At our branding agency we’re often asked by clients about using focus groups to determine critical brand decisions, such as selecting a name, deciding on a logo or analyzing package design or brand collateral.

In our experience, focus groups rarely deliver any of the consensus-building clarity needed to make informed and correct decisions. Focus groups were originally invented to FOCUS the research, and not BE the research. When used a s a decision making tool, they cast ordinary people in the role of professionals, and tend to elicit the received wisdom of only a handful of dominant consumers who see themselves as critics and who would probably behave differently in a real-world situation.

Focus groups can be a good starting point for quantitative research, but just don’t use them to gauge sales, determine pricing, choose a new brand name, product packaging, a new logo or marketing collateral. Focus groups are particularly susceptible to something called the Hawthorne effect—the tendency for people to act differently when they know someone is watching. In groups, it seems, some people just want t show off, control and lead and that causes other less dominant people in the group to follow along.

Two notable authors; Marty Neumeier and Malcolm Gladwell both discuss that it is common for brands that test poorly in focus groups, to actually succeed in the marketplace. Neumeier remarks that these poorly testing brands are initially too unique, but the market’s perception changes as “unique” soon equates with “good”. This creates the potential for a strong, profitable brand. Nuemeier’s theory is there is risk and, at the same time, reward in being different, even when focus groups reject your ideas . In other words, sometimes people don’t know what they don’t know.

What is a better idea for my brand?

Don’t second guess your gut reaction, or the advice from your branding agency. A better way to judge a new offering is to focus on solving a need or problem for your target market. To build a real profit-making brand you need to start with radical differentiation. In other words, when everybody is going left, go right. Your unfettered passion will almost always win.

Try to avoid getting hung up on specific predictions or creating me-too brands. You won’t find answers in a book. Instead, look across the brandscape with unfocused eyes—powerful trends are easy to spot when you stand back far enough.

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Article by Rob Barnett
Partner & Brand Strategist at Straydog