Focus groups

Lest you think business travel is glamorous, this was the view from my hotel room.

Last week I spent eight evening hours watching focus groups, both here and on the West Coast. The client and product is confidential and, quite frankly, unimportant to the point, but suffice it to say it was something I personally knew very little about prior to this engagement.

If you’ve not been a part of a focus group before, it is pretty much how it’s depicted on TV or in the movies. A group of people with something in common is recruited and brought to a facility to discuss their opinions and preferences about the commonality. The client and agency representatives sit behind a two-way mirror eating M&Ms and drinking their caffeine-infused drink of choice. Depending on what is said, there are silent cheers or gasps of surprise.

But what surprised me the most was unrelated to the product per se. We were watching groups made of people who performed very different roles in the purchase process of the product in question. This is an industry that is both highly competitive and heavily impacted by the poor economy. In half the groups, we sat competitors at the table and offered them anonymity to avoid any competitive tension. One hundred percent of the time they declined the anonymity and candidly shared their backgrounds and job pressures.

At the end of the session they exchanged business cards. One groups’ participants spent a good 45 minutes continuing the conversation in the parking lot. (When you are waiting for them to leave so you can go to the hotel, this seems like an eternity.)

Why?

I think everyone just wants to be heard. Understood. To share the burden of their responsibilities with someone who knows what they are talking about. And in a highly competitive environment, when you are under pressure to do more with less, who gives a rip if it’s your competitor who understands? Because at least someone does.

This is a huge opportunity for a brand. To be the brand who understands, who can help relieve some of that pressure. Because branding is about fulfilling needs … not trying to make customers need what you are selling.

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