Short Steve: Ernest Dichter

There is a story concerning Ernest Dichter that I’ll relay in just a moment, and it’s totally untrue – but the true story is even better!

Dichter is credited with coining the term “focus group” to describe a select group of individuals who’s goal is to provide feedback on a given product or situation. He arrived in the United States from Vienna in 1939, and within 18 months had become known nationwide for his success in creating the new marketing direction of Ivory Soap (“Be Smart and Get a Fresh Start!”), Chrysler (recognizing the significance of a woman’s input into a man’s car-buying decision), and his work with saving P. Duff & Sons instant cake mix, and the cake mix industry in general.

The story goes that Duff hired Dichter to figure out why sales of their cake mixes were lagging after such a strong start. Dichter convened one of his focus groups and quickly determined that woman were feeling guilty about using cake mixes – specifically, they felt their contribution to the household was being diminished because all they had to do was add water and bake – hardly a challenging task for a child, much less an accomplished housewife!

His recommendation: remove the dried egg component from the cake mix and have the housewife add egg AND water, thereby fulfilling her need to do something in the process.

Except this story is almost certainly apocryphal. And the truth is so much better!

Dichter DID handle the marketing for Duff, and he DID convene a focus group to determine why sales were lagging. His actual findings, though, were something quite different. He found, in fact, that women were bored with the process of adding water to a premade cake mix and baking it. After some testing and experimentation, he recommended that the best way to improve sales of cake mix was to make it part of a larger enterprise. Rather than just cook and serve the cake, Dichter recommended additional steps post-bake, and voila! the cake decorating industry was born.

That’s right – if you love frosting and/or icing as much as I do, you have the father of motivational research and the coiner of the term “focus group”, Ernest Dichter, to thank!

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