There is a current belief that we are moving out of the era of a “demand economy” and into a “relationship economy.” In this new era, consumers are looking for more than lip service from a company. They want an “authentic” relationship with the company and its brands. Everything needs to deliver on this promise – the company itself, the brand message, and the product.
In order to develop products that will be “authentic,” there needs to be a close relationship established with its consumers. This does not just apply to marketing and customer service. The product and package have to be developed with the consumer to truly hit every note.
In a world with a lot of skeptical people, genuinely getting to trustworthiness is something that has to be embraced and earned, every day. Connectivity with the consumer cannot be achieved through a simple twitter channel, a YouTube promotion or a Surveymonkey study. Rather it is through an integrated approach between the product team across all facets of the product understanding model.
It is noteworthy to add that when we say “consumer,” we acknowledge that there is rarely one monolithic consumer. There are usually a number of different, distinct idiographs or clusters of people who make up the concept of consumer. That, of course, is one more reason for the complexity of understanding, THE consumer.
Use of rote tools rather than critical thinking
Many business practices drive to uniformity of practice, and therefore to the use of a standardized set of tools. The problem with this approach is that researchers do not think through whether the tools are adequate to answer the business questions at hand.
Standardized tools can create a culture of laziness, where critical thinking is discouraged because it is not required. The tools used should be adaptive, not static, and should be based on the business questions at hand, not a benchmarking study recommendation from three years ago.
The basic flaw in many of the standard marketing, consumer and sensory research tools is that they do not bring the consumer into the conversation early enough, often enough or deep enough. Inadequate are the traditional tools (old school paper versions or more updated web/digital versions) such as surveys -- whether conducted to determine the highest ranking concept, optimize the product, measure likelihood of success in the market or understand satisfaction with product performance after use. They are used more as a scorecard rather than as active methods to develop products that will appeal to people -- i.e., the consumers.
Even focus groups, which are meant to elicit more in-depth consumer feedback, are basically validation tools. Surveyors have certain assumptions going into the focus group research, which frame the questions used. The groups can only validate or disconfirm the surveyor’s thinking. They are not able to lead us to new ways of thinking. The process should start as one of discovery not validation.
The consumer should be an active participant in all stages of the product development process and the methods used must be able to elicit an in-depth understanding of the emotional needs that products should fill and product attributes that will, or will not, link to those emotional needs.
While the tools used are important, the way the researcher goes about understanding consumers and products is even more important. New thinking on the “product research” process has led to identification of some common traits that allow a researcher to be more successful at developing new products.
These are not about the tools being used, but about being good at critical thinking. The researcher must be interactive and agile, willing to use a variety of tools to understand the needs of the consumer. Therefore, while the tools are important, the characteristics of the researcher are essential.
Critical factors the researcher should bring to new product development:
- Be fascinated with the product
- Be fascinated by people who purchase and use the product
- Strive to question your assumptions
- Be adaptive.
These traits are not common today. Marketing Researchers rely on simplistic tools such as concept testing to drive new products. Product Development and Packaging Development groups typically do not think that they need to be part of concept development or have met negative responses from “Marketing.” The refrain of “just tell me what you want” is often heard from the PD group reflecting a service versus integrated research team member mentality.
How should products be developed?
Each new product effort should have a dedicated product team, which includes Marketing, Consumer Products Research, and Product and Package Research &Development. Members of this team need to be involved in all stages of the research. Research into concept, product, packaging, and communication must be done in concerted parallel paths that are essentially simultaneous.
Everyone on the team needs to be grounded in the product category being explored. This grounding must include an understanding of the consumers and the products in the category. Questions that must be asked are:
- How do consumers interact with this category? How does the market behave, really?
- What is the market landscape….who plays in it, why? Why not?
- What needs do products in this category fulfill?
- What are the emotional links?
- What are the important product attributes and how do they link to the consumer needs?
- What are the differences in market products – which products are meeting or failing consumer product expectations?
- How are the product benefits currently being communicated? Are they on target?
- Based on this understanding, where are the opportunities?
- Can we find a way to prove ourselves, or our assumptions wrong?
Identified opportunities need to be explored together and the weight of success needs to be shared. It is very efficient to explore product in the context of the general product idea and at the same time explore how communication and packaging ideas mesh with the product. Based on feedback, all can be modified and explored simultaneously. In this way, mismatches can be avoided and many more successful products can be developed.
Businesses are not the only area where change is needed. The educational system also needs to approach consumer and products research differently. Rarely is this comprehensive and integrated “products research” training taught in universities or companies. It is rarely taught to food scientists or marketing researchers. Similarly there is little cross training being conducted.
This situation is unlikely to change until professional organizations, universities and companies realize the need to include this into their required competencies. Until the situation changes and more realize the importance of this paradigm shift, products will continue to fail in the market at an alarming rate.