Why Most Beauty Brands Find Focus Groups Valuable—And Reasons Some Don’t

In this edition of Beauty Independent’s ongoing series posing questions relevant to indie beauty, we ask 15 brand founders and executives: Have you ever conducted a focus group?

Mehir Sethi Founder, True + Luscious

We regularly do focus groups on new product releases as our company is growing fast and the stakes are much higher for us to achieve near perfection in our products. Focus groups are conducted by selecting up to 15 testers with varying levels of makeup expertise, from novices to enthusiasts and professional makeup artists. We then send out lab samples for them to test in their own environment. This could be spread out from Dubai to California to Singapore. We then give them a checklist and follow up with a call to gather first impressions and final verdicts.

Erika Kussmann CMO, Paula’s Choice

When I first started, I directed my team to conduct a focus group to inform one of our initiatives because I had come from the CPG world and that was what you did. Then, I quickly realized that, when you’re in the DTC channel, it means you have direct relationships with customers.

That first focus group was time-consuming and resource-intensive and, while offering some insights, in the end, it was also limited. So, instead, we focus on gathering customer feedback, behavior and data across all of our digital touch points—social media, email surveys and customer service—for rich and real-time insights.

Debbi Burnes Founder, Sumbody

I feel fortunate that we have the opportunity to do focus groups often. When choosing a group, we feel it's important to have a good cross section of unique people. We choose people who haven't heard of the brand, are new to natural skincare, currently using natural skincare products, and fans. We look for diversity to garner more accurate, profound information.

We start the process with a form at our stores for interested people to be part of the focus group. They can also invite friends. Once the application date is over, we sort them into categorical piles and randomly choose an equal amount from each.

I find this one of the most valuable methods of gathering information. Listening to existing and target customers offers insights you may not otherwise have. For example, one of our first label designs contained a lot of vertical text. After holding a focus group, we learned nobody was reading that text. This helped us to refine the design elements. 

We gathered other information from participants such as shopping habits, purchase frequency, types of products used, brand loyalty, what makes them trust and try a new brand or product, how reviews and ratings affect buying decisions, and more. There’s nothing more honest or eye-opening than going directly to the source.

Dave Wongk Founder and CEO, Pure Tropix

I love using a focus group! Since I sell to women, I like to get eight to 10 women of different ages so I get a real feel of how my products are doing and what they think about them.

Rely on a small number of core questions. My protocol includes between eight and 10 questions. Imagine that each participant will respond to every question. Focus groups should not last more than 90 minutes. I like to use broad, open-ended questions. And don’t ask questions that call for a “yes” or “no” response. They tend to stop discussion and make it harder to figure out why people believe what they do.

Have them speak from their own experience. It’s more useful to have the women speak from their own experience than to ask them what other people do or think or to predict.

Start easy. Start with a question that everyone should be able to answer and that doesn’t require much disclosure. This will help get everyone talking and provide you with an indication of people’s styles so you can better manage the group.

See if they have anything to add to the discussion. This may result in some incredible information that you did not plan on.

Drea Gunness Groeschel Founder and CEO, Beautiac

Yes! They are great to host. [There's] no better way to get in front of your customers or potential customers than to just talk directly to them. Best to position it in a way where they feel they are contributing to solving a problem or that their feedback is valuable. Otherwise, you may not get a true honest opinion.

JAMIE STEENBAKKERS Co-Founder and COO, Busy Beauty

Last year, we had an MVP (minimum viable product) out, and we were ready for feedback. We have a nimble product development process that allows us to quickly test which products perform better and, then, move in that direction and continuously iterate. One of the ways we decided to seek out market feedback was via focus groups. 

We got participants by reaching out on several local Facebook groups, and we held the focus group in the early evening at our office. On the advice of a friend who had run focus groups for large brands for many years, we created a worksheet to guide the discussion, which really helped give structure to the one and a  half hour session. 

