Package design research, part I of III: focus groups

Focus groups are the most utilized of the qualitative (non-statistical) package design research methodologies.

Sterling Anthony
Sterling Anthony

A moderator leads a small group of paid attendees in an interactive discussion. Typically, the location is a conference room containing a two-way mirror, behind which sponsors of the focus group observe the proceedings. The sponsors hope that the one- to two-hour session will yield informational nuggets useful in packaging-related decision-making.

That description evidences two truths: any CPG has the capability to sponsor a focus group; and, any type of packaging design project (new design, redesign, product-line extension, brand extension, etc.) can serve as a reason to conduct a focus group. Being easy to conduct and widely applicable account for the popularity of focus groups, but, neither quality guarantees serviceable results. For that to happen, CPGs need to know limitations and criteria for success.

Topping the list of limitations is that focus groups are all art, no science. By the latter is meant that focus groups are not like experiments that can be reproduced, yielding the same results. Speaking of results, those of any given focus group will be interpreted differently, depending, for example, on who is observing on the other side of the mirror.

Also, given that a focus group likely will be composed of a dozen or fewer attendees, the results can’t be said to be representative of a population. Conducting a series of focus groups, in hopes of repeated (or even similar) results, runs up against budgetary restraints with no high probability of achieving that repetition.

Yet another limitation is the herding-cats difficulty of controlling for the effects of group dynamics. All attendees come through the door knowing that the format is a group discussion, a fact that the moderator should emphasize in introductory comments. Participation, nonetheless, is seldom (if ever) shared evenly. The most outspoken might not be the most insightful. An attempt by the moderator to draw in a reticent attendee might make her self-conscious, whereby she says something merely to remove attention from herself. A follow-up question from the moderator might be interpreted as a sign of approval, triggering a bandwagon-effect from other attendees. Despite a packaging-related topic, if an attendee is sensitive about what use of the product might say about him, he might not be forthcoming.

Given just the mentioned limitations (there are others), the question becomes, “what are focus groups best suited for?” One answer is the generation of ideas to be further explored with more definitive methodologies. An important use of ideas is the formulation of hypotheses, suppositions explaining various phenomena of consumers’ thinking and behavior, to be tested by quantitative methodologies. Consistent with the notion of packaging as a communicator, focus groups can reveal patterns of consumers’ word-usage which, in turn, might be adoptable into the packaging’s graphics. Focus groups produce seeds that need to be grown with other methods.

Before delving into criteria for conducting a successful focus group, one needs to define success. A successful focus group is one in which the sponsors conclude that something has been learned that’s worthy of further expenditures. Otherwise, the focus group has been a waste.

The criteria for maximizing the chances for a successful focus group start with a clear-cut, well-conceived objective. “To find out what consumers think about the current packaging, as a basis for redesigning,” is too general, too unfocused for a successful focus group. Also, the objective violates the concept that the results of a focus group are not extendable to a population. A better objective (among other possible revisions) would be, “To gain insights about the strengths and weakness of the current packaging.” The difference is not semantics: the second one reflects the mindset that any given package design has its strengths and weaknesses. But the first reflects a predetermined mindset that the weaknesses outweigh the strengths, such that redesigning is needed.

Add to the criteria the necessity of having the right moderator, one who has been provided an outline that is true to the objective. The moderator should follow the outline, yet be flexible as conditions require. The moderator should perform as a necessary, but non-intrusive presence who does not bias the session in any way. It is not necessary for the moderator to be subject-savvy; more important is having experience in conducting focus groups and being able to sense the directions that the winds blow. The moderator should not be someone from the sponsoring company since that person might lack the necessary detachment.

The attendees need to have been recruited, including having been adequately screened. That doesn’t necessitate an interest in packaging in the abstract, rather a prospective attendee should have an interest, for example, in a particular product category, product line, or, even be brand-loyal. What constitutes a good-fit attendee depends, unsurprising, on the objective of the focus group.

Next, there are the observers behind the mirror. Mandatory is a brand manager (or similar marketing type) from the sponsoring company, who shouldn’t allow personal investment in the subject to cloud her interpretations. If the session is being conducted through a hired service, a member (or more) from that service will be present. It would be a good idea to include someone with a packaging-related title from the sponsoring company. Videotaping affords the observers replay opportunities to assign meanings to inflections, body language, and other cues missed during real time.

In this digital age, the focus group might seem a low-tech anachronism, but, any prediction of its imminent demise is unfounded.

Part II of this III-part series, coming in August, will address the in-depth interview as a package design research strategy.

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