The trouble with focus groups

A better method

I used to run focus groups for global food companies - eight people in a sitting room, strangers to each other, discussing new food ideas and branding. I know what I'm like in focus groups, and I know that most others are the same: we all try to project a better version of ourselves, or say what we think wants to be heard.

I soon began to think this approach to research was crazy. Focus groups take place in a really artificial environment. People don’t shop in the company of seven other strangers and with everyone on their best behaviour, people shop on their own and the relationship with the brand on the shelf is one to one.

If you ask in a focus group whether people eat organic for example, the likelihood is that they’re going to tell you they do, whether they do or they don’t. It never made sense to me to gather brand feedback under those false circumstances.

I catch people right there in the supermarket, at the very moment of purchase

Shopper 'stalking', as I call it, is a far more accurate and faster way of helping clients because I catch people right there in the supermarket, at the very moment of purchase, and with all the stimulus of the shelves.

Typically, I take a mock up pack from a client onto the shelves and see how consumers shopping the category react to it before brands go to the expense of a long print run. I can find out very quickly whether the brand and packaging stands out and what’s going right or wrong. I will do over 50 interviews and cover the universe of their possible customers.

Shoppers, especially the younger generation, rarely mind being approached. Many are flattered to be asked their opinion on brands and are happy to be filmed when I ask.

Sometimes I work with brands that have already launched and maybe aren’t getting the sales traction they wanted and need to find out what customers think to see if there’s anything they need to tweak or change.

I took the idea to Innocent and they loved it and once I’d worked with them it became a lot easier to get other brands on board. Clients are always curious too about what customers actually think and because I film the customer's feedback, clients get to experience first hand how customers react, without it being filtered.

My advice to challengers in food and drink would be to get your brand on the supermarket shelf (ask permission of course) - then be brave and approach customers for their opinions. You'll learn so much more from those one-on-one responses than you'll ever learn from a focus group.


The rise of the own-brands

I regularly used to hear the shoppers I interview proudly boast that they didn’t look at price and they could afford any brands they wanted. Today people proudly tell me they love shopping at Lidl because they can get the own-brands significantly cheaper. Telling people you shop at Aldi or Lidl is seen as showing people you are canny and smart. That’s a huge change in consumer behaviour over the last five years.

Brand owners need to ask themselves why should people pay more, because I don’t think it’s a given anymore.

Today we see over 50% of supermarket sales in the UK going to own-brands and people are becoming increasingly resistant to paying more for a brand when own-brand products are of the same quality. Brand owners today need to ask themselves why should people pay more because I don’t think it’s a given anymore.

That's why challenger brands should look to solve a problem that own label products aren’t solving. They need to ask themselves how does it make the customer's life better? Does it make them healthier? Does it save them time or make them feel sexier?

So Pip and Nut saying, we will never use palm oil, or Rude Health saying, we will never put anything in a product that you wouldn’t find in your own kitchen are great examples but design plays a huge part too. People don’t have any time when they’re in the supermarket, they’re on autopilot. They’re responding to colour and shape much more than people think, and with little time to read, so you’ve got to smack them in the eyes and be super confident in how they communicate your challenger brand and its values.

It’s easy for challenger brands to want to compromise on those values as they get bigger and maybe substitute a few ingredients here and there but there’s nowhere to hide if you do that now. Consumers will find out. For me that’s the biggest difference now, but that works to the challenger brand's advantage if they stick to their guns. It's those values that the own-brand retailers struggle to replicate.

One thing that hasn’t changed is people love an underdog

There is so much opportunity now too to articulate to the world how you are a challenger brand. Brands can finance growth through crowd-funding, they can reach wide audiences if they’re engaging enough, they can build a community around their brand as BrewDog have done, and those opportunities simply weren’t available to challenger brands before. One thing that hasn’t changed is people love an underdog. It’s an archetype isn’t it? People will always love that story.