Goodbye Innovation

Posted on May 9, 2006


Is research keeping brands trapped in the past?


Conventional spells slow but certain death in the brand world, yet marketers and advertising people are responsible for setting traps of the past by unconsidered use of research. A wealth of lucid thinking, intuition and creativity that can propel brands to dizzy heights exist out there. But unfortunately, it is often constrained by corporate processes born out of accountability aversion and a systematic belittling of the consumer’s mind.

The great Henry Ford was right when he said “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.” I believe it’s time we put on our thinking caps and put an end to treating pre-testing of advertising as a magic crystal ball. Instead, let’s look at pretesting of ads for what it is – a highly hypothetical prediction, not a quasi scientific prophesy that serves to eliminate judgment and intuition from decision-making. Let’s apply the focus group in areas where appropriate and let’s dare to univocally condemn it and throw it out in areas where inappropriate. After all, we know that the success rate for new product concepts is south of 20% despite being vetted in focus group research. In view of this, there simply isn’t enough room for interpretation and intelligent judgment to balance research results in decision-making today. Enough!

The way the focus group today has become the default, Swiss army knife methodology for finding the answer to any question related to advertising and marketing ought to set off an alarm bell with everyone in the business. Mine has been ringing for quite a while and the noise has started to seriously disturb me.

Laboratory and Reality

Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman writes in his book How Customers Think that the correlation between stated intent and actual behavior is usually low and negative. In the entertainment industry, for example,
Hollywood movies and TV series routinely fail despite having come out very positively in focus groups. The business of advertising is no different. Until we acknowledge the existence of a huge, yawning gap between what respondents say in the viewing room and their behavior in the market place, I believe we are preventing a lot of great ideas from making their way outside the viewing room.

In an interview published in The Lawlor Review, Scott Bedbury, the man behind two brand icons, Nike and Starbucks said: “Oh, we did focus groups (at Nike), but not to pretest advertising concepts. We used them sporadically to uncover consumer insights in the areas we weren’t entirely sure about. In his Adasia 2003 address, Bedbury said: “Nike never pre-tested any of its campaigns, and we took the responsibility of what we were creating rather than passing the buck.” He pointed out that a lot of Nike advertising would not have seen the light of day had it been pretested in focus groups. Whilst factors affecting business performance are obviously numerous beyond advertising, it is interesting to note that in the absence of pretesting during Bedbury’s stint with the company (1987 and 1994) revenue grew from US$750 million to US$ 5 billion.


Pretesting of advertising has become a religion in many companies. But does it really bring salvation to managers and shareholders? Criticizing research in the boardroom is often considered worse than swearing in church. Infidels and heretics are treated as persona non grata. Contrary to Karl Marx’s belief, I do not think that religion is like opium for people in general. However, Karl and I are in total agreement when the religion is called research. I do believe there is a role for research in marketing and advertising. I am in fact a huge believer in research so don’t get me wrong. But when it comes to pre-testing of creative advertising concepts and the effect they have emotionally on consumers, seasoned marketing judgment nearly always gives way to focus group results. In my view, these very results are subjectively derived from a methodology fundamentally incapable of eliciting consumers’ true emotions and attitudes to start with. As a result great creative ideas are systematically put to sleep in the viewing room despite receiving CPR from planners, creatives and suits in the agency. I believe this to be part of the reason why so many brands today are ‘institutionally’ trapped in commodity hell.

The Rise of the Focus Group

We don’t need rocket science to figure out why the focus group has emerged to achieve oracle status. To both brand owners and advertising agencies, the focus group is a methodology that is predictable, controllable, as well as time and cost-efficient. It is able to generate data within a specific timeframe for anyone in need of some. Subsequently, exploring alternative insight sources is often not practicable. Besides, ‘gut feel’, intuition and judgment calls don’t serve the purpose of validating and justifying managers’ decisions. If something goes wrong, decision-makers can always point to the research. Following the recommendation from a research company probably never got anyone fired. I appreciate the harsh business reality and the pressures we’re under to ensure that advertising effectively help drive business growth. In this environment, pretesting of ads may seem the right way to go to reduce risk, which it may very well be in many instances. However, I believe that informed judgment is a superior substitute in many cases where research is currently being applied.

Structural Flaws Hindering Innovation

In my job as a planner, I often come into contact with focus group research in the context of pre-testing of communication material such as advertising. This is the area where I believe the focus group is particularly overrated. And I am not the only one with this view. People with credibility (read: people who are not in advertising) are with me on this. I have observed and participated in hundreds of focus groups on both sides of the mirror and have talked to several people who conduct them. I have even moderated in a previous life so I believe my perspective is fairly well balanced. When it comes to focus group participants, they are volunteers and often familiar with the research process. The motivations to those who participate in focus groups are varied. Some come because they need the money, others come for the food and drinks or simply for the opportunity to interact with other people, not because they have a deep desire to express their opinions and preferences. Still others, such as myself, spend a lot of their time trying to figure out precisely who is doing the testing and what the thinking behind the stimulus material shown might be. ·

Consumers Don’t Know What They Want

Professor Zaltman also points out that because focus groups don’t reflect experience but rather hypothetical choices. “Contrary to conventional wisdom, they are not effective when developing and evaluating new product ideas, testing ads, or evaluating brand images.” But he doesn’t stop here. He writes that the real reason people may seem to lie to focus groups is that they simply don’t know what they want. Nor can they readily conceive what they want. “Standard questioning can sometimes reveal consumers’ thinking about familiar goods and services if those thoughts and feelings are readily accessible and easily articulated”. But that’s a colossal If. “Most of the thoughts and feelings that influence consumers’ and managers’ behavior occur in the unconscious mind.” Not irrational, but unconscious. Neuroscience supports this view. It tells us that we only have access to approximately 5% of the cognitive processes, such as thoughts, associations and emotions that occur in our minds. What we hear in the viewing room – at best a truthful and accurate report of the consumers’ conscious thinking processes – only make up for a small part of the factors that affect the way consumers behave and make choices. ·

