Group dynamic

In 1999 Rover bragged about ignoring focus group findings, and Research questioned whether focus groups had a future. Eleven years later, focus groups thrive and we all know what happened to Rover. Dominic Scott-Malden asks, where did it all go right for research?

In 1999 Rover boasted in a billboard campaign that its latest car had been ‘rejected by focus groups’. Research picked this out as a new low in the public’s perception of focus groups and splashed a photo of the poster across its cover with the headline ‘What future for focus groups?’. It may be hard for young researchers to imagine the furore that this poster created in the research community back in 1999. The media had seized upon focus groups as a stick with which to beat New Labour. It became a favourite taunt of journalists (who, perhaps felt threatened by this new and mysterious force) that the government had no ideas of its own and simply did what focus groups said. At the same time advertising agencies, brand owners and researchers (who had been using group discussions since the 1960s), were feeling uncomfortable about the adoption of groups by politicians and were on the look-out for misunderstanding and misuse. The stage was set for a spat.

No laughing matter
Looking back more than ten years on, one’s first impulse is to laugh. It’s hard to believe that people would have any clue what Rover were talking about – then or now. The rationale, as explained by a company spokesman at the time, was to target “junior and upper management” who wanted to believe that they were choosing something that was at the fringes of what the uncultured masses would approve of or understand. Even so, anyone with even a minimal belief in low-involvement processing would be concerned about putting the word ‘rejected’ next to a new car model. As a piece of communication it was disastrous (as they would have found out had they run it through a few focus groups). Surely the only people who would have understood it would be those working in advertising, marketing or the media – who were never going to see the new Rover 75 as a serious competitor to their BMWs, Audis and Mercedes anyway.

Stab in the back
We market researchers thought the ad was black treachery on the part of the advertising agency who created it. Advertising agencies have always been ambivalent about focus groups. Some have been champions, some have been hostile, many have been friends to qualitative research. But here was an agency, launching a new car model, proud that it had been ‘rejected’ by focus groups. All those concerned should have known better than to use the word ‘rejected’, which implies a simplistic view of focus groups as a ‘pass or fail’ test. Did they seriously mean that every single person who came to their focus groups ‘rejected’ the new design? And they were proud of that? Of course they didn’t, they must have been lying. No wonder we despised them. No wonder we were proud to be doing group discussions long after Rover went to the wall, along with its enormous advertising account.

In fact, as the original article made clear, the poster was not meant to be an insult to focus groups per se. The headline (flawed though it was) meant to suggest that ‘most people will not like it’, which would entice the more discerning buyer. To anyone who remembers Rover as the most conventional middle management car in the golf club car park it was an absurd strategy, but it does at least make one feel better to know that they did not mean to be offensive to focus groups.

“Think of the quotation attributed to Henry Ford: ‘If I’d asked what my customers wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.’ The idea is that ordinary people (the sort who go to focus groups) are too stupid to recognise real innovation when they see it”

Creative muscle
In 2010, the debate over focus groups goes on. There is a particularly pervasive story about the genius who ignores ‘focus groups’ and only trusts his ‘gut instincts’. The role is currently assigned to Steve Jobs of Apple, but it has had various champions over the years. Think of the quotation attributed to Henry Ford: ‘If I’d asked what my customers wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.’ The idea is that ordinary people (the sort who go to focus groups) are too stupid to recognise real innovation when they see it, so they will give you wrong answers. But this is essentially an argument about all market research, and it continually butts up against the realities of business life, where corporations regard consulting their customers as an essential part of the process, and every guru advises you to get closer to your customer, not further away. Even Alan Sugar makes his apprentices talk to customers, and he is not a man who lacks faith in his own judgement. Steve Jobs may find he does not need focus groups any more than Henry Ford did, but for most companies they are essential.

So group discussions continue to flourish in spite of the ‘focus groups are for wimps’ machismo of Steve Jobs and others. But they have certainly evolved.

The workshop approach
It has become more common to invite clients in from behind the mirror to join the action in ‘workshops’. Consumers have been invited to help create ideas and stimulus as well as respond to them, in ‘co-creation’. We frequently get participants out of their chairs and moving around the room, to keep them stimulated and acting less self-consciously. These different kinds of sessions are essential for projects where we need to generate ideas and materials as well as research them. They have also allowed qualitative researchers to vary the type of group sessions and to include something new and different, which is good for business as well as for participants.

Groups have always been supplemented with depth or paired interviews but this is perhaps more common than it used to be. My own favourite is filmed in-home depths, where you interview someone in their own home, so you see their thoughts and feelings in the context of their home and family, which gives a deeper understanding especially for subjects like finance.

Focus groups have evolved in less obvious ways as well. Their enormous power is that they are a way of listening to the customer. But if you listen to the customer they may say things you do not want to hear. They may not like your brand, your products, your packaging, your advertising or your tone of voice. Perhaps in the olden days (although I doubt it) this would have been reported as a simple ‘rejection’. Nowadays it would just be the starting point of the project.

The changing role of qual
Qualitative researchers have become more like business coaches or consultants. Yes, we acknowledge barriers and challenges, but mainly our job is to look for solutions. Generally we are looking for the small change that makes a big difference, the way that brands can be repositioned, the way that barriers can be overcome.

Technology in general (which turned out to be the real story of the last decade) has been more of a problem than an opportunity for focus groups and other group sessions. They mix like oil and water.

Nowadays people can watch the groups all over the world through their computer, while multi-tasking and eating their lunch. People can come to viewing facilities and watch groups while catching up on their emails and Facebooking. But a bigger audience for the actual process of the groups has not been beneficial. It may be good for the team, but there is a price to pay in terms of the quality of the research. People feel inhibited with a crowd watching or if they know they are on TV. That’s human nature (a subject on which qualitative researchers are something of an authority).

Of course, there have also been innovations in actually doing groups online. But unlike quant research, the progress of doing qualitative groups online has been uncertain to say the least. For many practitioners and clients the whole point of groups is being face to face with customers, so online is a non-starter. Others have experimented and found some positives. For instance it has become possible to do pre-tasks online, and to follow up issues via email, which is good. Getting consumers to take photos and send in video can be valuable. However, I think we can safely say that most groups are not going online any time soon, and that online will continue to be more dominant in quant than in qual.

The real threat from technology comes from the way that it is changing all work, not just focus groups. Instead of ushering in an age of more time, where researchers could really take their time to think about things and deliver quality, the only effect of technology has been to speed things up but dumb them down. This is dangerous for qualitative research where the key skills (face-to-face moderating, listening, thinking, writing, presenting) all take time to get right.

So focus groups have evolved since 1999. But what strikes me most clearly looking at the poster after eleven years is how little things have changed for focus groups compared to how much they have changed for Rover. Focus groups, workshops, co-creation sessions and qualitative research in general continue to flourish because companies want to have an open, revealing and exploratory conversation with their existing and potential customers. And if Rover wanted to have a laugh about that, who’s laughing now?