Mimi Levin Lieber, Whose Focus Groups Shaped Postwar Marketing, Dies at 93

She helped Fortune 500 companies sell to women in the 1960s and ’70s, then became a stalwart promoter of early childhood literacy.

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Mimi Levin Lieber, a pioneer in the use of focus groups to shape product development and marketing at some of the country’s largest companies, and later a stalwart advocate for early childhood literacy in New York, died on Oct. 16 at Mount Sinai West hospital in Manhattan. She was 93.

Her son James Lieber said the cause was respiratory failure.

Mrs. Lieber was one of several social scientists, many of them women, who in the 1950s and ’60s took research coming out of institutions like the University of Chicago and Columbia University and applied it to marketing and advertising.

It was a time when American consumer patterns were changing and companies were struggling to keep up. What had once been a mass-market 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.

Mrs. Lieber’s particular specialty, first at a Chicago advertising agency and later on her own, was the focus group — now a staple in the business world, but a novel approach at the time.

She would gather eight or ten randomly selected people around an oval table after work, give them food and chat with them, first about their day, and then, once they were comfortable, about matters like their personal hygiene, underwear choices or dating preferences. She would crunch those insights into voluminous data sets for corporate clients like Hanes and General Mills.

“It may sound very basic and unprofound,” she said in an interview with Newsday in 1993, “but the problem with the American system of business is that companies think operationally, ‘This is what we’re good at producing, now how do we sell it?’ — rather than thinking as marketers, ‘What does the consumer want, and we’ll produce it.'”

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Mrs. Lieber in an undated photo. She helped provide a steady guide to companies trying to stay ahead of the rapidly shifting American consumer, especially as women moved into the workplace.Credit…via Lieber family

Miriam Leah Levin was born on March 22, 1928, in Detroit. Her father, Theodore Levin, was the chief judge on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan; her mother, Rhoda (Katzin) Levin, was a homemaker.

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

Mrs. Lieber studied social psychology at the University of Chicago, where she received a bachelor’s degree in 1949 and a master’s in 1951. The university was at the forefront of sociological research and education, and she and many other students were among a vanguard that brought the university’s insights into the private sector.

After graduation, she moved to New York, where she worked at the Bureau of Applied Social Research, an institute at Columbia run by the sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld. During World War II, Dr. Lazarsfeld and his colleagues had developed techniques for testing and tweaking government information, most notably through the use of what they called the focused interview.

Instead of asking people to complete a survey to see whether they liked a program, Dr. Lazarsfeld’s team would assemble people in a room and probe why — an approach he brought to corporate clients after the war ended.

Mrs. Lieber helped refine those 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 as they chatted informally with a facilitator. The rest of the researchers were hidden behind a one-way mirror.

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

“She was one of those people who was really in the nitty-gritty of figuring how to do focus groups,” Liza Featherstone, the author of “Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation,” said in an interview. “She was one of the earliest people to bring the focus group into the advertising industry.”

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

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One of Mrs. Lieber’s biggest successes came in 1969, when her research among women provided the advertising framework for L’eggs, a line of pantyhose sold not in department stores but at supermarket checkout lines.

In 1961 Mrs. Lieber struck out on her own, founding Lieber Attitude Research. She staffed it almost entirely with women and pitched herself as someone uniquely poised to explain female consumers. Within a few years she was working with leading ad agencies like Ogilvy & Mather and, through them, clients like Hanes, Citibank and General Mills.

For the next 30 years she provided a steady guide to companies trying to stay ahead of the rapidly shifting American consumer, especially as women moved into the workplace and men began to take on more domestic responsibilities.

“There was this embrace of 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 public,” Lizabeth Cohen, a historian at Harvard and the author of “A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America,” said in an interview.

One of Mrs. Lieber’s biggest successes came in 1969, when her research among women provided the framework for L’eggs, a line of pantyhose from Hanes sold not in department stores but at supermarket checkout lines, in platic egg-shaped containers. It was a radical — and very successful — move, but one Hanes might never have taken had Mrs. Lieber’s research not shown that women were eager for it.

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

The board oversees the state’s educational activities, but Mrs. Lieber immediately chafed at what she saw as a preoccupation with higher education at the expense of elementary school, especially in lower-income neighborhoods. She spent much of her time on the board pushing for more funding for low-income schools.

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

Mrs. Lieber left the board in 1996, the same year she founded Literacy Inc., known as LINC, a nonprofit that promotes reading in lower-income neighborhoods in New York.

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

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

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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