Don’t shoot the focus group messenger

One of the most difficult situations a researcher is put in is delivering the news to a client that their marketing strategy or product plans are not supported by the research data. Often brand managers and marketing executives use research to validate their strategies and are not prepared to be told that their best-laid plans are destined to fail. How do researchers navigate those waters?

I recall witnessing a series of focus groups for a regional women’s clothing retailer that tried to gauge women’s perceptions and attitudes of the store. The groups were conducted on three segments of female shoppers who were familiar with the store and matched the age groups the retailer was targeting. The retailer’s strategy was to brand their stores for tweens with one line of clothes, young women with another line and, finally, young professionals with a third line of clothes. Each group was composed of the women and girls who fit the target age of each line of clothing. They were asked about their overall impressions of the store, their satisfaction with the style and quality, the helpfulness of the staff and whether it was a store for them. The feedback was glowing for the quality and the style of the three lines of clothes. Similarly, every group expressed a very positive impression of the store and of the sales staff.

But on the question “Is this a store for me?” each group hedged a bit. The young professionals related that the store seemed to focus too much to younger women and girls and that they preferred a store that catered just to them. The young women had a different take. They thought the store was too stuffy and corporate and didn’t cater to them. Both of these groups were confused about the product line for tweens and wondered what exactly the store was trying to be. This, to me, was at the heart of the problem. Each age group seemed to be saying that they preferred to shop at a store that matched their identity and, although they liked the store, they didn’t feel it was a store for them. At the end of the last group, while sitting in the client viewing room, I heard the marketing manager state, “Our strategy is working! It’s clear that we have very strong brand awareness over all three lines.”

Excuse me? I heard that the strategy was confusing and that the women’s brand awareness of the other lines was actually going to cause them to shop elsewhere.

It was clear that the marketing manager was trying to validate his marketing strategy and that the researcher would have to report conclusions that might be contrary to that of the marketing manager. How well that goes depends on how invested the client is to a particular strategy and how willing he or she is to trust the researcher. More times than not the trust bond is strong between the client and the research professional and the researcher’s recommendations are implemented. Sometimes, though, the client’s reaction is to shoot the messenger, which will usually end up badly for the client.

I don’t know what happened in the case of the clothing retailer but within a few years it was no longer in business. I am sure most researchers have had similar situations where their analysis was not appreciated but later vindicated. What’s the best way to handle it?

This entry was posted in Brand and Image Research, Consumer Research, Focus Groups, Qualitative Research. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Don’t shoot the focus group messenger

  1. Mike Carlon says:

    I can certainly relate to this situation. While it does not happen often, many times I feel as if I am walking into the Dragon’s Den when presenting findings that are contrary to what expectations were. That said, we as researchers have to remind clients to go into each project with an open mind and to leave their expectations at the door. Of course, that is in a perfect world and it never really happens does it?

    What I have found works best is to open by acknowledging the rationale behind a strategy, point out what people gravitate towards or praise, and then frame the “negatives” as areas of optimization. This helps the debrief feel a bit more constructive. In short, it is all in how you frame the output.

  2. Suzanne Hernandez says:

    I think it starts with having a strong partnership with your client from the very beginning and an on-going dialogue as results surface. If theIt’s about looking for ways to optimize the outcome so that the results are taken for what they are but shaped and communicated in a way that looks at alternatives and the upside. This is actually easier to do with qual than quant since you can iterate. Unfortunately, I have had to give bad news to clients many times when it came to new product ideas but would orient the findings on how to make the necessary improvements to obtain consumer acceptance. Making sure that there are questions to this end is obviously critical in providing this direction. It’s always important to make your client look the best you possibly can.

  3. I agree with both Mike (it can be difficult to deliver the bad news to clients) and Suzanne (it helps to have a strong partnership and to give them ways to tweak or improve to gain consumer interest). It’s easy to understand how clients can “fall in love” with ideas, concepts, advertising, etc that they have worked so hard to develop, and it’s good to remember that sometimes it takes a while to take in and accept the bad news. On rare occasion, however, there are instances when a good researcher, especially in small scale qualitative, doesn’t take what the respondents say at face value whether the news is bad or good but digs deeper to get at what behind what the consumers say aloud.