Re-Thinking The Focus Group: Tropicana Design Flops

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by: David Armano

A while back, I wrote a white paper called "The Collective Is The Focus Group". A version of it was printed in BusinessWeek as well. The general point? Consumers can get feedback to any brand in real time—networks amplify what they have to say and sentiment spreads at light speed. Companies need now have to listen, learn, and adapt at all phases of an initiative.

So today as I’m flipping through the New York Times, I come a across an article describing how a micro-groundswell began against Tropicana’s package re-design. As it turns out, Tropicana consumers not only care about it—their most loyal consumers do.

"It was not the volume of the outcries that led to the corporate change of heart, Mr. Campbell said, because “it was a fraction of a percent of the people who buy the product.”

Rather, the criticism is being heeded because it came, Mr. Campbell said in a telephone interview on Friday, from some of “our most loyal consumers.”

The article spcifies that most feedback came in through fairly traditional means including e-mail and phonecalls—but one specific thought in the article caught my attention:

"Twitter is the ultimate focus group,” Mr. Shankman said. “I can post something and in a minute get feedback from 700 people around the world, giving me their real opinions.”

What I think is worth calling out here is that hindsight is always 20/20 and you shouldn’t confuse consumer/user input with doing exactly what people tell you to do. If Tropicana had a problem in packaging, they are ultimately the ones who need to solve it. But the consumer reaction tells us that there may not have been a problem in the first place. Forget Twitter, what if Tropicana scrapped focus groups for something that could give them access to people who like the ones who sent e-mail were super loyal? What if they could iterate designs without ever having to go to production? Or what if they simply found out sooner that their opportunities lay not in package design, but elsewhere? Could their consumers outside of focus groups have helped them figure it out sooner, better? Perhaps the same ones that called and wrote e-mails.

One thing I’ve learned from blogging is that I always have to make the final call when designing a visual or putting out rough ideas. But the feedback I get here and across other networks is critical to my process. It’s not really about focus groups any more. It’s the insights you get from continual feedback. It’s iterative development, input and cycles—whether it’s for your product or the way you market it.

Listen, learn, adapt—repeat as needed. If I were a brand manager at Tropicana, I’d seize on the insight that there are people out there who actually care about the brand. There might be an opportunity to engage those same people who revolted against the re-design.

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