Don’t bash the Focus Group




I have been reading a lot about the change of  Tropicana packaging in the US and the back flip to the old pack based on the outcry by passionate drinkers of the brand.  There’s a bit of a vibe that this  has been the fault of the focus group.  

I’m sick of focus group bashing. Can we give it a break?  It’s getting intensely boring. 

Can we instead bash these people…

1) bad moderators who are happy to take what people say on face value, and report the most obvious, “he said, then she said” style of presentation that leaves  you wondering ‘what the hell do we do?’ at the end of it.

2) naughty clients who use focus groups to rubber stamp an idea that they have already decided on, and often ignore what people are thinking and feeling if it doesn’t back this up (hmmm, I wonder if the new Tropicana pack was a lighthouse act for a new marketing director? Or a group who thought their brand was a bit tired and needed sexing up to reflect their life values?)

3) People who call for the death of the face to face group and want to move everything to web-trawling, or scanning twitter, or brand communities. They are great tools to employ, but you will only ever get to hear the voice of a particular type of consumer. Trust me – there’s a whole world out there and not all of it is on-line…

So I call on all (good) qualitative researchers to start standing up for ourselves!

To tell the “focus groups are dead” people to go and take a flying leap!

To produce amazing work to blow our clients minds away!

To always be curious about how people live their lives, and never give up asking the ‘why’ stuff!

To embrace the focus group as the good tool it can be, and don’t be embarrassed or ashamed to say “I AM A QUALITATIVE RESEARCHER WHO LOVES THE FOCUS GROUP!”



Filed under magazines

7 responses to “Don’t bash the Focus Group

  1. Nicely put. Focus groups are a wonderful tool, yet perhaps the easiest marketing tool to twist in the wrong direction. Years ago I helped set up a focus group project for a CEO determined to launch a new pricing strategy; results came back down, but he guided the interpretation thumbs up. The resulting campaign didn’t work out too well.

    What’s funny about this is I vividly recall seeing the new Tropicana packaging in the US and being confused. My kids like the Tropicana orange juice with no pulp, but for a moment I wandered the aisle, wondering why the hell Super Stop & Shop had stocked a generic store brand in the place where Tropicana usually resides. Then I realized — that plain new carton is the same old juice!

    I bought it, but for a bizarre reason felt a bit let down. Can’t believe the research didn’t tell T that they were making a mistake.

  2. mumbrella

    In a previous job I sat behind the glass a couple of times and learned nothing that changed what I did with my product.

    More recently I was a member of a focus group. I’m pretty sure they learned very little from me (as much as anything because I felt they were asking the wrong questions…)

    Too often it seems to be an arse-covering tool to show due diligence, or even a means of reminding the client just how darn deep your research has been.


    Tim – Mumbrella

  3. kelpenhagen

    Thanks for swinging by Tim.

    As you point out, if you ask the wrong questions, and ask them in the wrong way, then a focus group will be a waste of everyone’s time.

    And I’m sorry your experiences have been so ordinary. Must have been dealing with an ordinary company. 😉 (God – I hope it wasn’t me!)

    But I am just about to finish two projects where the work completed will be invaluable. The hypothesis going in for both projects was so far off what people really wanted it could have been a fiasco. And not only does good qual work tell you what NOT to do, but also should give a client direction on what to do instead.

    And what were you doing in a group anyway? Surely working in marketing should have screened you out of it?

  4. Hi. Your post really uplifted my mood. You are right: it is not about the tool as it is about us – the researchers. And I have to say that “I AM A QUALITATIVE RESEARCHER WHO LOVES THE FOCUS GROUP&IDI&WEB 2.0 and anything else that would help me make sense of the context I’m swimming in”.

  5. Hooray – great post K!

    I, too, scratched my head at the whole Tropicana thing. Whether it was the way the groups were run, or the way they were interpreted – it seems as though something was amiss.

    Depending on the context, focus groups can provide a brilliant forum for learning. As can an in- depth interview. Or an online discussion etc.

    None is inherently ‘better’ than the other. In the right context, they’ll all deliver the goods.

    I join you in yelling loudly;


  6. AKQua, a working group of German qualitative researchers, is about to publish a paper on focus groups. Main content is the reconciliation between methodology demands and pragmatic use of focus groups.

    We believe that there are still too many misunderstandings between researchers and clients that lead to the false use – and sometimes abuse – of this helpful instrument.

    Unfortunately the paper will come only in German at first. If someone is interested, just send me a tweet @marketeasy, we’ll see to have it translated in English after publishing.

  7. kelpenhagen

    hi yellowsubmarinequal – yes, not just the focus group, but the depth, the observation, whatever!

    Katie – thanks for the comment and dropping by.

    and Bettina – agree so much that even though researchers have been practicing qual for some time, there is still a big misunderstanding about what it can deliver (which I guess also poses the question – as researchers are we doing a good enough job educating research buyers and users of info how to use results properly)

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