Next time an employee tells you that “research” is behind a marketing or advertising decision or recommendation, it might be enlightening for you to insist on full disclosure of the nature and methodology of that research, particularly if the term “focus group” is invoked.  

There are many valid methods of research, and—properly used and evaluated—the focus group is one of them. In practice, however, it is often to marketing as spell check is to document creation: employed reflexively, accepted uncritically, and relied upon blindly. Worse, many executives use this limited, qualitative tool as a means by which to justify their decisions to accept or kill ideas. If the idea succeeds, they take credit; if it fails, they unfurl the indemnifying cloak of “research.” 

One of the best definitions of the focus group I’ve ever heard comes from Mark Bateman, CEO of Publicis Dallas, one of the city’s leading advertising agencies. “A focus group is qualitative research for generating insights with which to refine and shape ideas,” Bateman says. “It can help provide direction, but it is certainly not something on which to base decisions. It is never definitive, never tells you yes or no.”

A more earthy description came from an agency producer I used to know: “They get a dozen nose pickers in a room, give ’em 50 bucks and a sandwich, and all of a sudden they’re the experts.”

Well, occasionally they are. If you’re going after the nose-picker demo, a few well-chosen groups can be instructive. But even then, you must make allowances for the unnatural setting—and not just the room with the one-way mirror and the fact that they’re being paid for their opinions. They’re also looking at marketing communications in a form (perhaps a storyboard or a prototype product) with which they’re unfamiliar and with an intensity that doesn’t exist in real life. The phone never rings in that room, no baby cries, and no one gets up to go to the bathroom during the commercial. 

And at home they’re not interacting with a group of strangers, some of whom can be intimidating. “Frequently, one Type A personality will dominate a group,” says Dallas art director Gae Benson, who’s worked for a number of local agencies. “He or she will give his point of view, and the others find that the easiest way out is just to agree. The moderator will try to bring out other opinions, but they’ll just sit there munching their chips or cookies and follow the loud person like lemmings.”

“Focus groups should be the research of last resort,” says Stephanie Ouyoumjian, executive VP and director of strategic planning at Publicis. “There are many ways to reach quantitative, projectable conclusions. The main reason to add focus groups is that they allow so many agency and client people [sometimes as many as 20] to watch.”

Vital to gaining value from a focus group is knowing how to listen to what they’re telling you.  “ ‘I like it,’ means nothing to me,” says Chuck Schiller, a group creative director at The Richards Group, Dallas. “The important thing is whether the ad gets you to think differently about the product.”

I agree, finding much more value in what they say they don’t like. But the single most basic piece of information from a focus group is learning whether the respondents even understand what you’re attempting to say. A dirty little secret of advertising is that ideas get cut, stitched, and embroidered by so many seamstresses that they lose their original meaning. Everyone can lose sight of the fact that the emperor now lacks both clothes and coherence. The inherent innocence of a focus group can set you straight in a hurry.

FINDING A GEM

“Another thing they’re great for is the verbatims”—the transcribed words of the focus group respondents, says Ouyoumjian. “You often want your brand to speak in the words of consumers, and sometimes you can find a gem! Like the wonderful line that came out of verbatims from a group on Curves [the women’s workout program]: ‘I want to be a bigger woman in a smaller dress size.’ ”

Indeed, one of my own modest contributions to the form leapt out at me from the folder of verbatims of a group discussing the Scottish shortbread Peek Freans: someone referred to it as “a serious cookie.” The campaign and jingle that I wrote and sang in 1978 won a couple of Clios, and to this day many New Yorkers can still sing “Peek Freans are a very serious cookie,” thanks to that unnamed bard in a focus group.

But it’s rarely all in the pages of the report. “As soon as I write what you said, I miss what you meant,” says Richards’ Schiller. “You need to see the body language, the hand gestures, the leaning forward, the ebb and flow of emotions.”

According to Ouyoumjian, there are also various subsets of focus groups:

The Focus Group Debate. “Zealots versus skeptics,” she says. “These can get pretty Jerry Springer-ish.” Julia Melle, group creative director at Publicis, agrees: “People accuse each other of being bad mothers and such, with lots of face-making and snide remarks.”

Heart To Hearts. “These are smaller groups. We use techniques of anthropology and psychology to get at what’s in their hearts,” says Ouyoumjian, who is, herself, a trained anthropologist. “With Walmart, we used cards with one provocative word or short phrase: money, cry, good mom, yell, etc. They pick five cards from the pack, and the ones they pick can show what’s going on in their lives and how a brand can help. Walmart is a very important brand for these families.”

Hot House. “We don’t recommend this, but it’s used at some agencies,” Melle says. “The respondents pick an ad apart, and the creatives keep returning to the room with revisions. Eventually, the group has made all of the decisions for the professionals and the results are just as inept as you would expect.”

Sometimes the most valuable lesson of a focus group is knowing when not to listen. Schiller recalls a woman in a group for client Patrón Tequila. “She hated everything we showed her, but her language and the way she was dressed showed that she was not sophisticated at all. ‘Good,’ said the client, who was observing with me. ‘She’s not our customer.’ ”

Let’s give the final war story to Mark Bateman: “Some years ago, La Quinta [a division of Dallas-based LQ Management LLC] spent millions remodeling and updating its hotels. They asked us to help them leverage and merchandise this news story.

 “We tested lots of ideas, one of them more a PR campaign than straight advertising. This [idea] was to build a representative new room on a truck back and drive it around the country, so people could experience it firsthand. The idea was to generate trial, buzz, and press and, along the way, we would film the commercials using the real people who experienced the room. To our great surprise, when we ran focus groups on the idea, they reacted negatively; at best, a few people were lukewarm.

“The client had the courage to ignore these and spent a lot of money to build the room and run the program,” Bateman says. The result? “It was a huge success, and there was a significant upturn in sales.” 

So, is your company learning all it can from its marketing and advertising research? No focus group could answer that question adequately.

In more than 35 years as a copywriter and creative director in New York and Dallas, Spencer Michlin has created advertising in all media for Pepsi, Frito-Lay, Ford, the brands of Procter & Gamble, and many more. His work has won virtually every advertising award. He can be reached at [email protected].