Mimi Levin Lieber, whose focus groups shaped postwar marketing, dies at 93

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Mimi Levin Lieber, a pioneer in using focus groups to shape product development and marketing at some of the nation’s largest companies, and later a strong advocate for early childhood literacy in New York City, is died October 16 at Mount Sinai West Hospital in Manhattan. She was 93 years old.

Her son James Lieber said the cause was respiratory failure.

Ms Lieber was one of the many sociologists, many of whom were women, who in the 1950s and 1960s used and applied research from institutions such as the University of Chicago and Columbia University. marketing and advertising.

It was a time when American consumer habits were changing and businesses were struggling to keep up. What was once a mass economy, in which companies sold a few products to as many people as possible, was rapidly segmenting, with consumers demanding items tailored to their needs.

Ms. Lieber’s particular specialty, first at a Chicago advertising agency, then self-employed, was focus group discussions – now a staple in business, but an innovative approach at the time.

She would gather eight or ten randomly selected people around an oval table after work, feed them and chat with them, first about their day and then, when they were comfortable, about questions. like their personal hygiene, their choice of underwear or their dating preferences. It would turn that information into large data sets for corporate clients like Hanes and General Mills.

“It may sound very basic and shallow,” she said in an interview with Newsday in 1993, “but the problem with the American trading system is that companies think operationally, ‘This is what we’re good at. to produce, now how do we sell it? ‘ – rather than thinking as marketers: “What the consumer wants, and we will produce it”. “

Miriam Leah Levin was born on March 22, 1928 in Detroit. His father, Theodore Levin, was the chief justice of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan; his mother, Rhoda (Katzin) Levin, was a housewife.

The Levins are a family rich in political achievement. Ms. Lieber’s first cousin, Carl Levin, was a Democratic senator from Michigan (he died in July) and her brother, Sandy, was a Democratic state representative; Sandy’s son Andy now occupies the same seat. One of Ms Lieber’s sons, Janno, is the acting chairman and chief executive officer of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Ms. Lieber studied social psychology at the University of Chicago, where she obtained a BA in 1949 and an MA in 1951. The university was at the forefront of sociological research and education, and she and many other students were part of a vanguard that brought the university’s knowledge of the private sector.

After graduating, she moved to New York City, where she worked at the Bureau of Applied Social Research, a Columbia institute headed by sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld. During World War II, Dr. Lazarsfeld and his colleagues had developed techniques to test and refine government information, including through the use of what they called targeted interviewing.

Instead of asking people to take a survey to see if they liked a program, Dr. Lazarsfeld’s team gathered people in a room and researched why – an approach he took to corporate clients after the end of the program. the war.

Ms Lieber helped refine these methods, at Columbia and later at a research firm in Britain. Dr Lazarsfeld’s first groups had gathered in dingy rooms, with his team watching from a corner. Now they were given snacks and sat in comfortable chairs in well-lit areas while they chatted informally with a facilitator. The rest of the researchers were hidden behind a one-way mirror.

Ms. Lieber returned to the United States in 1955, taking a job in Chicago with Tatham-Laird, an advertising agency known for its understanding of the middle-class American consumer.

“She was one of those people who was really in the thick of it when it came to figuring out how to run focus groups,” said Liza Featherstone, author of “Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation,” said in an interview. “She was one of the first people to bring the focus group into the advertising industry.”

She married Charles Lieber in 1960. He died in 2016. With her sons James and Janno, she is survived by her brothers, Daniel and Joseph; another son, Théo; his daughter, Angie; and 10 grandchildren.

In 1961, Ms. Lieber went out on her own by founding Lieber Attitude Research. She composed it almost entirely of women and presented herself as a particularly good person to explain female consumers. In a few years, she worked with leading advertising agencies like Ogilvy & Mather and, through them, clients like Hanes, Citibank and General Mills.

Over the next 30 years, she provided a constant guide to companies trying to stay ahead of the fast-moving American consumer, especially as women moved into the workplace and men began to take on more domestic responsibilities.

“There was this buy-in to the idea of ​​segmenting the market, that different groups have different tastes and that companies need to market to these particular segments of the consumer audience,” Lizabeth Cohen, historian at Harvard and author of “A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, ”said in an interview.

One of Ms. Lieber’s greatest successes came in 1969, when her research with women provided the setting for L’eggs, a line of Hanes pantyhose sold not in department stores but in supermarket checkouts, in plastic egg-shaped containers. It was a drastic – and very successful – decision, but one Hanes might never have made if Ms. Lieber’s research hadn’t shown women were impatient.

She began another chapter of her life in 1981 when Jerrold Nadler, then a member of the New York State Assembly (and now representative of the United States), appointed her to the New York Board of Regents.

The council oversees the state’s educational activities, but Ms Lieber was immediately annoyed at what she saw as a concern for higher education at the expense of primary school, especially in low-income neighborhoods. She has spent much of her time on the board lobbying for more funding for low-income schools.

In 1987, she pushed for regents to distribute state money based on the percentage of low-income children in a given school, an effort that transformed the way the state approaches education spending.

Ms. Lieber left the board in 1996, the same year she founded Learning, Incorporated, known as LINC, a nonprofit that promotes reading in inner city New York City.

Today, LINC works with dozens of schools and public libraries across the city.

“Her legacy reminds us that we must support and invest in the education of our children from the early years, when it matters most,” said Representative Nadler in a statement, “and that universal literacy is essential to sustaining of a healthy democracy “.

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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