Spotlight on focus groups


Focus group - a research tool, largely inspired by the methodology used to resolve the Middle East crises… with the same success rate.

How: A collection of people, sharing little more than the sofa in common are packed together in a windowless room in a manner resembling Auschwitz. They are then encouraged to reveal their innermost motivations, desires and secrets in front of complete strangers. Just at the height of the pleasantries, about the time when one of the respondents is ready to let fly a left hook at her neighbour who has been contradicting everything she has been saying, a problem is introduced and the group is urged to arrive at a solution through consensus.

"There ees nothing here that weel be spoken that you weel not already know," Chai-La, the Chinese canteen boy, awoke Ram from his nap, as he lay down the tea tray and then vanished into the wall."

Vikas (Ram‘s boss), PP (the creative director), Mr Bose (the client) and Ram all found themselves in the agency AV room where they were watching some research groups happening in the adjoining conference room. It wasn‘t all that bad with the AC and the CCTV. It was much like watching one of those saans -bahu soaps with almost the same star cast but minus the commercial breaks.

The purpose of the research was to determine which of a possible three new product concepts would go down the best with consumers. Considering all the concepts had to do with ‘anti-itching‘ creams, it would be fair to say that everything was starting from scratch.

The groups comprised housewives - of the chip devouring and coffee guzzling variety - who also happened to live in the vicinity of the office. As usual, the groups were required in double quick time. The concepts were to be developed and the groups both organised and conducted in two days. Vikas had refused to conduct the groups. "Can you imagine the women concentrating on anti-rash creams, if I were conducting the groups. Come on. One look at me and they would be getting itches of a different kind."

So the task of conducting the groups fell on a young trainee girl called Rashmi. Vikas‘ brief to her was, "Just go ahead and bond big time with those babes, get under their skin, know their every pore, learn what they want, lust and must have… you get the picture?"

All that seemed more than a month ago (actually only 12 earth hours ago but the advertising industry as always follows different timelines). The first sip of Chai-La‘s ‘awaken your senses and think about getting a better job‘ brew forced open Ram‘s eyes and he began to take note of what was transpiring in the room. The discussion was, as they say in research parlance, just warming up.

"I have never ever used skin rash creams in my life… neither does anyone in my family," said Mrs Gupta leaving all the other respondents with as much dignity as a film producer with no ‘attitude‘.

"What do you mean by that, Mrs Gupta? I see Bittu scratching his @#$ all the time when he comes down to play, are you implying we aren‘t clean?" retorted a livid Mrs Khanna.

"And your husband has filthy habits…" Mrs Bannerji quipped in.

"Hey don‘t get personal. I can also tell horrible tales of your husband," Mrs Gupta was now leaning forward, most bits of her samosa were dropping onto the table as she was speaking (oh come on! Guys do the same thing).

As usual everything that the consumer says in such forums attracts more interest than Madonna paying ‘lip service‘ to Britney Spears (yeah I know most men will vehemently disagree on that one).

Vikas began interpreting the fish market for the benefit of the other mere mortals. "This category brings itself home through the back door. It functions on the ‘quasi latent denial and affirmation syndrome‘. The QLDAS model. That‘s a new theory developed by our worldwide planning team. I will send you a copy of that Mr Bose."

PP‘s tolerance threshold was breached. As was usually symbolic of this ‘servicing gibberish‘ kind of moment, his moustache twirl routine began to pick up.

"Tu kya bol raha hain? They are just fighting, don‘t try and interpret everything for the sake of it. Tu to phatte maar ke ghar jayega… who do you think will be left with the donkey work?"

"Relax PP," said Mr Bose, "What you are seeing is the passion that they have for our brand. That passion is making them fight with each other. Friends are turning into enemies."

"But Mr Bose, aren‘t we reading a bit too much into things?" Ram weakly interjected.

Vikas stared at him with the ferocity of a mother crocodile telling her young ones to scoot back into the nest when there are predators around. "You have to read between the lines, chief. This is called interpretation. You still have to learn these things."
PP nodded a ‘you were right but your boss is an anal aperture‘ kind of nod in Ram‘s direction. Bose craned his neck forward, "Shhhh… they are revealing the concepts."

"Hey by the way PP don‘t you think Mrs Gupta was a rash decision her husband made?" Vikas chirped. PP waited a second for the effect of the ‘servicing guy‘s pun‘ to pass and continued watching.

