By Cliff Courtney

Why are we still doing the same research we've done for the last 50 years?

Eight strangers face each other around a table. The room is bland, except for a two-way mirror in the back that spans the entire wall. A pleasant enough moderator asks about a brand. Let the post-rationalization begin! The consumers struggle to give intelligent responses to unanswerable questions. Why did you choose the Prego over the Ragu? How do you pick out a pair of pants? Is Chili’s salad healthier than Applebee’s salad? How do you feel about radial tires?


The consumers eyeball each other. This one is attracted to that one and is angling to make an impression. Another is a blowhard. Yet another is hesitant to speak up and another just agrees with the alpha in the room. Predictable group dynamics. And they all post-rationalize, trying to analyze decisions that they really made on impulse weeks, perhaps months earlier.

Welcome to the outdated, outmoded world of consumer research, i.e. Jurassic Park, where even many of America’s largest brands make billion-dollar decisions based on a handful of focus groups just like this one. This is not entirely about the vilification of focus groups – they actually do have a place when certain group dynamics work in your favor. But more than 70 percent of consumer decisions are made at retail, at the shelf, where it matters.

Nobody reaches for their wallet in a focus group, and that means measuring what happens at the moment of truth is all that truly matters. By all means, whether you find value in intercepts, ethnographies or more modern methods that utilize “professional strangers” who mingle with consumers, make sure you qualify before you quantify. (After all, you can’t field a quantitative survey without knowing what to ask.) But if your research firm resorts to focus groups – even with jarfuls of M&Ms – or believes that calling home phones for a quaint survey is still a good idea – all from the same dusty playbook of traditional methods – alert your local paleontologist. Dinosaurs are on the loose.

Cliff Courtney is the chief strategy officer for Zimmerman Advertising, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and an adjunct professor at the University of South Florida. For more information, visit


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