Politicians look anxiously at the results of political polls, as they indicate the standing of the party in the country and the standing of its leader. They show what issues are most significant to the electorate and which seats are most likely to be marginal at the next election. Focus group politics has reached such an extent that politicians react to the results of polls by putting extra effort into areas of the country that are marginal, i.e. where additional effort to market the attractions of the party are more likely to pay off. When the polls say the leader is unpopular, pressure is put on the leader to change stance so as to become more popular; when negative reaction to a leader is strong and sustained, the party thinks of appointing a new one; which issues to push as the main planks of the party's electoral platform are also influenced or even determined by the polls. There is no point in strongly pursuing issues about which the electorate is unconcerned - that is not the most effective way to win votes.

In a rare display of humility one of the world's best known companies admitted to making a big mistake when it unveiled a secret weapon to take on the UK's supermarket chains. McDonald's, the hamburger chain that brought the world the Big Mac, thought it had another winner when it announced the new product to its expectant staff.

Enter the McPloughmans, a cheese, pickle and salad sandwich. A spokesman told the conference that the McPloughmans was designed to compete with supermarkets in the cold sandwich market. Instead of applauding this marketing innovation however, staff were unimpressed. Mr Preston admitted: 'If we had done our homework we would have found that our customers didn't want the product and our staff were embarrassed even to have to say McPloughmans let alone to have to sell it to our customers.'

In a masterly piece of understatement he added that if the company had carried out market research 'We would have found that this was not a highly desirable product.'

When it did a survey of customer attitudes it found even more shocks in store. 'Customers', he said 'told McDonald's they were loud, brash, American, successful, complacent, uncaring, insensitive, disciplinarian, insincere, suspicious and arrogant.' He said, 'We thought we knew about service. Get the order in the customer's hands in 60 seconds - that was service. Not according to our customers. They wanted warmth, helpfulness, time to think, friendliness and advice. What they told us we were giving was horrifying.

What we had failed to see was that our customers were now veterans in the quick service market and their expectations had gone through the roof.' The McPloughmans market test was restricted to central London and short-lived. Only now, more than three years after the sandwich debacle and the first customer survey, has the company felt confident enough to reveal the episode.

The spokesman said the research had been a turning point for McDonald's in the UK, which had led to a radical change in its business approach. Rather than relying on gut feeling that it knew what customers wanted, the company had developed a fact-based approach to planning.

Financial Times

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