November 30, 2020

Focus Groups That Look Like Play Groups

Malinda Sanna, the founder of and strategic planner for Spark, a market research company based in New York, guided the women through the process of creating large collages using materials from tables decorated with all kinds of materials: a Styrofoam cake with Barbie dolls perched on each layer, fresh flowers, coffee beans and scented oils.

“I want you to get kind of messy,” Ms. Sanna told the participants. “Pick things up. Smell things.”

Welcome to the new focus group. Be it making collages or using mobile applications that track participants’ purchases minute by minute, advertisers are experimenting with new ways to learn about what consumers think of their products.

Experts say the traditional focus group, in which participants are guided through a discussion about a product or brand while marketers watch from behind a glass window, suffers from a few shortcomings. Responses can be influenced by a marketer’s presence, and one person may dominate the whole group.

“We’re savvy, we’re jaded, we’re tired of advertising,” Ms. Sanna said. All of that media saturation means consumers are giving marketers similarly jaded answers to their research questions. So Ms. Sanna and her business partner, Terrie Koles, started the Sensory Safari, a collage-building exercise in which participants create collages based on their feelings about a brand, a product or an advertising concept.

At a recent event for Unilever, Ms. Koles artfully decorated four tables with objects representing different senses — touch, smell, sight and taste. Participants were given iPods programmed with pop music and asked to visually represent how they felt about the concepts for two Web-based applications for Suave, a Unilever hair care line.

While the women were creating the collages, representatives from Unilever watched from an adjacent room. One montage, which included an upside-down Barbie doll in a pink taffeta dress, her outstretched arms giving the appearance that she was falling from the sky, represented vulnerability and the “ultimate feeling of not being in control,” Ms. Sanna said. Depending on the context, outstretched arms also represented playfulness and openness, and they were a theme in many of the images the women selected for their collages.

Noelle Tate, who contributed the upside-down Barbie, described the experience as “liberating.”

“How often do you get to go through a room with tables full of a beautiful array of objects, scents, textures, plants, flowers, pictures, etc. etc. etc., and just be stimulated through all of your senses to express how you feel?” Ms. Tate said in an e-mail.

David Rubin, the marketing director for hair care at Unilever, said watching the women gave the company deeper insight into how to approach consumers. The collage-building process, he said in an e-mail, helped participants “get out of their comfort zone and talk about emotions they might not even know they had.”

When Time Warner Cable was testing a new ad campaign, the company used the Sensory Safari to see the reactions consumers had to the company before and after seeing television ads.

Marissa Freeman, the senior vice president for brand strategy and marketing communications for Time Warner Cable, said the collages made before the ads were shown, tinged with negative imagery like tangled ropes and roller coasters, were “not surprising.” After seeing the ads, participants created collages with more positive images, including the word “Technology” with a heart drawn around it.

“There’s no better way than nonverbal communication to understand how people feel,” Ms. Freeman said.

The use of traditional focus groups has sometimes been fraught with pitfalls for marketers. One of the biggest focus group debacles came with the invention of New Coke, which briefly replaced the traditional Coca-Cola formula in 1985. The company spent millions of dollars on market research, taste tests and focus groups in an effort to thwart its growing competitor, Pepsi, only to find a public enraged by the decision.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=30c7f1e5a7ffc683003a99de7f189212