Finding the right type of stimuli is vital for the success of product research using focus groups. But each stage of the development process requires different stimuli

Traditionally, focus groups have tended to look like a creativity day in a Montessori school, or a casting session for a new Blue Peter presenter – all scissors, pots of glue, magazines and colours. But while the old-style focus group is alive and well, many qualitative researchers are now attempting to extend the range of stimuli they use to get their subjects firing on all cylinders.

Research International conducts Research International Observer each year, and this year it focuses on men. Bill Morgan, associate director of Research International Qualitatif, explains that an easy way to extend the range of materials used is to get subjects to bring their own.

Morgan says: “This year, we’re looking at men and masculinity, which can be fairly difficult to get at. So we’ve asked people to bring with them something that typifies an important stage in their lives.”

As might be expected, a number of subjects brought in car keys (representing the dream motors they finally managed to buy), or house keys. But one brought in the set of rosary beads he had been given by the Pope when he was contemplating a career in the priesthood.

Morgan adds: “We also gave them a little disposable camera and asked them to take photographs of their environment.” People produced pictures of the café they ate lunch in, the inside of their fridge, black taxis and other examples of street life.

What RI is looking for, Morgan observes, is “anything that can help us get a handle on their lives”.

Requirements differ, however, according to the sort of research which is being conducted. The sort of stimuli that might be appropriate for the research that RI is conducting for RIO might not be appropriate to the kind of materials needed for new product research or brand re-evaluation, as Morgan himself acknowledges.

The “old-fashioned” collage approach – which usually results in the creation of a “mood board”, with words and pictures snipped from magazines to represent the values a brand is perceived to have – is still a valid approach.

Morgan says that collages have two main functions. Firstly, they act as a reference point for the moderator of a session: “Sometimes, when you look back at a collage, things strike you that didn’t come out at the time.”

But the primary function of collages, Morgan adds, “is as an enabling device”, to get subjects to loosen up and talk more freely. The point about qualitative focus groups, as Morgan says, is not to get responses that subjects can explain rationally, but to get “something that feels right”. It is also important, he adds, to “ask them what isn’t in the collage”.

Ask researchers – whether at market research consultancies or within marketing consultancies, advertising agencies or client companies – what the purpose of focus groups is, and they will stress the point that Morgan makes: you are not looking for rational, considered opinions, but for “gut reactions”. Too many companies have based major marketing decisions on logical answers provided in focus groups, only to discover that the real reasons why people use their products or services are fundamentally irrational.

A classic example is Coca-Cola, and its decision – faced with the evidence that in blind tastings, consumers preferred the taste of Pepsi – to change the formula for Coke. Focus groups preferred the new flavour, which they found younger and fresher: but nobody ever told them the new version was meant to replace original Coke. The end result is a marketing text-book case study: how consumer resistance to the new flavour resulted in Coca-Cola back-pedalling and relaunching the original – as Classic Coke – within six months.

Granted, that was not a result of using the wrong stimuli – it came from asking the wrong question. But it still underlines how important it is to get behind the obvious, immediate, top-of-the-mind responses: and the right stimuli are vital to doing that.

But a further problem can be that different kinds of stimuli are needed for different kinds of research – and even for different stages of the research process.

As Paul Walton, chairman of new product development consultancy The Value Engineers, explains: “In the early stages of a new product or brand reassessment project, words might be appropriate. Then picture collages, and then, as you learn more and you start to give the brand a clearer identity, you can introduce mock-ups of packaging and other props to three-dimensionalise the world.”

Walton says that mood boards, mood tapes and scatter boards are still important parts of the process, but he adds: “You need to make the stimuli as 3D as possible to bring things alive. If you could, then ‘scratch and sniff’ would be even better.”

Walton, whose company is a major user of qualitative research both for “blue sky” (completely new) product projects, and for brand reassessment, says: “The more meaningful the stimulus, the better the response. The better the replication of reality you get, the better the response.”

Alex Authers, research director at branding consultancy New Solutions, has also worked on the client side and in advertising, so he has experience of both selling and buying research for a variety of different purposes.

He says: “Good stimuli are at the heart of good research. But the days of researchers just using the ‘Great British Concept Board’ are long gone. You’ve got to add in all sorts of other visual stimuli.

“We’ve moved on from static visuals, to using videos. It’s often useful to show a series of fast-edited clips set to some sort of soundtrack. People are now much more video literate. So instead of having a mood board, we have a mood video.”

Video collages are particularly good, Authers says, for “exploring the emotional resonances of brands”.

Audio tapes also have a role to play, particularly when the brand being researched is a service. In some markets, such as financial clients, Authers says: “Often brand imagery isn’t enough to differentiate”, particularly if so much of the contact between the brand and the customer happens over the telephone. So audio tapes are “good to isolate different tones of voice – too many service providers talk down to people”.

In certain circumstances, a three-dimensional mock up can be extremely successful, Authers says. New Solutions worked on the relaunch of Jif, and the creation of Jif Micro Liquid. He recalls that when the new packs were put in front of consumers in focus groups, the response was immediate and very noticeable: people leant forward and grabbed the packaging.

“The old packs were very feminine, with a tapered waist. The new pack is broad shouldered, much more tactile, much more aspirational,” Authers claims.

Other props used in qualitative research include swatches of material and even fragrances. While companies like New Solutions are not involved in pure sensory research, Authers says smells and colours can “help to create a mood and to evoke a positioning”.

As yet, virtual reality systems are too expensive and cumbersome to use within focus groups, although some major retailers and their advisers have been using them for retail outlet planning. And while interactive video systems, which allow consumers to choose their own paths through selections of video, audio and text-based materials, may have their part to play when assessing individual responses, they are unlikely to be of much use in group sessions for some time to come.

But according to Paul Southgate, chief executive of brand development consultancy Brandhouse, it doesn’t matter whether you are using Blue Peter-style collages or the latest hi-tech gadgetry, so long as you are using something that makes people think “out of the box”.

Southgate, who is also a partner in strategic design consultancy Wickens Tutt Southgate and was involved with the relaunch of Tango, adds: “In strategic development and new brand development, I don’t think research is nearly imaginative enough. We need to use more techniques to help consumers get out of left brain and into right brain.”

And Southgate blasts most current qualitative research: “Far too much research is still about the moderator sitting in front of a bored group of people saying ‘what if we did this?’. You’re using the same old paradigms, so you get tired rehashes of the same old products or services. We need new paradigms.”

Southgate also warns that in the later stages of a project, researchers tend to fall into a classic trap – the desire to give focus groups too much information. When a new product or a new ad campaign is about 90 per cent finished, he says, the temptation is to present subjects with too many of the different solutions which are being considered and let consumers pick a winner.

“That’s lazy,” claims Southgate. “You should be able to select the two or three you think are the best, and just present them. Focus groups aren’t there to do your work for you.”


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