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Marketing Matters: The Beauty of Focus Groups

Alisa Marie Beyer

How do marketers really know what their target consumer thinks of a brand’s latest advertisement or perfume bottle—or why consumers even buy their brands? The beauty industry is in a constant state of evolution. What’s hot today may be passé in a year. Effectively marketing the eye shadow colors she loves, the self-tanning products she uses, bolder new looks or the subtle fragrances she wears all depend on impeccable timing and a strong emotional connection. To give her what she wants, when she wants it and how she wants it delivered are often best accomplished by talking with her directly. Sound scary? The good, the bad and the ugly all need to be considered for product development and sales success.

Focus group testing for the beauty industry holds a special appeal. Beauty and personal care products are intimate, which provides brands the opportunity to establish a special emotional bond with the consumer. It also means she will watch and listen intently to each advertisement, new product or product change made. And oh yes, she will not be shy about offering her opinions.

She Will Love It … I Think

Marketers often feel they know what consumers are going to say, feel or think. They’ve identified the advertisement, model, bottle shape and product name that they’re convinced are winners. Thirty minutes into the first focus group, marketers, however, are sometimes surprised and dismayed that all of their favorites are being given the thumbs down and a few ideas they did not think were so hot are the talk of the table. Marketers have to realize, though, that it’s good to hear what they are uncomfortable hearing. This is why focus groups are conducted—so we can improve and meet consumers’ real needs.

Prior to rolling out a $20 million advertising campaign for a new moisturizer or dropping $100 million manufacturing that new hair care line, it is wise for companies to first gain insight into their consumers’ perceptions, opinions, beliefs and attitudes.
A telling case study involved an international skin care company that felt consumers were not relating to its brand anymore; its sales had plateaued. To help jump-start the tired brand, the company decided on a complete brand overhaul, and thus the machine began churning—with several new brand images evolving. The theory that consumers were not relating as well to the brand was based solely on executive intuition. In a series of several multicity focus groups, it was quickly apparent that not only did consumers love the brand, they had very little interest in even the slightest alteration to it. However, several key insights evolved that helped the company to see where it could strengthen the brand relationship. A “non-rebranding campaign” saved the company more than $20 million.

Focus groups are also great for disaster checks. After investing in everything from branding and naming to bottles and colors, it is important to gather data from consumers to ensure that something has not been missed internally that could have a negative impact. Often we are so close to our creations, we can’t see the obvious. For example, a company had an image that it felt was very iconic for its brand, and brought it back to build a new campaign around it. However, to today’s consumers, the image of the woman in the campaign represented both days gone by and ideals no longer acceptable. The women in the image had deep, dark tans—something the majority of today’s female consumers react to very negatively. The focus group felt that the brand was very out of touch, and the company learned that some iconic images work and some can cause brand disasters. Luckily, early findings avoided a costly on-shelf disaster.

When to Use Focus Groups

As a research method, focus groups are a useful tool in understanding what people do and how they think, feel and make decisions. They are also one of the best ways to help establish effective quantitative research studies. A series of focus groups can help to test theories and formulate the hypothesis for the next level of study.

Focus groups, however, are by nature qualitative, meaning they do not provide a statistically relevant basis from which to analyze or assess. They do not produce measurements that can be generalized to the entire population, but they do examine attitudes, changes or perceptions that are developed, in part, by interaction with other people.

10 Rules of Successful Focus Groups

There are many good focus group “rules,” but these are the 10 that ensure success:

1. Timing is everything. Focus groups are most advantageous when conducted before a product or advertisement rollout. Getting consumer insights before manufacturing can save a company millions.

2. Get buy-in from all key players. Let’s face it, being on the other side of the two-way mirror can be a little painful, especially when consumers are pinpointing certain ideas derived from or contributed by specific company employees or teams. To be able to seriously consider the results of focus groups for any modifications to products or promotions, be sure to get all key players’ buy-in on the goal of the focus groups before they begin. This will save a lot of time and avoid possible conflict afterwards.

3. Plan, plan and then plan some more. The effort put into advanced planning for a group always pays out in terms of the overall quality of the output from the process. Take the time to ensure appropriate recruitment parameters for participants and develop a discussion guide that sparks debate and flow of conversation. Review the table of contents of the projected report to make sure all parties are well aware of how the results will be communicated.

4. More is not always better—or necessary. In many cases, beauty companies do more focus groups than are necessary to achieve their objectives. There is no sure way to determine the optimal number of groups in a research project, but a few rules of thumb
can help. A solid baseline project consists of two cities, with three to four focus groups conducted in each city. From this platform, assess how simple or complex the responses are and how similar or conflicting. This “basic” package fulfills most requirements.

5. Understand the role of an effective moderator. To effectively conduct a focus group, the moderator must convey the point that they are there to get the group’s honest opinions. It is essential to let participants know it is okay to have different opinions, even unpopular ones. An effective moderator must be able to draw people out in a group environment, listen well, interpret the results of the sessions and communicate those results effectively to the clients.

6. Prepare to be criticized. Hearing a consumer share her view on a product or brand image can be cringe inducing. But do not dismiss focus groups because the criticism is hard to take. Identifying what the consumer does not like can save time
and money. Be open minded and listen.

7. Don’t prejudge the participants. Comments such as “she’s not my customer” are often made in the midst of a focus group. Well, yes she is. She may not be your ideal, but most likely, she has been identified during the prescreening process as someone who buys the beauty products being tested. The appearance of the people in the groups generally has little relationship to how effective they can be as participants. Clearly, it is easier to conduct and watch focus groups comprised of attractive, articulate, educated people. But it is vital to realize that these characteristics are not necessarily critical to gathering useful information, nor are they indicative of whether or not a particular person is a customer.

8. All comments are not equal. Keep in mind that negative opinions should not be taken as scripture but rather as one opinion in a number of well-rounded insights. Your moderator should be eliciting responses as to what is working about the current product or idea and how it might be changed. By understanding the full benefits of focus groups and putting them to use, beauty companies will position themselves to get the maximum out of research.

9. Agility is key. The moderator must be agile and ready to redirect the discussion on short notice. Be prepared to create new hypothesis if the gathered data warrants it—such as blaringly similar and consistent reactions and suggestions—and then be prepared to modify parameters .

10. Act on the results. The moderator should provide a factual report of the findings of focus groups within a few days of their conclusion. This doesn’t mean the report becomes yet another binder on the shelf. Focus group results can and should be an integral part of an overall forward marketing plan.

Research is Not a Substitute for Innovation

You can’t ask your way to innovation. While creativity and market innovation may come from research, it rarely inspires true innovation. Consumers can tell us what they love, like, hate, want or need, but it’s our job as innovators to give them the goods, the ideas and the creativity they crave.