Successful Innovation Doesn't Sprout from Focus Groups

by Natalie Reed

It’s a worrying fact that the success rate for new product concepts is less than 20%, despite them being regularly vetted in focus groups. This should lead us to question whether the qualitative focus group is the right tool to use for ideation or concept testing.

The idea of using a focus group in New Product Development (NPD) is to search out and uncover the true emotions, experiences and opinions of consumers – in order to identify an unmet need or assess the potential of a product idea (and, hopefully, improve upon it). However, over the last ten years, there has been a shift in opinion, amid increasing evidence that focus groups actually kill ideas, particularly the most creative ones.

So why is there the belief that focus groups kill innovation? Maybe it comes from many frustrating hours of watching focus groups and reading the consequent debriefs with heavy hearts. NPD and true innovation is dependent on uncovering deep insights and unknown solutions to problems that, often, consumers never knew they had. But from our experience, focus groups, by their very nature, are just not equipped to do this – for three key reasons:

1. An artificial environment

It’s unsurprising that people find it difficult to express their thoughts, feelings and ideas within a focus group. It is, after all, a very unnatural environment – essentially strangers thrown together in a windowless room, being led by another stranger, knowing their every move and comments are being watched by faceless others. Would this make you feel comfortable in revealing your deeper thoughts or in expressing ideas?

Companies spend a lot of time and money on generating safe and creative atmospheres for internal ideation workshops and brainstorming. But we expect consumers to open up and spill the beans in a totally artificial and non relaxing environment. Unsurprisingly, it just doesn’t happen.

2. The tip of the iceberg

According to behavioral economists, economic decision-making is 70 percent emotional and 30 percent rational. In focus groups, the opposite is true. Consumers will rationalise their thoughts and responses. They will try to be helpful by attempting to remove the emotion from their responses. Unfortunately, brands mainly live and thrive on emotion. Consumers will go as far as to try hard to answer questions and give opinions, even if they don’t know the answer or what they say isn’t true. At best, focus groups give us a truthful and factual account of consumers’ conscious thinking process – but this too, is problematic.

Neuroscientists state that human beings can only access about 5% of their cognitive processes – that is, the thoughts, associations and emotions that happen in our brains. Harvard Business School professor, Gerald Zaltman, supports this theory in his excellent book How Customers Think. He writes: ‘Most of the thoughts and feelings that influence consumers’ and managers’ behaviour occur in the unconscious mind.’ And, in conclusion: ‘Contrary to conventional wisdom, [focus groups] are not effective when developing and evaluating new product ideas.’

The fundamental problem is that focus groups are battling against the fact that much of what we think about is unconscious, and our emotions are intertwined with our reasoning. Consumers within these groups are not being irrational or lazy, just unconscious (not literally, although some of the focus groups we’ve watched…!)

3. Seeing the future

Every brand wants to stand out from the crowd by seeking to differentiate itself from the competition. However, this is the one thing that consumers in focus groups inherently dislike about new products and innovation ideas. They prefer to stay in ‘familiar territory’ with what is comfortable and expected, and within their current frame of reference. It’s just human nature.

So, when focus groups are presented with the unfamiliar, their natural reaction is to respond with scepticism and doubt. And this is the reason why many innovative ideas, products and services have difficulty taking off.

This can also be problematic when focus groups are used to test new ideas. In these cases, negative feedback often shuts down the idea before it even gets to market. Most people don’t know what they want before they see it and they can’t understand an innovation that comes in to solve a problem they don’t yet know they have. As Henry Ford famously said: “If I gave people what they said they wanted, I would have made a faster horse”.

So what’s the answer?

So if consumers can’t invent the future – and asking people in focus groups what they want or need doesn’t get them to – what’s the best tactic in driving new ideas for innovation?

Now, more than ever, there’s a broader spectrum of exploratory research methodologies for insight and idea generation – and the options are growing all the time. Using these new and innovative methods helps us – and our clients – take a fresh perspective and understand consumers from new angles.

Ethnographic and ‘in-situ’ based research methods involve an anthropologist spending time with people as they go about their day-to-day lives, in order to see how they use and live with products. The validity of these methods is finally beginning to be recognised, after years of derision. And people ‘in-the-know’ are now starting to appreciate that this approach can produce invaluable insights. Reach now has an anthropologist as permanent member of our strategy team.

Success lies in spending quality, one-to-one time with people in natural settings, and using the right tools. It’s important to understand the limitations and possibilities of consumers’ abilities to generate and understand new ideas. We must be able to take away the blinkers and expands minds. We do this by showing consumers the future – and the possibilities – creating a new frame of reference, which helps them to visualise and understand new ideas and concepts.

The end goal of any NPD or innovation process is sales and market success. We would like to see the failure rate for new products drop from well over 65% – and the first step is to stop the default use of focus groups. They may seem to be the quickest and cheapest way to gather consumer opinions, but if the odds are stacked against you they are surely a false economy.

Focus groups may also be comfortable and a known entity – but this is the very antithesis of innovative thinking. To quote one of the world’s most innovative thinkers, Albert Einstein, “Insanity [is] doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” So for true innovation, and a competitive advantage, try involving and working with consumers in a different way.

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Successful Innovation Does Not Sprout from Focus GroupsNatalie Reed is a Strategy Partner at Reach, consultants for brand positioning, innovation and design. Her specialties include: consumer insights, co-creation, NPD, innovation, brand strategy, communication strategy, packaging strategy, and new brand development.

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  1. Hi Natalie,

    Excellent article – We cannot all be Steve Jobs or Leo Fender, relying on intuition as the ‘software’ of NPD. Nor can market research tell us everything about unknown needs, wants and fancies.

    We need BOTH analysis and intuition, depending on the innovation need. I am presently defining a musical signature for a big fmcg brand which will have to be created in part with intuition as music largely defies a ‘spreadsheet’ approach. It will of course be extensively tested to ensure it creates the right emotional response etc.

    Thanks for this post

    Peter Cook – The Rock’n’Roll Innovation Editor at Innovation Excellence

  2. Natalie,
    You are 100% correct. Innovation does not sprout from focus groups because people are only comfortable with what they already know. What you don’t mention is that a similar problem occurs with ethnographic research, where the researcher spends time watching the end user. In this case the observer is watching with the same familiarities and assumptions that the end user has. To see and recognize “new” problems and opportunities you need have a CREATIVE observer…which is not your typical market researcher or for that matter, engineer

  3. It is fantastic to hear that we are not alone in banging the drum for having great creative and critical thinkers to be better utilised in uncovering consumer insight for innovation… I absolutely concur that the same applies to ethnographic research. Anyone can watch, observe and record. Where the added value comes in is fielding highly skilled people who can connect totally unrelated instances or comments and see a potential link or pattern. It’s about probing, pushing ideas and thinking with the consumer – the result is that they help the consumer have a better understanding of themselves and access parts of their minds they cannot reach on their own. To date we have found that these kind of people tend to come from a creative strategy or planner background. However it is definitely a certain type of person but it is like searching for a needle in a haystack as the research community still continues to produce limited, and certainly not creative thinkers.

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