Focus Group

Spending my career in market research has never been an easy one when called on to answer the “and what do you do for a living” question.  Say ‘market research’ and the image in everyone’s head is immediately one of middle-aged women standing on street corners with clipboards.  An image underpinned and, from my point of view, made worse by a Victoria Wood sketch from the 1980s featuring a ‘typical’ market researcher asking questions about mayonnaise.
Fast forward a number of years and now we have The Apprentice chipping in with its version of market research.  Last week this consisted of people rushing round supermarkets looking at packaging, and conducting ‘focus groups’ with mums and toddlers.
Now I’m not going to knock Lord Sugar for being seen to support the idea of using market research to help in the process of creating a brand and developing an advertising campaign.  I especially like the way in which the budding entrepreneurs consider the competition through shopping the category before trying to decide on what a new product might look like and feel like within it.
What I would take issue with, however, is the image the programme purports that ‘focus groups’ can be done on the hoof and that whatever gets said in a focus group should be immediately transferred into brand strategy and advertising development.  It’s what we in market research would call reportage.
For me, this came to a head in the boardroom as Alex blamed Sandeesh for not telling him the ‘focus group’ said pastel colours were better colours than red and black when considering a kitchen cleaning product.  We saw it again when one phrase used by a mother in a ‘focus group’ was used to become the basis for the naming and the advertising of the kitchen cleaning product for the opposing apprentice team.
Again here I have no argument with candidates listening to consumers and searching for the authentic consumer voice.  What I would like to point out, however, is that there is a gap between gathering information in the form of quotes from mums, and using it to have a direct impact on a particular course of action.
This is a hole which we would see as the interpretation gap.  So we use group discussions, depth interviews and a range of other interviewing techniques to gather insight.  We then use this insight as the basis for our interpretation.  This will then help us come up with recommendations for what might be new packaging, new advertising, a new range, a re-launch, re-brand, whatever.
This brings me back to my initial point of how to answer when people ask what you do for a living.  A knee-jerk reaction these days might be to say I do ‘focus groups’.  But then I run the risk of being associated with doing groups like they do on The Apprentice.  And these, in my view are the same sort of ‘focus groups’ which John Humphreys used to castigate on the Today programme.  In other words, talk to a few random people, take what they say literally and do what they say also literally.
What I want people to understand is that there is a difference between seeking people’s opinions and using these opinions to impact on decision-making in whatever area of business you happen to be.
The ladies with clipboards and the people who run focus groups play invaluable parts in the market research process.  But it’s a process which is only reliable when its planning is thorough and its execution is watertight.  Only then can real insight be obtained. And insight alone will always struggle without interpretation.
It’s market research, Lord Sugar, but not always as you portray it.

Thursday, 11 November 2010