Focus groups for new product development

Big wine brands will typically use focus groups for new product development. In this process they test their new ideas on groups of consumers to check that this is really what they want: they’ll get the consumers to taste the product (or variations around the product space) and look at the proposed packaging. This helps the brand owner fine tune their offering.

But there are perils with this sort of wine by focus group.

First, there is no such thing as the ‘consumer’. People differ. Wine quality is best defined as fitness for purpose. A great wine for one person might be a poor one for another. Likewise, a great wine for one situation might be wrong for another.

The danger with producing a wine that appeals to an average consumer is that it may end up appealing to no one. Peoples’ tastes differ through biology and also through preference. Say the population segments into five groups who each share roughly similar taste: then you’d be better off with five distinctive wines, each targeted to one segment.

Second, do we always want to give people what they want? This sounds a little arrogant – of course, the consumer is always right – but let me explain. I think it’s a significant point. For a while we have been in the era of focus group politics, where politicians try to make policy that will be popular. Rather than lead, they have followed, testing out policies to make sure they are what people want.

With wine, I’m not sure it’s always the right way forward to give people the flavours they want. At least some consumers want to be told what to drink. Brave brand owners are prepared to take consumers to new places. They are prepared to be innovative.

Third, there’s a problem with sampling. You need to make sure that the people in your focus group are truly representative of consumers. Is there counfounding here? Are there special characteristics of the sorts of people who will agree to take part in these studies? Lots of sensory research is done in universities, and subjects are often drawn from across campus – both employees and students. Is this a skewed sample?

Fourth, asking people questions about their intentions isn’t the same as measuring their behaviour. Spoken intent to purchase isn’t the same as people actually putting their hand in their pocket and buying a product. Are there buying cues that are not measured in these sorts of studies?  The behaviour of the interviewer has huge potential to skew results. We are social beings, and we are programmed to read unspoken social cues. In market research and focus groups the answers you get will in large part be determined by who asks the questions, which questions are asked, and how they are asked.

11 comments to Focus groups for new product development

  • Interesting stuff,I think that most research isn’t done so much on taste but on branding. Any focus group needs to be tested by a follow up quantative study when you put your group’s results in front of a much larger sample in the form of a simple questionnaire. The thing is more about not asking people what they want but telling them what they could have.It is said that if Henry Ford had asked people what they wanted they would have asked for a faster horse. Early mobile phone research was negative until ideas of new usage were put forward. There were two studies asking consumers if they wanted lower alcohol wine and they said no. We then said what if we made it so that it tasted good and the answer was yes. There is now a 5.5% brand that sells more than 500K cases.

  • G’day Jamie. Interesting post. I tend to side with the TESCO approach on the value of focus groups in product testing: It’s worthless.

    A focus group is an ideal method for identifying the considerations of consumers with regards to complex topics. Focus groups can reveal inovative opportunities for a product or service.

    What they can’t do is evaluate market appeal. Businesses that use focus groups for product testing are both deluding themselves and wasting money.

    Think of it logically… You’re a loyal consumer of brand X. Brand X rings you up and says- “we’re launching a product soon on the market, and we want you to test it in a focus group, where you’ll be remunerated for your attendance, AND you’ll have all the insight on a pending market release”

    If you’re such a consumer, think of how you’re likely to respond to such an approach from one of your favourite products!

    Market research should be conducted by those who know what they’re doing. It’s exactly why we need more marketers in the wine sector who know their stuff!

    Wine for thought!

  • Damien

    Sorry WineBusProf, but I think you’re deluding yourself if you think the wine trade needs “more wine marketers in the wine sector who know there stuff”. The Tesco approach you mention relies, I suspect, upon one factor – is it cheap or do I think it’s a bargain, hardly a recipe for enlightened wine drinking. 99% of wine consumers don’t go near a website like this, they’re interested in the price and price alone. As for quality and value, a good dollop of residual sugar will suffice to convince, and brand loyalty is about as long lived as a UK-EU pact these days. There are, however, a frightening number of people who chose by label design, so perhaps graphic designers rather than wine marketers are the way forward?

  • Simon T

    Guy – I know not of any 5.5% wine that sells 500k and ‘tastes good’!? Unless your current benchmark is Acetic Acid. To what do you refer that is selling 6m bottles and has escaped my notice ?

    Damien is there – 99% of wine drinkers know not of wineanorak.com. All this marketing stuff is valid in the sense that it is required to convince ‘gatekeepers’ that their precious shelf space will be well utilised. Ultimately the wall of wine is not fit for purpose which is why most wine sells from gondola end – which is the 2nd thing the manufacturer needs on top of research (deep pockets to fund promos).

    There is a clear performance gap between a promotion featuring the top ‘x’ wines and the rest and the annual clamour is out in store now with bottle prices well below a commercially logical level. And it is getting more difficult for new wines to break into this arena as seemingly every country faces climactic/economic issues – even bargain basement Italy with it’s shocking plethora of thin PG’s being churned out for less than 85cents a bottle. So any brand owner needs a ‘strong stomach’ to weather all of these challenges as breaking through to the perceived ‘big league’ requires hard trading and courting the devilish supermarkets with the 3 for £10/£4 ‘wine porn’.

    Jamie you’ve said it yourself previously. Wine is a two-tier category. 99% of people will never ever see 99% of the wines referenced on this site and 99% of the readers of this site would never buy the wines that 99% of the population drink. And that’s just fine and dandy!

