Don Draper on Focus Groups

Last week’s episode of Mad Men portrayed a focus group of women for the agency’s new client, Ponds Cold Cream.  Peggy, the brave, bright boundary-bashing female of the bunch, has a theory that Ponds is about a daily ritual, something highly personal and indulgent, a time of day when women can stare at themselves in the mirror and feel good about themselves.

The focus group moderator, a sexy woman with PhD and a repressed crush on Don that will inevitably blossom, agrees with Peggy’s premise.  But when the group is over, she retreats. It seems that the misogynists (i.e., every male character) were right. All women care about is getting married. Ponds should be positioned as a product for more attractive, softer, and most importantly, man-pleasing skin to help women realize their dreams of husbands and babies before it’s too late.

Don, certainly not known for his empathy for women in his personal life, takes issue with the researcher’s verbal download.  Rejecting conventional wisdom, he puts forth the issue that we all must wrestle with any time we conduct research:  Consumers only understand new products and ideas in the context of their past.  Their thinking is linear and rooted in past experience.  How can they know how they will feel in the future?  Can they really recognize a great idea before its time?

Don argues that his creative intuition, his understanding of the human condition, is on to something big. He may be wrong, but the only way to find out is take a risk, put a stake in the ground and find out by taking action.

And I think he’s right.  The conclusion that many have come to, including Steve Jobs, is that that focus groups are useless.  But that’s completely wrong.  It was really all there in the group.  After observing the research, Don and Peggy still felt that end result is to feel beautiful and valued. That a woman’s self-esteem transcends marital status. Everyone else simply played back the obvious, but the superficial. Because that’s the expedient, risk-free way to go.

Many years ago, I developed a new product for a snack food client called “Quesadillys.”  These were thick, triangular, cheesy chips that came if a few different flavors.  Focus group testing revealed that people liked the idea, and for all the right reasons – fun, flavor, texture, something different, etc. But Mexican food was not quite in the mainstream in the Midwest, East Coast or the Deep South in the early 90’s. Many of our suburban Chicago and Charlotte respondents didn’t have a clue what a quesadilla was. The client killed the idea.

Again, it was all there in the discussion. And therein lies the dilemma – but also what I love about focus groups and marketing.  Very little in our lives or our work is clear-cut. Rather, ambiguity and complexity abound.  Research provides direction, not answers. Our job is to think deeply and take a stand.

I shudder to think about how many legendary brands would have never seen the light of day were it not for visionaries, with or without the support of research, having the courage of their convictions.

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