“Apple is famous for not engaging in the focus-grouping that defines most business product and marketing strategy. Which is partly why Apple’s products and advertising are so insanely great. They have the courage of their own convictions, instead of the opinions of everyone else’s whims.” — Dan Pallota, “Real Leaders Don’t Do Focus Groups”
In psychological research, there are all kinds of technical terms for a really basic human fact: when people know they’re being watched, their behavior will change. Known collectively as reactivity, these biases are the reason we encourage you to think carefully before submitting your name and brand to the tragic effects of focus groups. You may think you’re validating your ideas and gaining intimate insight into the hearts and minds of your audience, but it’s more likely that you’re simply attempting to overcome your own insecurities about the possibility of failure.
Let’s say you manage to wrangle a group of people who claim to match the criteria of your desired participant. Keep in mind, these people are being paid (or otherwise compensated) to give their opinion. Whether or not they actually have fully formed feelings before being prompted to express them is anyone’s guess. Very few people have pointed views on laundry detergent logos but that’s not going to stop them from inventing those views on the spot. It turns out, people are actually very good at gauging what kind of response you’re looking for and what theory you’re trying to prove. This is the basis of a large set of biases called demand characteristics. Plus, who doesn’t like a little undivided attention on the soapbox?
Some subjects, if they have a hunch at your hypothesis, will do everything in their power to disprove it — this is known as the negative-participant role or the screw-you effect. Others will revisit their days being the teachers’ pet and do everything they can to say what you want to hear — this is social desirability. If people identify as belonging to a group that is often stereotyped against, they may unconsciously display that stereotype’s expectations — called stereotype threat. Or, they may simply just agree with what everyone else already said, so they don’t even have to think.
Try as you might, you can’t turn feelings into facts simply by herding people into a room and asking them questions. No matter how delicately the research study is designed, when it comes to branding what you’ll get is much closer to fiction than to fact. All of these biases are just the tip of the variable iceberg. So go with what you know: your instincts. You’re the one solving the problem, doing the work and building the brand. Do you really want to put the responsibility on the shoulders of a group of strangers looking for an easy gig?
Remember: branding is just like life. When was the last time yours had a control group?