Beyond the written responses on the worksheet, it was so valuable to hear the participants share feedback and bounce ideas off of one another in a more organic way than you get, for example, via an online survey. Definitely have a team member sit off to the side with the sole purpose of taking detailed notes on the whole discussion.

Teodora Saguna Co-Founder, Sarya Couture Makeup

We decided to do a focus group when we were still in the process of defining the product formula and the brand identity. Natural and organic makeup products were still considered niche products in Europe when we started working on our product formulations. We wanted to make sure we had the best mix between product formula and brand identity, so we met with potential consumers and tested the ideas. 

We had two focus groups, each one with eight women. Each focus group lasted two hours. During the first part, we gave them our natural and organic non-branded products without letting them know they are made of natural ingredients. We let them test and play with the products on their skin, do some makeup and talk about the shades, the feeling, the formula. We wanted to get the women’s feedback as compared to what they were using on a daily basis. 

The discussion was very helpful because we understood we needed to work more on the pigments' intensity and the long-lasting effect. The positive conclusions were that our products were very moisturizing, very creamy and extremely easy to apply. We wanted a product similar in terms of performance with the traditional makeup product, so it was important for us to address the weak points. 

During the second part, we revealed the fact the products they tested were made only of natural ingredients and the reactions were very positive. We then tested two different brand identity ideas. One was more chic and glamorous—the current brand positioning—and one was inspired from earth elements such as wood and green pieces. The winner was the first direction as women felt more close to a product that made them feel that they are special and that they are buying a premium product. 

As a general conclusion, the focus groups helped us better define our product in reaching the best mix of natural-yet-performing formulas and the best packaging design. 

Amber Fawson Co-Founder, Saalt

Yes, and it was one of the best decisions we made early on. We created the group before we launched our product or even had our first prototypes. All we had was an idea of how we wanted our brand to look and feel. We used the private Facebook Group platform to create our focus group, appropriately named "Saalt loves our focus group!" We had a few objectives with the focus group, but what we got out of it was valuable beyond what we could have expected.

Obviously, we wanted to get feedback from the market, but we also wanted to create at least 1,000 engaged followers that could help springboard our launch. So, we hosted Facebook recruiting parties where we would buy lunch for friends we knew were connected and asked them to bring their laptops to invite anyone who should know about menstrual cups to be a part of our focus group.

It was amazing that people were willing to share their time and ideas with us! We asked our group everything from "Which design do you like better?" and "Which of these ads is more persuasive?" to "What problems about your period can we help solve?" We also asked about pricing and where people would think to shop for our product category. Here are some of the most valuable lessons we learned:

1). People love to contribute. You'd be surprised how much people will help you if you really value what they have to say and thank them for their insight. We got some of our best ideas from our focus group, including our hashtag #passthesaalt and some of our design choices.

2). The market will surprise you! We got a lot of things right, but just when we thought we were on a roll and knew what the market wanted, we'd post an A/B test in our focus group and get really insightful feedback that was the opposite of what we had decided. This really helped us hone our messaging to get to a place that we could resonate with a wider audience.

3). Focus groups can help you spot trouble areas early. As we worked on our product prototypes, ads, packaging design and messaging, our focus group would help us see errors that ranged from simple spelling mistakes to insightful comments to how certain lines of messaging might be interpreted. They also asked hard questions about things like using gender-inclusive language, which helped us be more mindful of that well before we launched.

4). We learned that, once people liked our product and brand, they would become evangelists. Our focus group gave us the vision of what the customer response would be early on so we could better market all the reasons that made people passionate about our product.

5). We learned that the best customer service team in the world was our own customers!

A funny thing happened when we hit about 600 members in our focus group. By that point, we had prototypes out to members and, all of the sudden, people started answering each other’s questions in real time faster than our tiny team could answer them! This is what gave us the idea to start a separate private Facebook Group called the Saalt Cup Academy where new cup users can ask their questions and get real-time answers from other experienced users.

We now have over 3,000 members in that group that love to rave about the product, share tips and funny stories, and help troubleshoot each other through the initial learning curve. It's this amazing community that came about in a totally organic fashion.

