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Blurred Vision: How focus groups fail your brand


Remember McDonald’s trial menu item, dubbed the McPizza? It was supposed to provide a reason for those who had enjoyed their McMuffin at breakfast and a Big Mac for lunch to return for a fast dinner option. Epic fail. It wasn’t fast. It wasn’t better than those at the pizza joints, and, well, it just wasn’t a winner.

Sometimes what seems like a winning idea falls flat. Focus groups are like that. You get a number of individuals who represent a potential target audience into a room. A facilitator presents them with package mock-ups, test items, foods, or concepts, encourages them to interact with said items or ideas, and share their thoughts. They are usually asked questions about their feelings or impressions. The sessions are generally recorded, live-streamed, and/or watched live behind a two-way mirror.

In theory, it helps clients hone what they are developing before they take it to market. However, the feedback is usually not as usefully as one might hope. Why?

Group Dynamic. In groups, as in life, there are leaders and followers. Human nature prevails as the less certain fall in alignment with the opinions of the louder and convincing voices.

Drive to be Right. We are Pavlovian in our desire to give the right or expected answer. We are conditioned that doing so, brings us rewards and recognition. If we aren’t certain our opinion is the right answer, we try to select one that will get approval.

Lack of vision. As Gerald Zaltman, author of How Customers Think, said, “People can’t predict what they want and don’t understand their own motives for making decisions.” New products and concepts are born of vision and an inspiration of how to do something in a new and better way. If Steve Jobs had put his inventions through focus groups, we would never have ended up with many of Apple’s products that we find indispensable today.

So, focus group results can be fuzzy and inaccurate. Don’t rely too heavily on the findings. Keep your vision sharp and always on your goal as you weigh focus group results against other data and your gut instincts.

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Pitfalls of a Pleaser: Why your brand can't be everything to everybody

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