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Intelligent Insights

"If I’d listened to my customers I’d have given them a faster horse" – Henry Ford’s guide to focus group research.

Ignoring focus groups, or listening to them far too intently – The counter-intuitive pitfalls of consumer research.

“Women make or influence over 80% of all consumer purchases. So, they are basically your boss. You listen to your boss, right?”

This quote, in a MarketingProfs.com article, neatly sums up the modern dilemma around focus groups. The tried-and-tested adage that the consumer is King or, as the quote makes clear, more commonly, Queen can be a burden for leaders of Consumer Sector businesses. Because leaders like to lead. And focus groups, in the end, are generally all about asking the customer what the customer wants and then taking their advice.

As author, Jen Drechsler, continues: “This is particularly true when you are trying to learn from women, who are uniquely wired to be good talkers and problem solvers. They tend to articulate solutions that are good for humans, not just for themselves, and are generous with their time and ideas.”

Always listen to the ‘boss’ then. That must surely be the secret of Consumer Sector success. The recent trials and travails of Marks & Spencer’s clothing division have been well documented and suggest M&S, as a company, hasn’t listened to their focus group ‘bosses’ very attentively. Just imagine how many qualitative groups the Paddington-based retail giant must have funded over the last few years in attempting to rectify them? But, seemingly, to no avail. In its most recent results, clothing and home sales were down 2.4%, playing part in overall group revenue falling 3.9% to £3bn.

But, with a new campaign due in the autumn, Nathan Ansell, Clothing and Home Marketing Director, says, in a recent Marketing Week article: “We’ll be looking to build on early successes with our digital-first approach to campaigns …There’s lots to do and we’re all looking forward to working together to make M&S more relevant, more often, to more customers.” This time, it seems, their quest for renewed relevance means they are absolutely determined to listen.

Which could be a big mistake. Because there’s another danger of focus group research that is also often overlooked: listening too attentively.

Again in Marketing Week, Boots Marketing Director, Helen Normoyle, used a Henry Ford quotation to perfectly sum this dilemma up: ‘“If I’d listened to my customers, I’d have given them a faster horse.”’ Normoyle explains “As much as I’m a passionate advocate for looking at customer data and insights, you can’t rely on people to tell you what they want. They tell you what they think they want, but if you show them something better that they haven’t thought of they’ll quickly fall in love with that too.”

An intelligent and nuanced insight. No surprise then that Normoyle started her career in market research which she believes gave her “A really good grounding of thinking about the customer and being really passionate about understanding people.”

So, there it is then: don’t listen or, alternatively, listen too attentively. Well, no-one ever said Consumer Sector marketing was easy.

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