Most CPG marketers would agree that new product innovation should be driven by—or at least linked to—meaningful consumer insights. By that logic, it should stand to reason that the best way to gain such insights would be to start by conducting a few focus groups not only to learn about your consumers’ unmet needs but also to work with these same consumers to imagine potential solutions.
Here’s the problem with that logic: Most consumers can’t imagine what they don’t already know. Focus groups ask them to talk about how they feel about doing laundry, for example, and what might make their laundry chores easier or more delightful. The moderator might even present some hypothetical product concepts or other idea-starters to prompt discussion. But consumers have a hard time expressing the “why’s” behind their preferences in a meaningful or useful way and will often default to echo the sentiments of the loudest voice in the room. Conversely, when you talk to several groups, what comes out will be conflicting responses.
The real kicker here? Focus groups tend to be the starting point of a product innovation process, giving a small sample of off-the-street consumers a whole lot of influence over the potential future of your pipeline.
If you’re a marketing professional, I’d guess you’ve sat in hundreds of focus groups over your career. You’re aware of their flaws: the time-wasting icebreakers, the hours behind the mirror where half the team isn’t paying attention, the disruptive people who derail conversations, and the unengaged consumer just there for the free snacks—all at a price tag that makes you wonder if it was all worth it.
Instead of Focus Groups, Do This
Marketers and brand managers feel the need to hear from the consumer, and I’m OK with that. But there are three other—far better—ways to get their input:
1) Look at what people are already doing.
I always say that the best research is already done for you. Across the whole social media landscape, you can see, in real-time, what consumers are doing, what products they love, what their frustrations and aspirations are, what hacks and workarounds they’re using, and how they engage with their favorite brands. Etsy and TikTok are great places to scout what makers and creators are doing—they’ll tip you off to new ingredients, innovative solutions, and popular flavors, and you can really see the kinds of things people are looking for and dreaming up. Want to know how people feel about your category? Spend some time in the reviews section on Amazon or search a product, brand, or category hashtag on Instagram. Even a few keyword searches on Google will unearth what people are really saying, especially when they’re not subject to the awkward setup of the moderated discussion and two-way mirror.
2) Talk to people who are already living in the future.
Most consumers aren’t oracles—but some consumers are. They’re living in big cities, and they’ve already adopted new behaviors and embraced new products.
Marketers ask me this question all the time: “Why should I talk to people in New York and LA? Our consumers are in middle America. People living on the coast can’t create ideas that are right for the people we want to target with our products.”
But they’re exactly the right people. Most trends start with consumers in cities, with people who are exposed to new products and drinks and cuisines and boutiques as a part of their daily lives. These are normal experiences for them, so they can tell you what these products add to their lifestyle or what a class of ingredients does for them. They have the answers because they’ve already seen the solutions.
It’s so commonplace for groups of 50-year-old women in NY or LA to talk about using ketamine, having a mushroom journey, or using ayahuasca. I guarantee those conversations are not happening in the center of the country—but they will be.
3) Remember that you are a consumer too.
As marketers, we often forget that we share the consumer experience every day. We know what a chore it is to do laundry, we understand the challenges of family dinnertime, and we are all looking for a way to make the transition from our work day to our second (or third!) shift. We can begin to hypothesize what consumers want not with an N-of-1 mentality but by understanding our own challenges and also having the ability to imagine what others might be going through. You don’t have to be a parent of a young child to understand that the shower might be your biggest escape of the day. And while I’m definitely not a 16-year-old looking to impress, I can imagine that I might want to find a more accessible way into some of the grooming and personal care products that more established adults are using.
When you start looking at what consumers today are already saying, paying attention to what tomorrow’s consumers are already buying, and imagining what your inner consumer might someday want, you’ll find that there’s a world of insights out there—beyond the focus group facility—just waiting to be mined.
By Lynn Altman
Lynn Altman is the President of Brand Now. For over 20 years, Lynn has been the behind-the-scenes innovator for big companies, with over 400 new product and branding projects completed for more than half of the Top 100 Global Brands, including Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, Gillette, McDonald’s, American Express and UBS. She has also done extensive work in the financial, CPG, beauty, and pharmaceutical industries with companies such as Capital One, Bank of America, Dial, Nestlé, L’Oréal, and Wyeth. Lynn is also the author of Brand It Yourself: The Fast, Focused Way to Marketplace Magic.