FOCUS: MARKET RESEARCH - A sharper focus on public opinion/It used to be just a penny for your thoughts, but these days those same ideas are proving invaluable for uncovering consumer trends and perceptions Mary Cowlett looks at the growing use of focus g

Last month, Andrew Neil, editor-in-chief of the Scotsman and the European, criticised the use of focus groups in a Daily Mail article entitled ’Only cowards listen to focus groups’.

Last month, Andrew Neil, editor-in-chief of the Scotsman and the

European, criticised the use of focus groups in a Daily Mail article

entitled ’Only cowards listen to focus groups’.

Neil cites an exercise ten years ago when, as editor of the Sunday

Times, he had begun to expand the paper into a ’multi-section monster’.

An unconvinced management organised a series of focus groups throughout

the country.

These produced complaints of too much paper and resentment at paying for

sections that ended up in the bin, unread.

Neil resolutely ignored the findings and subsequently watched the Sunday

Times’ profits soar, and competitors scramble to produce their own

multi-section Sunday editions.

So, how could the research be that wrong? The main difficulty with all

qualitative techniques is that the results are only as good as the

research itself.

’There is an element of the black art about focus groups,’ says David

Skelsey, director of qualitative research at Taylor Nelson AGB Business

Services. ’The quality of the work relies on the individual that

conducts it.’ He points out the importance of good respondent

recruitment, but views the ability of the moderator as paramount.

Laura Marks, chair of the Association of Qualitative Research

Practitioners (AQRP), says: ’Focus groups are very easy to knock if you

discount the importance of analysis. Some people think that we just talk

to six housewives in Wigan and then do what they say.’

However, she reports that qualitative research has undergone a boom

period in the 1990s, and is now worth an estimated pounds 125 million.

In the same period, membership of AQRP has increased by roughly 10 per

cent each year, from 300 to 850. She attributes this growth to the

technique no longer being only the domain of advertising and brand

testing, but increasingly moving through the line.

Direct marketing, design and corporate identity professionals are

realising the value of getting under the skin of the customer and

understanding the perceptions that drive their behaviour.

So why is PR not on this list? Marks says: ’Cost, and a lot of people

have probably never really thought about it.’ However, she thinks that

PR staff would find focus groups valuable in identifying the perimeters

of people’s perceptions.

This is a view echoed by Jane Atkin, research and planning director of

strategic agency First and 42nd. She is surprised that focus groups are

not used more often in crisis situations. She says: ’For instance, where

buyer behaviour is being influenced by an issue, such as a potentially

dangerous ingredient, focus groups can help find the threshold at which

customers stop buying a product.’

However, all parties agree that the real value of focus groups is in

strategic planning. By talking to small groups of people in sufficient

depth, it is possible to develop hypotheses on why people behave as they

do. In PR terms, this enables analysis of what the messages are and

which messages are believable and from whom.

There is some discussion among research professionals about whether

focus groups can be used to examine sensitive issues, such as personal


Jane Gwilliam, managing director of Research International Qualitatif

UK, says that in her time she has moderated groups from colostomy bag

users to parents of probable drug-abusing children. She says: ’People

find they have a problem they can share in a supportive group. In a

one-to-one situation they hold back.’

Usually, depending on the research subject, focus groups consist of

same-sex respondents of similar socio-economic grouping, age and


It is especially important with women to identify their working status

and whether they have a family. On the whole, though, respondents are

not familiar with each other.

However, according to BBC head of corporate communications strategy,

Catherine Hastings, her company is currently conducting focus group

research with respondents who do know each other. ’We want to understand

the dynamics of the way people think, rather than looking at one

individual at one moment in time,’ she says.

The corporation is examining the impact of conversation and shared

culture and experiences to find ’cradles of opinion’. She says the

findings will impact throughout the whole organisation, from better

targeted PR to influencing programme scheduling.

