Failed Test? Try An Ethnographic Study

Most marketers run various tests to before making decisions on new products, packaging, media mix, media levels, creative messaging, etc. Testing is good, but we must also remember that you can’t test everything. How many great product ideas have been stripped of originality by testing or have come out years too late to take advantage of the marketplace? New product development can take three years at large corporations. We must also be cautious about the types of research we use and its limitations.

Ingrid Fetell from Landor says that too often marketers treat focus groups as a quick-and-dirty solution to every knowledge they need. But focus groups have their limitations. After all 80% of new products fail within six months, but almost all pass through focus groups on their way to market. The Seinfeld pilot failed in the eyes of focus groups that said it needed a stronger supporting cast. Focus groups have also rejected the Sony Walkman, Baileys Irish Cream, and the ATM, which was considered “too impersonal.” But some scholars like Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman see ethnographic techniques as having a more accurate ability to gauge consumer opinion given the unconscious nature of the decision-making.

What’s a real life example? Cambridge SoundWorks’ used ethnographic research to determine why sales of its new speakers were slow despite enthusiasm from male prospects. The retailer sent researchers out with video cameras to follow prospective customers for two weeks and they discovered the “spousal acceptance factor.” Men were being talked out of their purchase by girlfriends and wives who thought the speakers were ugly – an insight men didn’t offer up in a traditional focus group. They offered a new range of sneakers with a new look and they became the best-selling product line in the company’s history.

Are you using focus groups because they are quicker and cheaper than quantitative studies? Maybe its time you try an ethnographic study.