Artemy Lebedev

§ 126. Focus groups

December 15, 2005

Obiter dictum

Marketing is a mainstream denomination that’s not to be scoffed at these days. Those who favor “alternative” solutions dare do so in undertones, while dissidents run the risk of prosecution for the instigation of corporate feud.

Marketing, or better put, its local breed, is still struggling to get out of its swaddling clothes. Marketing people are in a way comparable to Russia’s “indigenous peoples of the north” who, in a transport to partake of the miraculous technology of sound reproduction in the early 20th century, came a long way for a phonograph. Much impressed by its performance, they would carry home its horn, never bothering about the rest, and were naïvely astonished that the music wouldn’t play the way it did at the flea market.

One of the essential marketing tools is a market research and probing the minds of potential consumers. We are uninterested in researches conducted by analyzing a database sold by a corrupt customs officer; we are concerned with the ways of getting potential consumers’ opinions.

There are two ways: asking colleagues (a partner, a secretary or even a handful of employees will do fine) or asking a focus group. A colleague is good because he or she always sticks around and doesn’t take accountability for his or her counsel. A focus group is just as good but costs money.

Obiter dictum

The focal point of speculation by the marketing community is constituted by the term “target audience”. It’s allegedly capable of being studied, addressed, and sold things.

A bona fide assumption should be made in terms of a certain group of people formed by virtue of purchasing a product or service.

The author is prepared to acknowledge the existence of target groups to the effect that his shoe size is 13, and he doesn’t take notice of the shoes of smaller sizes.

Marketing is a multi-level system used to duck responsibility by all those involved in all phases of the thought-killing process. Arbitrarily chosen respondents don’t have much of an idea about what’s going to work and what not, so holding them responsible for their statements is out of the question. As a consequence, the first thing marketing people offer is surveying the opinions of randomly selected pollees referred to as target audience representatives.

A roomful of dames are questioned about what they think of the hugger-mugger packaging of a new mayonnaise.

“Does the packaging convey the premium feel as the manufacturer intended it to? Does it fit well with positioning as a modern and prestigious new-generation product?”

Dames attend these focus group meetings to earn 20 dollars an hour, so they do strive to make their presence worthwhile. Inactive ones get hauled out by the moderator; exceedingly active ones get gagged not to befuddle the others.

The customer’s reps are gathered behind a one-way mirror next door munching cold Chicken McNuggets and washing them down with instant coffee (in the midst of discussing the one wearing a purple sundress).

“I figure that’s a prestigious packaging, so I do.”

“I think there could be some more of whatchamacallit… premium feel. Come to think of it, if I spotted this one on the rack, I guess I wouldn’t buy it.”

“To me the packaging looks like a pretty normal one, except that the hippo is sort of irrelevant, and the name has been poorly kerned…”

“Hey, who let a designer in here?”, the moderator cuts in. “Leave the room, ma’am. Now, where were we? Please be reminded that we’re talking about the premium feel. Does this variant with a candlestick inspire loyalty?”

Next door the testing of a ketchup logo is in full swing.

“What sort of services do you think this company offers? How much are you ready to pay for these services?”

In a conference room the customer is presented the findings of a protracted research and showed an eerie yellow hippo with a string of beads on an A3 broadsheet—a self-portrait of the moron of a designer.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve gotten our character approved by the focus group!”

And on it goes. A response of one fool passing by is no big deal. But the responses of a hundred fools are called the results of a focus group research and sold for cash. A stack of paper filled in the wake of the research serves a double purpose: as an indult for marketing people and as a guideline to a pointless follow-up.

Housekeeping tip

The members of a team that created the genial self-balancing Segway Human Transporter say that they kept focus groups at a safe distance.

Apple also thinks nothing of focus groups.

Confessions like these are few. But then focus groups were not part of the projects that gave the world nearly all things of interest or renown.

Marketing people are detached from reality. They are not informed that to have a mayonnaise put on a supermarket shelf, “admittance fee” needs to be paid. They are ignorant of the fact that the day before a regional distributor lost a game of pool to the mayonnaise factory director and decided not to buy any products from this supplier. There’s no one to send them reeling with the bombshell news that the factory is going to change hands in a month.

From the viewpoint of the front office, marketing people are fall guys always getting off the hook: they are pressurized but invariably have their surveys to back them up. Therefore, marketing departments are fired from head down to the last employee once a year on average, taking up a new career in fiberboards where they carry on with new researches.

It’s especially pointless to use focus groups to get a new product assessed. Consumers will respond that a box of chocolates should feature a gold-rimmed cup of tea, a candle, and a rose. All you are apt to learn by asking people’s opinion is what’s on their minds these days, before the product is actually marketed.

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