Eugene He CEO, Ceramiracle

We started a focus group for First Light Skin Supplement almost a year before the product launched. As that would be the first product of the brand, the process was rather nerve-racking because, if the product did not meet their expectations, it would mean going back to the drawing board. Since then, we have been using focus groups for all new product launches.

DAVID SIMNICK CEO and Co-Founder, Soapbox

When we went through our rebrand, we did a focus group for every big change that was going to be made. We had focus groups for our changes in our labels, packaging components, logo and more. We have undergone many rebrands since the company’s inception in 2010, and I have to say the way we executed this last rebrand was by far the best way.

Instead of just going off of our personal preference or the suggestions from designers or market experts, we went directly to our target demographic to get their feedback. There's no better feedback than directly from your consumers. 

Nina S. Naidu Founder, Anokha

My repeat customers have been so loyal to my brand over the past ten years. They tell me their pain points with their current products or regimens, and I can then get busy with my research to see what might work better. Many of them started with me when natural skincare was relatively new, and they've given me so much valuable feedback over the years.  

My Mango Butter Eye Treatment was formulated based on requests by my patients in my surgical practice, and the Ayurvedic facial oils were actually formulated after requests from clients at a spa which carries my products. In both cases, I sent production samples to these groups to get their opinions prior to finalizing my formulas. This has helped me in two ways: I have a trusted group who has repeatedly validated my ideas, and I've been able to express to my users how valuable their opinions are to me.  

I don't get returns very often, but, when I do, I always ask, “What didn't you like? What can we do better with the next formulation?” It's hard not to take negative feedback personally, especially as a small brand, because these products are literally our babies, but, at the same time, it gives us a chance to optimize the products for those who support us so ardently.

SELMIN KARATAS Co-Founder and CEO, Kazani

I have conducted an informal focus group. My branding agency made four different branding packaging design boxes, and I loved all of them. I couldn't choose one from the other. I printed out the sheets and I showed them to people I don't know. Since I was a sales representative in my previous jobs, it was not a hard task. I went around on the street, in stores, cafes and asked people which packaging design they liked. Once they told me what they liked, I made a note of it. The next question was to ask, “Why?” I came back to the office, and I made an Excel sheet. I made columns for gender, age and reasons why.

I learned that what I think doesn't mean what other people think, and I was quite surprised by my findings. In the end, I had a tie with the packaging, and I went back to the story and finally decided on what's right for the company.

Shai Eisenman CEO and Founder, Bubble Skincare

We see huge value in speaking to the consumers. Before we launched, we spoke to over 5,000 teens to understand their needs, product exploration process and how they engage with brands. We conduct focus groups on a regular basis to understand how people respond to the product, formulation, packaging and what else is out there that they're inspired by or love. We see consumer research through quantitative research and focus groups as a core strategy for the brand and do not make any decision without it.

Jane Moran Brand VP, Eva NYC

Focus groups are key for us. As a brand, we want to develop fun, affordable and sustainable products that are highly effective. Focus groups help us deeply understand our customers’ needs – what they are now and what they’re looking for down the line. We’ve learned from our focus groups where and how our customers shop, what excites them, and what brings them over the line from interest to purchase. We’ve received great data about our customers’ key hair concerns, the products they’re willing to splurge on, and what they’re truly looking for in their haircare, which we’ve used to inform our audience targeting, product and web design, marketing strategies, and new product development to achieve significant success over the past year. 

Lindsay McCormick Founder, Bite

I don't personally believe in formal focus groups, so we've never done one. We’re really in tune with our customers and take a lot of time talking to them and learning from them so we can create products we know that they will love.

We are in the process of getting B Corp certified and, through that, we have official stakeholders that we speak with regularly who also give us feedback on our processes and products. Because both are more of a constant communication thing rather than a formal survey that only happens say once or twice a year, we haven't been very surprised by any of the outcomes.

If you have a question you’d like Beauty Independent to ask beauty entrepreneurs, please send it to [email protected].