There is a consensus of opinion that, to get the most out of focus group

research, you have to use a professional, someone independent who has no

stake in the results. Alison Clarke, Welbeck Golin/Harris chief

executive, says: ’If you are not trained in the skill, I believe you can

get a room of people to tell you whatever you want to hear.’

As her agency is based in London, she finds the tool useful for

identifying regional factors. This year, her company created a campaign

for a Scottish tobacco brand that was particularly popular with women at

the lower end of the socio-economic scale. She says: ’On the face of it

we positioned a campaign that was too high, but focus groups revealed

that these women were highly aspirational.’

Fishburn Hedges managing director John Williams thinks that focus groups

are greatly undervalued by the PR industry. He says that practitioners

are not disciplined enough and are too inclined to rely on anecdotal


The Abbott Mead Vickers Group is currently conducting discussion

group-led research on people’s attitudes to the new millennium. Findings

from across the group show that the public view it as an opportunity to

take stock. ’At the moment, people are regarding the event as a party’

he says.

’But increasingly they are looking to embrace deeper values.’

But how far should the views of a handful of respondents sway your own

beliefs? To what extent should you respond to the day-to-day concerns of

the customer? ’You ignore what the consumer says at your peril, but you

have to use your own judgement,’ says Williams.

Martin Ellis, deputy managing director and director of healthcare of

Cohn and Wolfe thinks that often PR peopleneed to take a step back and

ask themselves why they are conducting research. ’Most people use market

research like a drunk uses a lamp-post,’ he says, ’for support rather

than illumination.’ He also criticises marketers’ rigid approach to

research techniques, saying people get indoctrinated into when to use

each tool.

He admits that it is usually easier to create media coverage from

quantitative research - facts and figures - but says: ’Focus groups can

give the human side.’

It seems that as marketing budget allocations become more

performance-indicator driven, focus groups will be a more widely-used

tool. After all, you have to show where you started from, in order to

demonstrate what has been achieved. As Mary Baker, senior planner at

Countrywide Porter Novelli, says: ’In this industry, we need to use

planning tools and research more often, to be seen as part of a

strategic marketing team.’


Media 100 is one of the leading players in the digital video editing

industry. Editing video footage on a computer, rather than the

old-fashioned tape-based method, is a very competitive and relatively

new market.

Last year the company undertook focus group-based research to revamp its

image and position itself as a world leader in the marketplace. Media

100 invited its retained PR agency, The Weber Group Europe, to sit in on

the discussions so that the results could be used in its communications


Research company Spikes Cavell organised a series of focus groups in the

UK, France and Germany. Groups of eight to ten multimedia and TV

professionals discussed their industry, whom they saw as key players in

the market and what was important in a video editing product. The

moderator then led the groups on to talk specifically about Media 100.

Messages relating to their products were flashed on to a screen to find

respondent reactions.

This proved to be highly revealing. In the past, Media 100 had stressed

their systems’ ease-of-use as a core value. But when they presented this

as a key message to the focus groups, most members dismissed its


They felt it was universally known that all computer-based editing

systems were easy to use and could be learnt in a day or less.

However, the groups showed greater interest in knowing that the system

provided them with broadcast quality pictures and that it was a

completely open system - meaning they could hook it up to other

manufacturer’s equipment.

The groups were then shown key words, such as ’powerful’, ’simple’ and

’flexible’. The words they preferred were ’open’, ’integrated’ and

’quality’, as they felt these described something the product was or

could do for them.

This exercise provided a valuable insight for the PR team observing.

’We were able to hear first hand from our target audience what they felt

was important,’ says Alex Scoltock, director of business development at

The Weber Group Europe. ’It was fascinating to hear them talk candidly

about the product and to get true reactions to some of the key messages

we were using in PR. It became clear that certain things like openness

and picture quality were the real hot buttons and others, like

simplicity and ease of use, were really of no interest.’


Wade Smith is an independent designer label and sportswear store,

popular with Liverpool’s brand conscious youth.

