OPINION6 June 2011

Plenty of groups but not much focus

The Apprentice

Source: BBC / Talkback Thames

Last week’s episode of The Apprentice was one of those great ones where they throw in a bit of market research. The challenge for the two teams was to come up with a new pet food brand and produce an ad for it, and one of the first things they both did was run their ideas by focus groups.

It wasn’t pretty to watch.

The first team’s group told them their idea was rubbish – they went with it regardless. The second team’s group told them their idea was great – they ditched it regardless.

Team leader Vincent Disneur (who warns us that “some people may find my confidence and charisma overpowering”) was told pretty clearly that by trying to appeal to everyone, his ‘Every Dog’ idea would appeal to no one.

Meanwhile his adversary Glenn Ward sent some of his team members to a group which heartily endorsed the idea of a cat food called Lucky Fish (so tasty it’ll stop the cat from eating your goldfish). But by the time they were done, inspiration had struck Glenn on the motorway, and he overruled them with his new idea, Cat-Size (like cat’s eyes, only ‘size’ because it’s about staying in shape).

One of Glenn’s team members asked: “If a focus group’s gonna say ‘yeah, go with it’, then why would we not roll with it?”

“I’m taking a decision,” explained Glenn. “I would like Cat-Size.”

Neither point of view suggested a very firm grasp of the complexities of qualitative research.

And so it was that the teams were left with two rather duff ideas. But Cat-Size, despite the awkward pun, was not as badly misconceived as Every Dog, and Glenn’s team were duly crowned the winners, while Vincent was fired along with his team member Ellie.

The view of focus groups conveyed by The Apprentice is that you go in to a roomful of people (and, in this case, their pets), tell them your idea and ask them whether they love it. They will reply yes or no, but that doesn’t matter a great deal, since you then just go ahead and do whatever you were going to do anyway.

Freelance consultant Alex Bollen has a nice post about the episode in her blog, in which she argues that the entire show is in fact a great example of how group dynamics can affect behaviour and skew decisions – something the contestants seem unaware of. “The show,” Bollen says, “is a lesson in human nature, not, as Alan Sugar would have us believe, in business.”