How Focus Groups Change the World

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Did you know adding an egg to instant cake mix will transform you into a domestic hero!

Betty crocker.jpg

Here’s the backstory:

In the 1930’s, Betty Crocker launched a new product targeted to housewives: instant cake-mix. Just splosh some water into the dry ingredients, give it a quick stir, throw it in a tin and whack it in the oven. Whamo! A delicious “home-made” cake for your family to enjoy, all in the blink of an eye. Sales will be through the roof!

Except they weren’t. Not even close.

Why not?

To find out, Betty Crocker hired psychologist Ernest Dichter, the architect of the modern day focus group. In turn, he spoke to housewives all over the US to try to understand why the instant-cake mix wasn’t flying off the shelves. Was it the taste? The price? Were the instructions not clear?

In the end, the answer proved surprisingly simple; but could never have been discovered without talking to people.

American housewives felt serving their family something so simple-to-make was somehow cheating. That it reflected badly on them because they didn't have to work harder for the end-product.

The housewives were proud of the role they played at home, and this too-easy instant cake mix was in conflict with the perception of themselves as hard-working, nurturing and caring.

With this insight, Betty Crocker was able to take action. They removed the dried eggs in the mixture and had the housewives use real eggs instead. Our conscientious housewives went from passive on-lookers in the cake-making process to active stewards of its success!

And the rest is history.

Or rather, folklore; because it seems the instant cake mix revolution had already begun by the time Dichter got involved

However, this is an excellent example of the purpose of focus groups - to dig out human truths that can drive innovation, test theories or change perceptions.

Many brands and products we know and love today were the results of similar conversations conducted in focus groups. Here are some examples of brands that made or still make the most of focus groups:



Perhaps the king of focus groups, the entertainment behemoth is constantly testing and re-testing its ideas. Working with groups of preschoolers and young kids, they find out exactly which of their characters are liked, and why; what the feedback is on their TV series; and where the areas for improvement are on their toys and videos.

Partnering with schools and preschools near their Los Angeles HQ, Disney is able to refine their business strategies with a core audience - minimizing the risk of expensive commercial duds. In return, the schools are given donations while the kids ( / group participants) are given Disney stickers.



Back in the 1950s, Chrysler sales were struggling. Particularly the handsome Plymouth convertible, which it was believed would be a massive hit with men all across the US. And no doubt it was popular with many men.

But it wasn’t selling.

So Chrysler set up some focus groups to find out why.

And they unearthed a very interesting insight… Wives played a much bigger role in the purchase decision-making process than they had initially believed. In fact, the wives were key to choosing whatever model the husband ended up driving. And these women were much more interested in having reliable, sensible, family-friendly sedans sitting in their driveways than flashy convertibles.

With this knowledge, Chrysler not only revised its advertising to speak more directly to women; but also modified how it designed and branded their cars. And this key insight is still relevant today.



Originally designed to be a platform for sharing podcasts (but beaten to the punch by Apple), founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams conducted extensive market research to uncover what people wanted from their social networks. And what they didn't want too.

Through multiple focus groups, the two entrepreneurs came to understand that the Facebook news feed was proving too cluttered for people to keep up with. It seemed there was a need for something pithier and more digestible.

Twitter, as we know it, was born - giving users a max 160 character count: 20 for the name and 140 for the post. This has since doubled to 280; but the sentiment and usage remains very similar to its original idea: a streamlined platform where ideas, news, entertainment, opinions and articles can be shared.


Kraft Foods

Kraft took an interesting approach to focus groups - instead of using them to understand what their consumers were looking for, the food company looked inward instead: asking their massive pool of employees for input into their product offerings.

Up until then, Kraft was seen as a place where innovation stagnated. Where good ideas go to die. In 2008, the company ranked next to last among its competitors for new product successes. 17 out of 19 product launches that year were considered failures. This was humiliating.

By harnessing its own workforce for ideas, the company’s innovation pipeline has never been stronger, with Kraft-Heinz now leading the charge with successful product launches across multiple categories.



Barbie, perhaps the most famous doll in the world, was born in a 1950’s focus group. Or at least the idea for her was. And she didn’t disappoint - by 2012 she was making Mattel $1 billion in sales in over 150 countries annually, with 92% of American girls aged 3 to 12 having owned at least one Barbie.

But between 2012-2014 sales dropped by 20%. Where did Mattel turn to find out why, and how to fix it? A focus group, of course.

As it turns out, Barbie owners were no longer feeling the same connection between themselves and their dolls; that the dolls didn’t accurately reflect them.

From this insight, Barbie rebooted. She now comes in seven different skin tones, 22 eye colors, 24 hairstyles and with four different body types to choose from: original, tall, petite and curvy.

And now sales are right back where Mattel wants them to be.

The power of focus groups is undeniable. While visionaries like Steve Jobs and Henry Ford may have been able to predict what consumers need before they even knew themselves, most brands would do well to keep a steady pulse on what people think. As seen above, it can often be the difference between success and failure…

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