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Is it Time to Ditch the Focus Group?

Is it Time to Ditch the Focus Group?

It’s the year 1978 and Carillon Importers are in a bit of a situation. They are contemplating introducing Absolut Vodka to the US market and have just spent $80,000 on focus group research. The results have come in and are worrying. Consumers have no interest in Swedish vodka and some don’t even know where the country is located. However, the decision is made to enter the US. Fast forward 35 years and it’s clear they made the right choice as US citizens consume up to 70 million litres of Absolut every year.

So what’s happening here? The focus group in this case was selected to represent the country as a whole. If the group rejects the product, how come the country embraces it?

This type of qualitative research can be unreliable for numerous reasons. Firstly, focus groups can often be the victim of group think. Participants will tend to agree with the majority view despite disagreeing privately. The first comment introduced about a product by a confident participant can influence the thoughts and contributions from the rest of the group.

Despite the advantages of being relatively cheap and fast to execute, there are other examples of where focus groups have rejected products that have since become household names. Initial research described Budweiser as ‘watery’, ‘unmanly’ and ‘weak’. However, Anheuser-Busch achieved huge success when they introduced the beer to the UK market. Baileys Liquor also rejected negative feedback from consumers before launching. Today, Baileys is one of the most valuable liquor brands in the UK.

This is not the end of market research for new product development. Marketing professionals are looking at alternative approaches such as watching consumers in their natural shopping environment. Watching from hidden cameras, market researchers can view reactions and interactions with new products without consumers feeling self-conscious or judged.