It just may be the most clichéd tool in all of marketing. The mere mention of it strikes fear and mediocrity into the hearts of brand managers everywhere.
The focus group.
At its best, a focus group can provide subjective opinions that will then be extrapolated to represent every single, 37-year-old yoga enthusiast on the planet. At its worst, it’s a controlled social experiment in self-importance.
Either way, putting complete strangers in the room to argue over the qualities of, say, a new car, is at least a great setup for a comedy bit.
One thing about that I Think You Should Leave sketch—or Melissa McCarthy’s tour de force on SNL as a Hidden Valley Ranch enthusiast—that makes it so amazing is just how close to reality it feels. It raises the question: Who are these people that brands are tapping for insights? And why in the world should they be listened to?
Toronto-based agency Juliet felt the same and sought a better way to make this kind of customer survey research more meaningful. It created a platform called Real Talk that aims to help the agency and its clients resist the lure of the marketing echo chamber by incorporating the voice of real people into their creative process. Instead of a random call to anyone over the age of 25 who bought bread or toothpaste in the last six months, Juliet teamed with Shasta Lutz of Jigsaw Casting, which has worked on commercials for Ikea and Walmart, to find people who have a deep relationship with the challenge their clients are trying to solve, whether it’s obsessive bargain hunters, dental hygiene freaks, gamers, environmentally conscious fashionistas, or recreational cannabis users.
They then use their conversations with these people as part of the creative process, as opposed to an after-the-fact evaluation.
“People like to be listened to, and I think when you share creative ideas that are very much work in process—instead of ‘Here’s a storyboard and I want you to evaluate it’—when you say, ‘I want you to help me. I want to know what you would say or what your friend would say,’ people are much more forthcoming,” says Juliet cofounder and chief strategy officer Sarah Stringer. “It’s a really interesting kind of human truth that has a lot of potential.”
The new casting
Juliet builds core groups of customers for each brand challenge, essentially consumer sounding boards that help it and its client see life through their eyes. The agency typically engages with these groups through private Slack channels, and, from time to time, meets them at home to talk about specific brand challenges.
Stringer says that once they have a list of potential contributors, the agency narrows it down to a group of 8 to 10. The conversations in Slack are designed to mimic the freedom and openness of the best examples of how people engage online, such as when they’re leaving an Airbnb review or thoughtfully commenting on a news story.
“People feel more comfortable in the privacy of their own homes to speak freely on the internet, much more than in some boardroom,” says Stringer. “It’s also just the more you work and have a core group of consumers that’s a part of the brand team, the more you build a trusting relationship with people and we all learn together. It’s humbling to see what real people say about your brand versus what you want them to think about it.”
A recent Real Talk-enabled campaign launched in September for Peoples Jewellers, a Dallas-based brand that’s owned by retail-jewelry conglomerate Signet Jewelers, which also operates Kay Jewelers and Zales. The original challenge was to boost sales by attracting a record number of men to Peoples for their engagement rings. Signet research showed that 47% of male engagement-ring buyers are anxious during at least part of the purchase process.
In its further research, Juliet found that trust is the top driver of sales in this category, and many jewelry retailers are inadvertently adding to the pressure by marketing with scenes of idealized engagement bliss. Through Real Talk, Juliet built a group of proposal-ready men from across Canada and interacted with them for several weeks. She heard sentiments such as the following:
“Seeking out the perfect ring was secretive, I had to jump through hoops with her parents, and it involved some lies. I . . . felt odd.”
“I googled ‘engagement rings,’ then I was like . . . what does she like? Some threads were saying it’s all about the style or shape or whatever and I thought it was about size. . . . How will I know her ring size? Oh f*ck, this is really expensive.”
Messages like this helped lead Juliet to create a campaign around Peoples’ more than 100 years of experience, as opposed to heaping more pressure on the occasion. “Bringing people who were considering proposing into our creative process gave us a deeper appreciation of the anxiety around getting engaged,” says Signet VP of marketing John McNamara. “The honest dialogue was so refreshing and served as a great reminder that data isn’t a synonym for insight.”
So far, the agency has utilized Real Talk with Signet, as well as with clients such as the apparel brand Roots and the consumer-packaged-goods startup Wholly Veggie. Looking ahead, Stringer sees the potential for deploying Real Talk in product development, getting some of these core consumer groups testing products in the development phase.
But for now, it’s baby steps.
“Right now our goal is to get as many clients regularly using Real Talk as a part of the process,” she says. “Once you build that strong foundation and you have the small wins, then you’re able to work on expanding to other areas.”