David Canaan, Laurel Group, Brand Development Advisors

Early in my graphic design career I watched my first focus group as twelve strangers evaluated three logo candidates for a popular savings and loan. It was an eye-opening experience to sit behind a one-way mirror and hear a participant sourly exclaim, “It looks like G–damn world war three to me!” What? This indolent, slovenly, uneducated lout was single-handedly destroying my favorite solution! To make it worse, the rest of the group jumped in with even more colorful criticisms in a feeding frenzy of collective rejection.

Creativity and research have been painted as conflicting forces and most creative types want to avoid research unless forced to endure it. Since then, my personal quest has been to find the bridge between research and the creative process. As a result, I love consumer research – good consumer research, not research limited to focus group studies taught in Business 101.

It seems few marketers recognize the difference between opinion and behavior. I’ve worked with the largest advertising agencies in the world and am surprised when they want to run their new creative campaigns through “a couple of focus groups to see which one the audience likes best.” I’ve never seen any statistical data showing an ad that was well liked performed better than one that was disliked but had a better offer.

Don’t believe it? Ask a focus group what’s wrong with television: almost everyone will fervently claim there’s too much sex and violence on TV. And with that insight, you might be tempted to invest in an educational station and wonder why you aren’t a success. The group has the opinion sex and violence are the problems with television, but that’s what they’re watching! Opinion and behavior are different things (environmentally friendly packaging has a similar focus group response: everyone claims to look for it, but I’ve seen little evidence that a more expensive green package outsells traditional packages with the general population).

Don’t misunderstand me; focus groups can be great tools. With a skilled moderator, customer language, opinions, experiences, and concerns can be effectively gathered. But when understanding behavior is important, focus groups are a poor methodology.

To understand behavior, research should be based on indirect evaluation of factors contributing to performance. For example, to see how different beverage labels might affect sales, showing each package but only asking about the product inside (without referencing the package) will tell me what the label is doing for behavior. Louis Cheskin, a pioneer in consumer research, called this indirect link “sensation transference”. In thousands of studies, he demonstrated a fine brandy in a cheap package literally tasted worse than a cheap drink in a prestigious package. Perceptions are formed from whatever stimulus is available until experience confirms reality. The basis for his 50+-year practice was founded on his statement, “perception is reality”.

When we first meet someone, perceptions are instantly formed by their looks — dress, physique, posture, grooming, etc. The instant we engage them, more stimuli are presented and our reality broadens. Ever meet someone you immediately disliked but changed as you “got to know them”? Attracted to someone across the room but were turned off as soon as they opened their mouth? Behavior is driven by subtle cues that initially define reality. In product (or naming or identity) research, identifying perceptions created by each component of the communications arsenal is essential.

My favorite categories are those with low interest, low risk, frequent purchases because a compelling name or identity has the most impact on sales. Deciding what brand of milk to get or where to buy gasoline or what fast food chain or motel to stop at are low risk choices where initial perceptions play an enormous role in competitive advantage. Whereas buying a new car or a house usually involves extensive stimuli before making a choice.

In a recent mid-scale motel identity program, we wanted to measure how a new sign might impact business. The brand was well known and changes would cost millions of dollars to convert properties around the world. Industry research showed the top criteria for customer selection were “Clean”, “Good Value”, “Bathrooms that don’t smell”, and “comfortable beds”. With our research partner, Thomas Dunker & Associates, (sorry for the shameless plug), used their FlashTest© methodology to quickly and economically get national, quantitative input. Using mall intercepts around the country, the current logo on white was shown and each individual asked a series of yes/no questions after being told the graphic represented the sign for a hotel. Instead of asking respondents’ opinion of the logo (“do you like this design?”), questions were stated as “would you expect the hotel represented by this sign to be clean?”, “would you expect the beds in this hotel to be comfortable?”, “would you say this hotel is ‘for me’?”, “what would you expect to pay for a night at this hotel?”. Fourteen imagery measures and five open questions were asked of 125 people for each of three design concepts (total of 375 participants). No person saw more than one identity but when the responses to each concept were compared, dramatic differences in perceptions were revealed. These differences had a significant impact on projecting sales (as an aside, seven out of ten respondents felt the hotel represented by the existing sign was “not for me”. Looking at the old sign, 70 out of 100 travelers driving down the highway deciding where to stop for the night just kept driving. The selected concept showed only three of ten thinking this hotel was “not for me”. Seeing the new sign, 70 out of 100 would consider stopping). Of course other factors such as property condition, price or amenities influence the final purchase decision, but they are meaningless if the sign discourages prospective customers from even investigating.

Here are results of a recent FlashTest imagery study. The dotted red line is the average imagery of over 20 brands in the category (based on over 2,700 surveys) for each criteria. The green line shows how the current sign deviates from these industry averages. The blue line is the deviation for the proposed sign. The expectation for the motel represented by concept A to be “Clean” (the number one criteria for selecting a property) in the first column is 18% higher than the category average and 27% higher than concept B (the current sign). 

I’m unsure where courts stand on research. In the cases I’ve been an expert witness both sides agreed to no research. With millions at stake, a simple, monadic, indirect image study with consumers could certainly add insight into “confusion by the average consumer”.

But I can understand why people would be suspicious of consumer research – most of it is measuring the wrong things.