Where’s the beef?

Where’s the beef?*, asked a reader from Ontario, following my article that questioned the effectiveness of focus groups. To answer it, I was thinking, I could simply retell a story credited to Henry Ford. You know:
If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Instead, let me tell you a more contemporary story I first heard last winter from my pen pal Gerry McGovern (he was in Saskatoon for a couple of days), which reminds us about the limitations of focus groups:

A few years ago, British Airways decided to introduce a new and exciting service for its first class passengers on long haul flights. Because of their budget constraints, they had to come up with something simple but compelling. Think: what kind of a perk would you appreciate on a long haul flight if you were a first class passenger? How about the ability to, at will, indulge in a small treat without having to call a flight attendant?

Guess what? That’s exactly what BA did—they decided to introduce a mini fridge full of goodies. If passengers woke up in the middle of the night feeling a little hungry, they could easily get something nice for themselves. Nice little touch, no?

The next logical question was: What should BA put into this mini fridge? So “naturally” they assembled some focus groups of first class passengers. The response was almost universal. People were saying: fruit and/or perhaps some light salads.

On the first flight with the new service a flight attendant paused as she noticed the fridge being filled. “What are you doing?” she asked the person filling the fridge. And the person explained what was happening. The flight attendant laughed. “They’re lying!” she said. “They don’t want salads. Listen, I’ve being doing the London to LA route for years, and when they wake up in the middle of the night the last thing on their minds is salads.” “But the focus groups said …” She shook her head and walked away. A couple of minutes later she came back with some chocolates and cakes. “Please put these in as well,” she said. “Trust me. I know my customer.” And they did put some chocolates and cakes in and when they checked at the end of the flight, they were all gone and nobody had touched the apples or salads…
_ _ _

Saying that you’d prefer some fruit or perhaps a light salad in the middle of a long haul flight sounds exactly like the kind of thing you would say if you knew that you’re being monitored/recorded. It’s a form of window dressing, no? (Even McDonalds has salads on its menu.) In reality, what people say in a focus group rarely matches what they do in a real-life setting. It’s easy to forget that.

*A catchphrase in the United States and Canada. Since it was first used as an advertising slogan, it has become an all-purpose phrase questioning the substance of an idea, event, or product—see the video below: