Refocus groups

Focus groups are dead – long live futures research. In the fast-paced world of product development, companies are finding ever more imaginative ways to gain customer insight.

Research that uses imaginative techniques to prepare companies for the future is experiencing growth.

This specialist field, sometimes known simply as “futures”, involves using more creative ways to discover consumer insights than the traditional focus group. Traditionally, qualitative researchers have recruited fairly like-minded people from similar backgrounds for relaxed group discussions, or focus groups. But as Richard Woods, a director of marketing consultancy New Solutions, says: “The outcome of such groups is often simply a reflection of the expectations of the researcher and the researched and therefore of limited use.”

Clive Cooper, joint chief executive of consultancy Brand Futures, goes further: “Our starting point is that you can’t ask consumers about the future. They give one of two answers. They imagine things will be of the same or higher quality, or the same and lower price. For example ‘I’ll be able to get everything at home’ or ‘I’ll be able to travel everywhere for &£100’. There is an over-expectation about what can be fulfilled. You don’t end up with useful information.”

Instead of typical focus groups, futures research uses methods such as deprivation, where people go without something to see what role it plays in their life, or the use of hand-picked discussion groups formed from a mix of society’s opinion formers. The opposite of this is inflation, where people are asked to consume more of a product than normal.

For example, the Vegetarian Society has predicted that if the trend of giving up meat continues, the majority of the UK could be vegetarian by 2020. Woods says a conventional family might be asked not to eat meat for at least a week – an exercise which will illustrate the role that meat plays in their lives and the kind of alternatives they would eat.

He says: “A lot of these things are normally of little interest to consumers. But if you give them an extreme experience, you force them to confront what they really think about something.”

Whatever the method, the aim is generally the same – to reach consumer insights that inspire new product ideas and strategies and, in doing so, help clients detect signs of change so they can prepare for them. It does not claim to predict the future however, unlike “futurology” as practised by famous names such as US trend consultant Faith Popcorn.

Practitioners of futures research argue that, as the pace of change in society quickens, this discipline is becoming more important for marketing directors trying to stay ahead of the competition.

As Giles Lury, director of communications at branding consultancy the Value Engineers, points out, the concept of value is being redefined, as we move into the century, to encompass not only value for money but also value for time.

There is also more of a need for trusted “editors of choice” – services which give people the highlights of a particular experience, such as an Internet search engine or a favourite shopping catalogue.

They also agree that, at the turn of the millennium, the spotlight has naturally fallen on the field of futures research, which is still quite a niche area. Jasmine Montgomery, a senior consultant with design consultancy Fitch, which set up its own futures research team two years ago, says: “It’s a very millennial thing.”

Lury adds: “Everyone is looking forward.”

Brand Futures’ Cooper argues that experts in this area of research offer clients a service they will not find in most major market research companies. As a former deputy head of planning at Grey Advertising, Cooper and another ex-Grey director Simon Ratcliffe set up Brand Futures three years ago to fill a perceived gap in the market. Cooper says: “Most consumer research deals with a known space. You record what consumers do according to usage or attitude. You are defining the framework within which you ask questions. That’s useful to evaluate A, B or C but is like fishing in the same pond – you are not going to get any insights. To be contentious, market research has been pretty lazy in the past 20 years.”

He argues that market research based on traditional focus groups leads to blunter and blunter, and more similar, answers from clients. It is not the type of research which inspires new strategies for brand extensions – for example, Virgin moving into the financial services market or British Gas parent Centrica buying the AA.

Montgomery at Fitch, who used to work at WPP-owned market research company Millward Brown, agrees that futures research is not being developed by major players in market research.

She says: “Market research companies are absolutely the last place to do any of this. Consumers are not the vehicle to understand the future. Opinion formers, innovators, creative people, market leaders – we have to get out there and find these people that are doing what has never been done before.”

For a design consultancy such as Fitch, futures research is particularly useful in overcoming problems caused by the time lag between a design brief and seeing a product on the shelf.

“It is important to understand the context when the product gets to market, and it gives it some longevity,” says Montgomery.

Fitch’s work in this area has been three-pronged. Eighteen months ago it bought a Paris-based fashion trend prediction company called Pecler. It set up a network of “trend agents” around the world, employed to spot the new retail, packaging, material and colour trends, and established a UK-based trends team to synthesise the information. This team assesses trend impact, its scale, and judges market potential for developing new products and services to exploit that trend.

Triple trend

Montgomery argues that there are three main areas that have to be studied or considered when assessing future consumer needs. The first of these is technological innovations, ranging from advances in biotechnology to IT, which will alter our lifestyles or ability to communicate. The second is fashion. “We are all getting more fashion-conscious,” she says. Finally, human wants and desires have to be considered. A technological innovation may be possible, but unless it is truly filling a human requirement it will never become a mass-market proposition.

At Brand Futures, focus groups have been rejected in favour of “future panels” – groups of individuals recruited through networking who are judged to think ahead in their particular field, in design, fashion, retail and so on. Cooper says they might be of a reasonably high professional status, but are not so powerful that they are out of touch with real life. In the past three years, 55 of these future panels have been organised, involving 500 people around the world. Cooper stresses the importance of bringing in differing views to the discussions to make them more fruitful.

He says: “We always have a much more wide-angled approach than focus groups. For example, if we were discussing dairy products we might include an alternative therapist in the future panel.”

Futuresearch

Practitioners of futures research agree one problem they share is a lack of suitable terms to describe what they do.

Woods from New Solutions uses the term “futuresearch” to describe his company’s work in this area. New Solutions disagrees with the belief that you cannot use consumers to give you answers. Its methods are likely to use views of ordinary people to identify potential new developments.

Taken for granted

One key aim of futuresearch is to question things consumers take for granted in everyday life. Research techniques include using people from other countries or cultures – who are unburdened by existing expectations – to sample British brands. Woods says: “Asking Americans to go shopping in British stores can highlight the problems with service that British consumers often no longer notice because they have become so accustomed to them.”

Woods, a former director at the Henley Centre, says consumers are likely to have several different “modes” of behaviour – at one part of the day they may have certain needs, at another quite different, often contradictory, priorities. With so many options, including the fragmentation of traditional media, there are many different ways to appeal to the same person. In this increasingly complex market, the unconventional and creative techniques of futures research look well-placed to grow in popularity.

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