'Tipping Point' guru takes on focus groups

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The focus group, long the bete noire of talented creatives and instinctual marketers, is now in the crosshairs of one of the country's most influential marketing thinkers.

Malcolm Gladwell, best-selling author of 2000's "The Tipping Point" gained guru status among marketers for his insights about the epidemic-like spread of trends. Now he's hitting the road for his new book, "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking," which centers on the premise that decisions made quickly can be as good as those made after much deliberation. And as Mr. Gladwell wends his way around the country speaking to rapt audiences at agencies, ad groups and marketers, he will focus on his findings that much market research fails to ratify anything but the status quo.

don't ask

"There is very little psychological justification for the notion that you can find out what people think about an idea-particularly a revolutionary new idea-by asking them," Mr. Gladwell said. "I can only hope my book can be used as ammunition on the part of creatives to protect their work from the numbing effect of market research."

That's a notion many in the marketing world applaud.

Lucas Jenson, market-research and consumer-services manager (a.k.a. conduit to the ice cream consciousness) at Unilever's Ben & Jerry's, agreed wholeheartedly with Mr. Gladwell's premise. "The unique insights that drive innovation and really great ad campaigns aren't gained through traditional research like mall intercepts, mail surveys and focus groups."

He boasts that Ben & Jerry's hasn't done a focus group in three years, driven by his "utter disappointment in them after facilitating well over 100." Instead, Mr. Jenson has set up an internal "Get Connected" campaign in which he rewards employees for gaining consumer insights in a variety of non-traditional ways. Answering a consumer letter earns them two points toward a prize, reading a book like "Blink" will get them three, and meeting with a core "Chunk Spelunker" who has signed up online for "Chunk Mail" for a casual lunch or coffee while in their area nets them a whopping 10. Information culled through those informal meetings have driven Ben & Jerry's to the development of new lines, including last year's Core Concoctions and the upcoming Mood Magic.

Parent Unilever may be looking to follow suit, as Mr. Jenson has of late received calls from his counterparts at corporate looking for ways to "be a bit more innovative" in gaining insights, he said.

culture of instinct

Mr. Gladwell supports such observational, anthropological research, arguing that it is just the highly artificial, formulaic efforts in which some companies invest great importance that he believes actually "thwart the better judgment" of expert marketers.

"I don't think the problem is that there aren't people in the corporate world with great instincts. The problem is creating cultures that allow them to use those instincts," Mr. Gladwell said.

Ed Razek, chief creative officer at Limited Brands' Victoria Secret, couldn't agree more. "Customers can't tell you what they want because they haven't seen it," Mr. Razek said. Marketers must rely, he said on their "brain and data memory" culled by necessity from an experiential database much like Mr. Gladwell's example in "Blink" about athletes who rely unconsciously on muscle memory.

Nike didn't bother to try to ask questions of the notoriously individualistic skateboard audience it was trying to reach for its new line of skateboarding footwear. It went directly to insider Kevin Imamura, editor of TransWorld Stance, and brought him on to gain his expertise and instincts.

"Nike relied on me to get inside the head of a skateboarder, since focus groups of skateboarders would be nothing we'd want to be a part of," Mr. Imamura said.

Agencies are particularly receptive to Mr. Gladwell's message because, as one agency executive said, "creatives largely agree they don't want more focus testing, some because they agree it's not the most valid way of assessing work and some because they don't like what they hear."

Chris Lloyd, president of Omnicom Group's DDB, Seattle, booked Mr. Gladwell long ago to speak to the agency and to a small private group of clients including Philips, Microsoft and Amtrak this week. Now that the early buzz about "Blink" has taken on grand proportions, he has been inundated by calls-even from clients he hadn't invited-to try to attend the session.

`"Blink' has particular relevance to our industry, even more than `The Tipping Point,"' Mr. Lloyd said, in large part because "creativity is very intangible and to the extent that we try to make it science, we destroy it in some manner. ... Twenty years ago, there was a lot of intuition that went into this business and since then we've needed more and more proof for our clients for our ideas."

still relevant

Other marketers still believe that focus groups have a role to play, if used wisely. Roger Adams, executive director of advertising, marketing and CRM at General Motors Corp., said "I'm a believer in focus groups, but it depends how you use them."

When he arrived at GM in the mid-1990s as brand manager of the Buick Regal, he conducted focus groups because his team wanted to find out whether to advertise the base or super-charged model. Surprisingly, he said, results showed that women leaned toward the super-charged model and saw it as a safety feature in times of needed acceleration.

Philip Clough, president at L'Oreal-owned Kiehl's, said his beauty brand relies less on focus groups because of its direct contact with consumers through sampling in its retail stores.

But he believes "to be able to involve consumers in collective brainstorming is a good idea, especially because most market researchers take into consideration today the factors that may sway focus group members."

While many marketers are using focus groups a bit better than they used to, one agency creative executive finds that "brand managers-whose tenure tends to be a short eight to 15 months on a brand-often default to the easy science to justify their decision rather than relying on their own gut."

That is just what Mr. Gladwell is afraid of.

contributing: jean halliday

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