Santander’s marketing boss on why there’s ‘no role’ for focus groups

Focus groups are “incredibly unhelpful” in the market research mix, according to Santander UK chief customer and analytics officer Saj Arshad, who believes new methodologies are proving to be more effective.

Focus groupConventional consumer research alone may no longer be enough to give brands any kind of competitive advantage, according to a group of experts speaking at the Festival of Marketing: Fast Forward today (9 June).

Santander UK chief customer and analytics officer, Saj Arshad, believes a broad toolkit of research tactics make for a rounded view of what customers might want or need, and nearly all should be used at different parts of the innovation cycle.

“There are certain techniques we will use at the ideation phase, there are others we will use in late stage innovation. So it kind of depends. For me the only area I’ve always had an aversion to, because I just think it is incredibly misleading, is the focus group,” said Arshad.

“I genuinely think there is no role for focus groups any more. Inevitably – and I’ve sat through millions of them as have all of you – one guy, and it will always be a guy, will lead the entire group down a rabbit hole. I just think they are incredibly unhelpful.”

The new research tools, techniques and methodologies are also more effective than traditional methods such as surveys and polls, he added, offering richer consumer insights.

“If you go to your local supermarket and see 50 brands of toothpaste, who can post-rationalise how they make that buying decision? They use shortcuts,” he said. “It’s much better to look at what customers actually do than what they say they do.”

The only area I’ve always had an aversion to, because I just think it is incredibly misleading, is the focus group.

Saj Arshad, Santander

However, putting these newer, deeper insights into action is not easy. “One of the points we have picked up on is that customers are not going to tell you the answer. All the time you are looking for clues, looking for hints and you are looking across a whole spectrum of different data sources,” Arshad explained.

He agreed that a mix of new and established research methods is key to the most useful results. Santander recently used insights gained in this way in the launch of its My Money Manager financial planning product.

Launched six months ago and with around 2 million users, the product combs customer spending data and provides useful tips and hints on spending habits. These can include reminders to cancel subscriptions, or notifications of how much they might be spending on Amazon every month.

The idea came from consumers, who were taking data the bank gave them and creating their own spreadsheets to crunch the numbers.

Does market research need to ‘loosen up’?

Expanding on this topic, session host Dr Helen Edwards pointed out that since the influential Marketing Myopia paper was published by Ted Levitt in 1960 – with its prediction companies would fail if they focused on their product over the needs of consumers – the first rule of marketing has been to understand what your customer wants and deliver it better than anybody else. But some things have changed over the last 61 years.

Observing Levitt’s mantra now is complicated because every marketer is engaged in the same process, and spends significant time and energy to gain the same insights as their competitors.

“Research and data, no matter how good it is, doesn’t give you a natural advantage,” said Edwards, quoting Steve Jobs. The Apple co-founder always insisted: “It’s not the customers’ job to know what they want.”

So how useful is consumer research and data at driving the kind of innovation that can make a commercial difference?

“What has not changed is the importance of understanding people’s needs,” said Reckitt chief insights and analytics officer, Elaine Rodrigo. But the methods of gaining those insights have changed, she added. Data and tech-enabled insights are now allowing brands to develop a deeper level of insight.

Social listening, search data and predictive analytics can help brands stay on the front-foot in terms of predicting the need states of consumers. But Rodrigo believes these techniques work best in addition to conventional research methods, rather than replacing them.

Moving from insight to foresight

Consumer data can come from many sources. For example, Pinterest is a source of clues about consumer needs to other brands, as well as a brand in its own right.

“We have a really clear understanding of what people want because they are searching for it,” said Pinterest director of marketing for Europe, Louise Richardson.

The platform sees 2 billion searches every month and over 400 million global users. Many of these searches are part of forward-planning projects.

“We are able to identify trends before they are trends. We are able to use that to inform our own product development, but also pass that on to the brands that advertise on Pinterest as well,” she said.

For example, Pinterest users start planning Christmas preparation far earlier than might be expected, with searches picking up in April.

However, unless data can be interpreted it has little value. The objective is to move from insight to foresight, said Rodrigo. Reckitt uses data to identify “opportunity spaces” it might want to play in and predict how those spaces might develop in the future.

Helen Edwards: Marketers are underestimating the signs of customer behaviour

The company works with external data providers, but has also created internal tools that give it real time insight.

“We also have our own internal tool which mashes all these data sources together – whether it is search, social, sales, finance, other things – to connect the dots together to enable us to predict into the future,” she explained.

In the UK the launch of plant-based Dettol Tru Clean spray and wipes is an example of the system in action.

“There has always been a desire and a need for natural products,” said Rodrigo. She believes looking to adjacent categories, such as food, can provide inspiration when overlaid with the right data.

“Nobody tells you that they want a plant-based surface cleaner,” she added.

Going ‘blue sky’

Santander set up Project Leapfrog, a four-week blue sky project with its in-house user experience designers to shape the future of the bank’s mobile app.

By looking at categories outside banking they were able to imagine a system that Ashard describes as “visionary”. He believes the tactic of looking at adjacent categories to see where value is accruing is an important one.

“We did this as a thought experiment because we wanted to harness this community, but what has come out of it is tangible and applicable,” he said.

Foresight can bring an extra dimension to product development, according to Richardson. Pinterest’s Try-On augmented reality feature – which lets users try on make-up virtually – was shaped by asking not whether the brand could provide it, but whether it should.

The team ended up innovating “in a really interesting way” after identifying other virtual make-up systems that gave an unrealistic view of how users might look.

Despite a focus on the vast quantity of data available, all the panellists agreed that an element of ‘and’ underlined their approach. They used new digital research tools, as well as more familiar qualitative methods. The panel agreed ethnography and anthropology are important factors too, letting brands add a social and cultural layer to their understanding.

“There is a role for more classic methods,” said Rodrigo. “It’s all about bringing it together. How you bring the what and the why together is the beauty of this.”



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