Are Focus Groups Dead in China?


Consumer research has existed in China for over 20 years, in this time the “consumer focus group” has become a stifling stereotype of the industry.   Are focus groups still relevant in a market defined by instantaneity.

Focus Discussion Groups  – FDGs – are where a target group of consumers are first recruited, and then brought to a facility (so they are recorded), and then interviewed by a moderator.  FDG session are typically two hours, in which consumers are asked a variety of themed questions, or specific questions to gain their feedback on brand concepts and advertising.

Before I launch into what will be a valuable critique of China’s pervasive research methodology, I should state I love them, as they have formed a incredible part of my career.  One of my biggest ‘claims to fame’ is that I was one of first non-Chinese moderators here.  A great challenge, but something, I never backed away from, as I knew I had the skills to get a deep level of insight for my clients.

Why we need to move beyond Focus Groups?

While focus groups have evolved overtime, to include mapping and forms of co-creation – the basis principles remain the same.   If focus groups are to be included – and we still do them – they need to be meticulously planned in terms of recruitment and structure.

First, why two hours?

In China, it is either too long or too short. Two hours does not seem a natural unit of time for contemporary Chinese.   We combat this by using our digital pre-tasks (where participates complete key behavioural and attitudinal mapping exercises), and reduce the focus group to a little over an hour.  This way everyone is totally engaged, and the 1.5 hour fatigue does not occur.   To state the obvious – if people are tired, they are either irritable or passive – so will simply say anything, if they ‘go home early”.

So we go short, 1.25 hours after digital pre-work, or we go long, more comfortable 3-4 hour sessions where consumers ‘co-create’ with us in a stimulating environment – not a dull, dark focus group facility.

The longer session are part of our consumer-centered approach at SMART.

Use focus groups for specific objectives, not as a default to-go

In terms of focus groups, they can be useful in terms of providing a  ‘disaster check’ – checking-in with consumers before you launch a new product or communication.   We typically use them to check brand and product names we have developed for China – a final check on level of differentiation and dialect fit.

But the key issue when using focus groups in terms of brand development, is the logic of presenting ‘brand concepts’ to consumers who feel ‘face’ is a important cultural consideration.   They (participants in focus groups) will give you critical feed-back on all the ideas, but for cultural reasons will always say one is their favourite (and surprise, surprise, everyone agrees).

The assumption from the brand is – the local consumers will like at least one concept.
The assumption from the Chinese consumers is – I should like at least one concept.
The reality is the Chinese consumers don’t actually feel any of concepts are relevant.  They have a unique engagement with your category, that they feel is disrespectful to share with you in the context of a focus group setting.

Consumer to Brand, not Brand Bossing

At SMART, we have designed our qualitative and ethnographic approaches, so they logically move from a nuanced consumer context to specific brand action.   We understand the consumer’s reality in-context, provide a structured way for them to express it, then develop as action for the brand.   This way the brand is creating a powerful conversation with the brand in with a tone and relevance the consumer desires and welcomes.

About Author

Jerry Clode

Jerry Clode is Head of Digital & Social Insight at Resonance. He leads Resonance SMART, providing leading-edge research, strategy and naming for brands in China using bespoke methodologies. Jerry also produces Resonance's popular China Social Branding Report, a bi-weekly publication covering modern marketing methods of the world's top brands.

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