The Focus Group Vs. Reality

One would be hard-pressed to come up with a more unnatural environment for expressing true emotions and opinions. Think about it. Complete strangers, guided by another stranger gather in a windowless, execution chamber-like room, all being aware that there are more strangers behind the mirror judging everyone’s every move. When you ask a question, people will have an opinion regardless of how much they know, feel and think. But say something they will, most of the time. Often after making a snap judgment. The propensity to post-rationalize a scenario to back up a statement in the focus group environment cannot be ignored. No one I have talked to denies this. ·

Consumer Responses Tend To Be Retrospective

Because of the way the mind works, consumers’ responses are heavily influenced by what they have been exposed to previously in terms of advertising, products and related cognitions within the category at hand. This effectively forms the consumer’s frame of reference, their “familiarity territory” and their expectations within any given context. If the concept you’re testing is truly differentiated and unique to the category convention, it will by definition fall outside consumers’ familiarity territory. And we know for a fact that new and truly new and differentiated ideas take time to get used to in order to be appreciated. People tend to initially respond to the unfamiliar with skepticism and doubt. It’s inherent to our human nature. As a result, ideas that are truly differentiated and unconventional (not irrelevant) within the context of consumers’ familiarity territory tend to get a lukewarm reception in research. Unfortunately, these ideas are often the very ideas that have the potential to positively transform brands and businesses. Few marketers would dispute the view that relevant differentiation is a prerequisite for a successful brand strategy.

Territory out of Reach

Although there are some truly fantastic researchers out there, the fundamental shortcomings of the focus group remain and cannot be ignored. The relevancy of the focus group in the area of pre-testing of ads really boils down to assumptions made about how advertising works and how it doesn’t. Advertising simply doesn’t sell products. To say that would be overly simplistic. However, advertising can definitely help sell products through several different mental mechanisms that influence the way human make choices and behaves. For those of us who prescribe to a brand affinity model, where the key objective of long-term brand advertising strategy should be to forge and nurture an emotional bond between the consumer and the brand advertised, we must be aware that our success is largely decided in the unconscious territory of the consumer’s mind. Again, not irrational but unconscious. The problem is that the focus group methodology structurally steers participants to “think” and respond to stimulus material using cognitive processes unfolding in their conscious minds. We can’t and don’t effectively reach the unconscious corners of the mind where emotions that brands feed on live and thrive. Not even with the help of the latest, patented, proprietary, super-duper projective techniques can we explore all the corners in this vast territory of the mind.

What Research Can Do

In the ad industry and elsewhere where communication ideas are being developed, I would want to see more companies loosen their structural chains to invest more in research at the beginning of the communication development process and less to validate/falsify existing thinking and ideas at the end of it. The current ratio appears to be in the area of 20% pre and 80% post creative development, depending on the source. As an advertising agency, it’s our mission to generate powerful, innovative ideas that motivate human beings for companies to grow their businesses. With this in mind, I strongly believe many companies would be a lot better off should they strike a new balance between the pre and post creative development process.

Research can be a truly fantastic resource in idea generation and insight mining when intelligently used. I am a friend of research as long as it’s applied where it can help strengthen the creative potency and improve EFFECTIVENESS of communications, not where it used to sanitise powerful creative ideas to blend in to a world of sameness. The research industry seems to be gearing up to offer a broader spectrum of exploratory research services for insight and idea generation in the area of communication development, which is great. Ethnographic and various context based research methodologies which have traditionally been viewed with dissent are also becoming widely recognized and accepted with companies.

The cliché that says that great ideas can come from anywhere is true, but for a longest time ‘Anywhere’ seems to have been synonymous with ‘focus group’. In our planning department, we frequently involve experts and specialists in various fields in the planning process to solicit opinion and help us and our clients understand consumers from new angles and with a fresh perspective. We have found this to be a fantastic means to help uncover insights leading up to fresh thinking with the consumer at the very core. We are extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to work closely with clients who appreciate the value in alternative insight sources and support strategic brand planning that is sometimes unconventional yet rigorous and grounded. Experts we have recently worked with include anthropologists, sociologists, forensic profilers, TV-producers and journalists. “Experts” with fewer academic merits, yet of tremendous value to uncover insight into the real world comprise individuals such as the escort service lady, the DJ and the loan shark.

The Point

Old habits die hard. Getting companies to shift their research spend from advertising testing to exploratory research at the insight generation stage of advertising development is no easy feat. But I am convinced that this would help facilitate the development of more innovative and powerful ideas – ideas that make great advertising and build strong brands. David Ogilvy gave us a brilliant analogy: “Too many people use research the way a drunk uses a lamp post – for support rather than illumination”. Focus groups, which are supposed to uncover psychological need states of consumers, may actually serve as much to fulfill the psychological need states of brand owners as well as agency people. So what can be done to prevent us from being trapped in the past by imprudent use of research? I fundamentally believe that the first step is to think. The second step is to think and think some more. Finally, the third step is to have courage.

Let’s be smart about research and let’s value our intuition and our judgment.





Posted in: Planning-related