Creative people often balk at research, claiming focus groups have killed more great ideas than all the clients combined. There might be some truth to that: focus groups can be dangerous. But research has much more to offer than focus groups. Intelligent research, grounded in science, can be the creative person’s most powerful weapon. But it does come with one caveat: creative people need to read the research. Don’t accept someone’s synopsis of the research. Read it. Consider a U&A (Usage and Attitude) study. Given that the sample base is statistically significant, that report can include powerful nuggets many overlook. That was how I managed to solve a big problem for Frito Lay’s Doritos. Looking at the study and knowing where Doritos enjoyed good market share (the Southwest USA) and where it didn’t (Northeast USA) resulted in an insight. In regions outside the direct influence of Mexican cuisine (at the time), consumers had no idea what a tortilla chip was. And ingredients-based TV campaign broke the barrier to sales. Today, everyone knows what a tortilla chip is. And Doritos enjoys a strong, global market share.

The true talent of a creative person exhibits itself when that person applies their creativity to research learning. It’s a matter of finding creative way to connect the dots.

Anyone who has worked in the beer category has undoubtedly sat through many nights of painful focus groups. Generally, a focus group is a terrible way to evaluate creative approaches. There are too many variables. The style of the moderator. The impact of a dominant subject (people can either galvanize to their POV because they like the person or they can oppose anything the dominant subject says because they don’t like them or find them too abrasive.) For focus groups to be statistically significant, there must be many, often expensive, groups held before one should be making financial decisions based on the groups’ findings.

However, the proverbial light bulb can be triggered by focus groups, not necessarily because of the outcome of the groups, but because of the dynamics of the group. Such was the case in a beer launch I created. Labatt was launching a beer in January (huh?) in an attempt to disrupt Molson at the beginning of the baseball season. Baseball season is a long way off from January but given the lead time just to achieve awareness, mid-January was targeted as the launch date.

And so came the focus groups on this particular beer. Anyone who has sat through beer focus groups would agree that if there is one thing consistent from one group to another, regardless of the beer, is that beer drinkers consider themselves experts in beer.  So armed with that insight and knowing that the objective was to disrupt Molson, where does that take you? What would you do?

It took me to a question. If beer drinkers consider themselves experts and we want to disrupt the category, why are we launching one beer? Why not two beers and create a beer battle between ourselves?

While not an initially easy sell to Labatt, they ultimately agreed and Canada’s first beer battle was launched. While creating awareness can take months, in some parts of the country, this beer launched gained a 7 point share market in three weeks. Unheard of. And for that success I thank research. If I had not attended those focus groups, this never would have happened.

Creative people can continue to believe research is a blight. Or they can embrace it and harness an exceptionally powerful tool. Research has no bounds when you add creative interpretation.

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