The Apprentice: What We Can All Learn – Focus Groups

Although the annual intrigue and expectation regarding the BBC’s The Apprentice has now long since died down, in this week’s Thursday Night Insight, B2B Marketing Manager Caroline Harrison nonetheless reflects upon a recent re-run of the show and finds some more valuable business lessons can still be learned.

Recently I watched a re-run of an episode of The Apprentice on TV. It was an episode which I had not seen previously, but was (yet another) one in which you sit in disbelief as an ambitious individual with a huge ego has unshakable faith in their own judgement. As always, it makes for great TV when this person gets the comeuppance that everyone else has seen coming from the start.

The individual concerned was leader of the girls’ team tasked with creating and pitching a prototype product to retail at £10 or less. With two possible ideas for a children’s toy on the table – a toy robot and the team leader’s own idea of "Secret Signals" semaphore cards – both concepts were put to the vote.

The five fellow members of the girls’ team unanimously preferred the robot idea, considering the semaphore game old fashioned and effectively redundant in the age of texting.

Undeterred, focus groups with children – the key target market for the potential product – were arranged. Once again, the decision was unanimous, with the focus groups all showing a clear preference and potential market opportunity for the robot idea.

At this juncture, common sense would tell most people that they should back down or risk being left with egg on their face. Of course, everybody is entitled to have a different opinion, and there are products on the market which meet the various needs of many, many different people. However, market research – and in this particular case, a focus group – is used for a reason. It gives a great insight into what a potential market is really looking for in a product or service, and helps to establish whether there is a measurable need or desire for your concept in the first place. Anyway, the team leader flew in the face of what the whole world was telling her and decided to plough on with her ‘brilliant’ idea regardless. Needless to say, the whole project was a disaster and the team leader in question was the next Apprentice candidate to be given the boot.

That’s not to say that people can’t come up with ‘wacky’ ideas which prove to be hugely successful in spite of the initial reservations of some of their friends or colleagues. It’s just that when research shows time after time after time that your idea will not sell, chances are that your idea will not sell. The only silver lining from this whole fiasco would seem to be that very few people were surprised by the outcome of the task and that as a consequence few other people would disregard such compelling market research evidence at their peril.

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