Are Focus Groups Causing Brands to Lose Focus?

How to Make Sure the Best Ideas are Optimized, Not Minimized.

As the father of focus groups, Robert Merton, with a doctorate in sociology from Harvard, sought to examine human behavior “without prejudice” with the goal of answering the question, “How does this come to be so?” After all, if a brand could determine how decisions were made in choosing its offerings versus another like offering, one would think it would become the offering of choice for its most profitable and valuable customers.

But that was in 1941, when radio was the new media of choice competing with newspaper, the leader in all things communicated at the time, if you can believe that. (TV? The first national broadcast in color was in 1954, so that wasn’t an option at the time.) So, the idea of “without prejudice” was developed at a time when the onslaught of current communication channels weren’t even a consideration, legions of focus group “groupies” who knew how to play the game for whatever compensation they desired weren’t lurking around and no one had a clue what a typeface was because Apple founder Steve Jobs wouldn’t be born for another 14 years. Needless to say, “without prejudice” was easily justifiable then. But what about now?

Admittedly, the traditional focus group has evolved dramatically, and its structure has allowed interpretation and adjustment to some of these modern day biases. And with the introduction of things like individual ethnographic studies, the focus group “group-think” dynamic can be evened out. So why do so many companies lose sight of what they are truly after - the understanding of how/why a customer choses their offering over another. Perhaps it’s not the structure of the research, but paralysis by over-analysis. For some reason, the lowest common denominator always seems to be the focus of the focus group. Heaven forbid we lose one customer because they don’t like a typeface or an image, which then leads to the great unraveling of work that was already put together by some pretty smart people on both the agency and client side.

Having spent hours upon hours listening to some truly crazy talk on both sides of the glass, it seems that the common denominator of focus groups is the erosion of courage of brands and the people who work for them. Course correction is one thing. The dumbing down of a campaign, ad or idea that can be a game changer is another. When you start to see a focus group dumb down an idea, stand up for your good work and focus on what made it great in the first place.