November 14, 2002

Procter & Gamble Reveals How a New Focus Group Tactic Solved Four Flaws in Their R&D Process

SUMMARY: Procter & Gamble's Beth Bruns thought the giant CPG had four serious flaws in the way focus groups were conducted. She attacked them head-on by trying out an entirely different process.

Now instead of hiding behind two-way mirrors popping M&Ms, Bruns' product development team meets face-to-face with consumers. Sometimes this means burly male P&G product engineers sit around chatting about Tampax with, gulp, real women.
When Beth Bruns, Principal Scientist for Procter & Gamble's FemCare Division, needed to research for a new line of products, she and her team did not hire a moderator and hide in a dark room behind a two-way mirror. Instead they decided to have face- to-face, heart-to-heart conversations with consumers.

Bruns says this new approach to product development will appeal to all marketers who want to reduce innovation cycle time.

In her own words, it "internalizes team knowledge based upon rich consumer-driven insights to deliver bigger ideas and faster timing than traditional approaches."

Bruns started the project because she felt Procter & Gamble's traditional R&D approach had five significant flaws:

Flaw #1 Designing for the Company: Not the consumer

"We have a tendency to design products for ourselves, or against our own paradigms, or against our physical equipment, instead of products that are really for consumers," says Bruns.

"At P&G the flavor of our innovations tends to be very over the top in terms of technology; and, because most come across scientifically they're not very feminine. That's because we do a lot of the R&D work among very rational, technology-oriented engineers."

"The products don't have emotional benefits but they also don't come across very well designed - in an industrial or graphic design kind of way."

"The flavor of a Tide or a Crest always has a very similar process and roll out. It's: here's the demo and the copy, here's the new molecule, and this is why you should buy the product. FemCare products should be more like a Clairol Herbal Essences which has a much more emotional aesthetic and design kind of benefits built into the proposition."

Instead Bruns hopes to focus on a certain consumer emotionally but also broaden the target possibilities of who reaching at the same time.

Flaw #2: Skewed focus group results

"My paradigm is that traditional research is extremely biased. In traditional qualitative research there is a lot of skewing that goes on. The outlines given to moderators are highly skewed and they're mostly 'tell me what I want to hear' questions. There was too much judgmental listening going behind the mirror and too much filtered listening," says Bruns.

Flaw #3: Focus groups that do not lead to action plans

Bruns feels focus groups can be unproductive because the observers are not themselves focused enough. As she puts it, most focus groups involve P&G people sitting behind the one-way mirror eating M&M's, half-listening and half talking on the phone. Then everybody leaves without real consensus or an action oriented plan of what to do with the results.

Flaw #4: Sequential development: Ideas lose power in translation

Bruns says P&G's sequential development processes can cause great ideas to become blah products as they lose strength in translation at each step down the development pike.

Example: A researcher comes up with an idea; they throw it to technology people to make product; they throw it to engineering who build the equipment; they throw it to a manufacturer who makes it.

"You end up moving to the least common denominator which in our case is usually cost and complexity; and, you end up going from what could have been a well designed car to a black model T."

This problem is exacerbated by functional silos. "I've lived on a lot projects where as a company we're much more interested in protecting and representing our functional needs than in delivering a breakthrough product or experience for consumers," says Bruns.

All of which explains why Bruns was so eager to try a new approach to qualitative research. Here is how it worked:

Step #1. Everyone in the room together

Bruns had 15 consumers plus a 15-member P&G team with members from a variety of departments (an engineer, technology rep, marketer, etc.) all in a room openly together. No mirrors.

She notes how surprised participants were when P&G's team included a male PhD in technology in a room with women talking about their ideal tampon experiences. The consumers liked it, in fact more than the usual focus group experience.

Step# 2. Conversations instead of moderated questions

"We want to explore new ideas and products in a more conversational way not driven by an agenda or checklist of research and development." Bruns did not use a moderated outline but rather initiated a more organized conversation about consumers' needs, wants, desires.

Step #3. Using visuals as much as (or more than) words

Consumers were asked, for instance, tell me about your best/worst experience with product tampons. Then they were given magazine clippings and told to put together a story. Afterwards the team asked consumers questions about these stories.

Bruns explains, "At P&G we used to do a lot in terms of reducing things to the magic sentence - the brand equity sentence or the design team sentence. When things are reduced to words it's easy to misinterpret or mistranslate what trying to communicate or what's heard from consumers. Instead when you see pictures that consumers put together with scrap piles of magazines you get more dimensional complexity."

For example, although P&G's traditional focus groups on Tampax products usually center usually on "protection," when consumers were asked to show (using a collage of magazine pictures) their ideal experience with a tampon, their big issue was insertion comfort. Protection fell by the wayside.

Step #4. Significantly more time spent on post-group analysis

Bruns says, "In a traditional focus group 95% of your time is in the dark in the back room listening to some moderator go through a yes or no question experience." Then just 5% of P&G time is spent on analysis.

In the new approach 30% of time is spent talking with consumers, and 70% of time is spent on the P&G team talking over what they learned and how it might affect product development.

Bruns notes, "It's the best way to get enrollment from non- consumer research people within a company. When the team is completely unified on the conclusions from the analysis, it's my best shot at having them go back and having that private conversation with their function."

"So if I want my engineering person to go back to the engineering functional silo and convince them of a more complex costly solution because women need it, they will. In standard focus groups you go back to the functional heads and you'll get 10 different answers of what people heard and learned."

Want to meet Bruns in person?

She will be speaking at IIR & PDMA's "Voice of the Consumer" Conference, December 9th-11th at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. You can find more about it at

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