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Marketing Matters: The Beauty of Focus Groups

By: Alisa Marie Beyer
Posted: January 10, 2008, from the January 2008 issue of GCI Magazine.

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: