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.