To publicise the launch of its new concept sportswear store in the city

last year, the company brought in Countrywide Porter Novelli in


The new four-storey shop, called Outdoor Athletic, was designed to house

all the leading high-fashion sportswear brands in an exciting sports-led


Although Wade Smith knew that Liverpool shoppers liked to be seen with

one of its carrier bags, it had little data on why. So before developing

a programme of activity, Countrywide set about gaining a greater

understanding of its client’s customers.

The agency conducted four group discussions of eight Wade Smith shoppers

aged between 18 and 30, to explore their perceptions and test some

initial launch ideas. Its research also included the ROAR research.

Sponsored by the likes of Emap and Channel 4, ROAR examines UK youth

culture and looks at its effects on areas such as purchasing habits,

clothes, fashion and the media.

Countrywide then tailored a campaign to reflect its findings that

indicated a need to remain locally focused, appeal to the youth market’s

brand sophistication and capture the essence of Liverpool and its

sporting heritage.

In the week prior to the Outdoor Athletic launch, various fashion

features ran in the local media, including the Liverpool Daily Post.

Nationally, the Mirror ran a competition to win tickets to the launch

party and an opportunity to meet Steve MacManaman, the Liverpool and

England footballer.

In the new store the evening before the launch, three local young

atheletes were presented with Sports Aid Foundation awards, sponsored by

Wade Smith.

The shop’s central atrium houses a 46ft climbing wall and, on launch

day, TV weatherman Fred Talbot broadcast his forecast from this focal

point. Later that evening world-class climber John Dunne made his

inaugural ascent to officially open the store.

The launch party was attended by 1,000 people, including Liverpool


Guests mingled with the likes of Robbie Fowler, Jamie Redknapp and

goalkeeper turned model David James. Local sports celebrities also

included Olympic Gold medal rowing duo Stephen Redgrave and Matthew


To end the night, guests were transported in double decker buses to

Cream, one of Liverpool’s top night-clubs.

Coverage of the launch appeared locally on Granada TV and nationally in

men’s style magazines GQ, FHM and Esquire. According to Wade Smith, four

months after opening, sales of sportswear were running at three times

the level of the previous year.


Recent packaging legislation means that all parties in the chain - from

suppliers of raw materials to retailers - are obliged to reach

government set levels of packaging recovery. Since 1992, British Steel

Tinplate has played an active role in recycling, through its Steel Can

Recycling Information Bureau (SCRIB), run by Biss Lancaster.

By working closely with local council recycling officers, British Steel

wanted to establish itself as the authority on steel can recycling.

However, the company was aware that an increasing lack of concern among

consumers was affecting collection levels.

In October 1996, SCRIB commissioned environmental research agency

Quadrangle to undertake a qualitative research exercise to establish

how, in practice, consumers viewed different collection methods for


Quadrangle conducted six one-and-a-half hour discussion groups in Leeds,

Leicester and Basingstoke, where a choice of various collection schemes

were available to the public.

The study revealed that most people were more concerned about local,

rather than global environmental issues. Jan Davison, director at Biss

Lancaster, says: ’Messages saying that recycling will save the planet

were clearly not relevant.’ Key concerns were water pollution, air

quality and litter affecting the immediate environment.

It further showed that kerbside collection had the potential to succeed

over other methods, as it brought recycling into the home in a way that

other schemes did not.

The results were used to gain media coverage in trade titles Material

Recycling Week and Packaging Week. SCRIB also wanted to take the

research back to the local authority recycling officers to support them

in their work. So, it published the major findings in its newsletter,

’Recycling Bulletin’, which is produced every three months. Davison says

that the research helped drive a number of campaigns to both consumers

and local authorities. But instead of using the technique as a

straightforward diagnostic tool they were able to use the results


’We used the research not only in further developing our communications

strategy for British Steel, but as a communications tool in its own

right,’ she says.

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