Back to Mrs Gupta. "All these ideas you are showing me are okay but I would want a skin cream that has other purposes as well. Say if it was also a fairness cream... you know like a double purpose cream. By the way, I am naturally fair and have never used any cosmetics…"

Mrs Mehta quietly asked, "But Mrs Gupta you might be using one cream for one end and the same cream for the other end of your body…"

Mrs Khanna jumped in with the speed of an agency dispersing after Friday lunch, "Never mind Mrs Mehta, in Mrs Gupta‘s case there is no difference between both ends."

The other women in the group laughed and instantly bonded to become lifelong friends who would go on to share their love letters from yesteryears and milk on days when the supply system failed. Mrs Gupta resolved to join hands with all the enemies of the other women in the group, in alphabetical order.

Back to the control centre.
"Should we consider what they are saying? I mean about the dual cream? There might be a huge opportunity here," Mr Bose was already seeing a case study in the making.
"What are you saying Debashish?" PP always skipped the Mr Bose bit, especially at extra-stressful times when the therapeutic value of the moustache twirling also was diminishing exponentially. "Isn‘t there something called common sense? Don‘t we have the knowledge and expertise between us to know what would be idiotic to get into?"

"But PP, as Mr Bose was saying there might be a huge opportunity," Vikas piped in, not surprisingly from the clients side.

"I take back what I said about knowledge and expertise," PP said and started the more grotesque ritual of biting his moustache.

"Come on PP, two concepts on this idea for the next group," Mr Bose was not willing to give up on his chance at marketing glory.

"Don‘t worry Mr Bose, PP will do it," Vikas volunteered. PP shot back the kind of look your finance chief gives you when he has paid out an advance and you tactfully tell him later (obviously) that getting the estimate approved slipped your mind.

"The most dangerous combination of words in the universe ees F G and D put together. All capitals only," Chai-La magically appeared with some sandwiches, whispered the gospel into Ram‘s ears and then flew out through the ceiling.

"Mrs Khanna you better give me back that bottle of perfume I bought you from USA. Its only for people with standard," Mrs Gupta was now cutting her losses.

"USA? You mean from the Ulhasnagar Sindhi‘s Association?" Mrs Khanna (the score in case you were keeping track 2-0 to Mrs Khanna).

"And what about the dinner set you borrowed from me when you had some guests Mrs Gupta? Do you intend giving it back?"

"You also have my pearl necklace which you took for your cousin‘s wedding Mrs Bannerji," Mrs Mehta did not want to be left behind as far as any trading went, living up to the ‘Mehta‘ name.

The next few minutes were pure cacophony. Rashmi was trying her best to control the group. But it was almost like trying to prevent the typical Indian middle order batting collapse (though not as bad).

"I‘m leaving. And I don‘t want to speak to any of you again," Mrs Gupta made her last stand.

"What makes you think only you can leave? We are leaving before you," Mrs Mehta stormed out with her ‘kitty party united‘.

Soon the room was deserted, and there was nothing to see bar empty coffee cups and half-eaten morsels of snacks that had been spat out during the debate. At such times you quickly turn off the CCTV to avoid spoiling your weekend.

"Maybe it was such a touchy topic that they never really came out. They had such a strong defense built around them that they refused discussing anything close to the category. There is great learning here," Vikas salvaged the entire group (at least in the client‘s eyes) with that superb play.

"Yeah! Very interesting. Maybe we also need to look at a few new concepts that might overcome their defense," Mr Bose‘s remark caused PP to nearly yank off his trademark moustache.

"What nonsense. I‘m not changing anything. You can get anybody to speak to me if you like. You can move the account. But I‘m not changing anything. And that‘s final," PP stormed out of the room.

"Don‘t worry Mr Bose you will have the new concepts by tomorrow evening," said Vikas soothing Mr Boses‘ jangling nerves.

Vikas scribbled on Ram‘s pad.
Brief PP now. Write a stinker to him if he refuses to do it. But you better solve this mess.

Ram was left reading his death sentence as the AV room emptied out.

He looked up to see a teacup appear before him.
"Never research that which has already been searched… the answers are obvious but the cobwebs in our mind are not. You prefer the tea in a red cup or a blue cup?" Chai-La whispered and disintegrated into biscuit crumbs.

Ram knew where to find the missing Matrix DVD.

Vinay Kanchan - currently client services director with Everest Integrated Communications Limited. He started his career in Lintas (now Lowe). Kanchan is also a soccer freak and organises soccer games for like-minded members of the media fraternity residing in Mumbai‘s suburbs. He can be contacted at

(The views expressed here are those of the author and need not necessarily subscribe to the same)

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