    Happy Christmas and may your wine sing to the tune of your food.

  • Cam Haskell

    I guess I’d agree there’s a divergence in wine, between commercial and fine wine, and one of the principle differences is that commercial wine is made (designed?) to appeal and appease. Fine wine is to be taken on its terms – and is emphatically not dependent upon what the consumer wants. In a sense, this is one of the things that is confronting wine shows globally, but especially in Australia.

    I would suggest that this isn’t a hard and fast rule though. Initially, I think people thought screwcaps iffy. But the acceptance in Australia is high, is not considered related to lack of quality (the irony! What lacks quality more than a corked wine?) and have high functionality. This is, to my mind, a fine example of consumers being effectively led by industry.

  • Consumer research has become an invaluable tool in the world of fast moving consumer goods (FMCG). The vast bulk of wine produced these days (which moves quickly through bottle shops and is typically consumed within a day or two of purchase) really does fall into the category of FMCG. I don’t think you can create great fine wine by asking consumers, but they can help producers in the every-day drinking sector of the market to produce wines aimed at being the most pleasing to the greatest number of people.

    All four points you make Jamie are fair enough, but good market researchers will take them into consideration. Dealing with issues of sampling, segmentation, questionnaire design, moderation (for focus groups), etc are part of the task of designing effective research methodologies. Poorly run focus groups won’t help anyone, whether in wine or any industry.

    As a disclaimer, I work in consumer sensory quantitative research, and have conducted sensory research on wine…I think it has it’s place.

  • Hugh

    Steve Jobs never believed in focus groups, and whilst there was lots wrong with his ideology and methods, his products were far from the focus group led mediocrity (and they do work brilliantly). Focus groups are the vice of big brands who are averse to taking any risks (Tesco maybe follow the focus group precursor; pile it high and sell it cheap – with added sugar), they stifle innovation and the results rarely rise above the bland and uninteresting. I for one want to drink wine not only with a sense of place, but also with a little of the soul of the person who made it. Moët NV or Breaky Bottom, no contest!

  • Lee Newby

    For focus groups who is the norm you are trying to please, mass market wines have run focus groups to find out.
    The Aussies used some sort of focus group for the Yellow Tail Chard, in Canada it is well below 5gm/lt of sugar dry, in the US well above (maybe 8-9gm/lt) almost sweet beyond off dry. We sailed into the US with a Canadian purchased Yellow Tail and bought a bottle at a Wal-Mart in the US, about 30 km from where the Canadian bottle was procured.

    Blind tasted by 6 good palates, none preferred the US as it was deemed too sweet, they were same year but I’m sure the grapes were not from the same region or were a blend of any Chard available in 2009 to the wineries. The alc was the same at 14%. I had heard the US version was notably sweeter but needed to run our own focus group to see. No I don’t drink Yellow Tail but also wouldn’t waste my woefully low allowance of wine coming back to Canada with a bottle to test.

    It would be curious to test a bottle in the UK against a US and Canadian bottle.

  • Karl

    The Simpsons – internet search “The Homer Car” (image search is best)

    Homer’s idea of the perfect car, “Some things are so snazzy they never go out of style — like tail fins! And bubble domes! And shag carpeting!

    Another quick search on “design by committee” points out the need for a unifying vision. A look at “The Homer” drives the point home.

    Henry Ford once famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

    Or was it “more oak, tail fins and higher alcohol?”

  • Hello Simon T – you are right there aren’t any 5.5% wines with this volume because in the EU they get to be labelled Reduced Alcohol Wine Based Drink or Aromatised Wine Product Cocktail – not exactly appealing. The product that sells this volume( which I work on) is First Cape Cafe Collection. The data shows that people understand what it is and repeat purchase.

  • First off, that was a nice article Jamie with appropriate cautions. I agree that companies may not want to conduct focus groups as the sole research tool to help create a better products. This is like using a shoe to hammer in a nail; it can be done but it is simply the wrong tool! Focus groups are qualitative (i.e., opinion) and when used properly, they can certainly provide great insights for the research team. However, anytime you can engage the consumer to create the sensory experience of the product, you must carefully consider who, what, why, where, and how you gain information that can be generalized to a larger population. Sensory research, which focuses on the product, can create innovation opportunities, discover great products with broad appeal, and great products with segmented or limited appeal. We regularly develop robust predictive relationships with the sensory characteristics of products on an unbranded basis with target consumers. This process does not stifle innovative thinking but allows companies to discover additional opportunities and ‘white space’. Good research helps close the gap between the science of discovery and implementation.

    Keep in mind that purchase probability depends upon a number of factors, including price, concept, positioning, promotions, advertising, packaging information, and consumer awareness. However, the sensory experience and appeal is the essential “platform” without which the product is unlikely to succeed. This platform, of sensory based acceptance, provides the foundation for successful marketers to apply their artistry to sell product to consumers in the real world. (Stone, Bleibaum, and Thomas, 2012, and Lawless & Heymann, 2009).

    Disclaimer – I am a bit biased as I have been conducting sensory research for over 25 years, am a UC Davis grad, and now I am at a point in my career that we just want to get the word out to folks to bring some scientific thinking to the product research process. Sensory research has long suffered from the ‘it is just a simple taste test; anyone can do it’, syndrome. Sensory is its own scientific discipline that is growing rapidly, primarily because it works, and it works in wine.

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