So what’s the big idea?

Disasters such as New Coke and WAP technology show the importance of rigorous research when it comes to new product development, says David Benady

Trying to come up with products that people never knew they wanted is a risky business. The public weren’t exactly crying out for pyramid-shaped teabags when PG Tips launched them in 1997, but the product has helped to increase the company’s market share by 30 per cent.

However, there had been no great calls for products such as ITV Digital, WAP technology, New Coke, Enigma lager (from Guinness) or The Millennium Dome, and they all bombed. Some of these failures can be attributed to bad luck, others were just plain daft to begin with.

But marketers believe they can predict whether new products will be well received by testing them through focus groups, home trials and in-depth analyses of people’s responses to the innovations. Yet, many of these methods prove to be ineffective – 90 per cent of packaged goods innovations fail within two years of launch.

In fact, some of the greatest marketing disasters can be blamed on dodgy research findings. Take the New Coke fiasco in 1985. The company launched a reformulated version of the soft drink after research showed that in blind taste tests, drinkers preferred the sweeter taste of Pepsi to traditional Coca-Cola. But Coke lovers rebelled against the sweetness of New Coke and it was taken off the shelves within seven months. Coca-Cola, of all companies, had underestimated the power of brand image to affect people’s perceptions of taste.

The risk of developing expensive failures is as strong as ever and marketers are demanding researchers come up with more effective ways of spotting problems before launching products. For technology, where consumers may misread how the products will fit in with their daily lives, trying to find adequate ways of testing products has become increasingly important.

WAP a misconception

WAP technology, for instance, which offered e-mail and limited access to the internet via mobile phones, was apparently a hit when it was tried out on mobile users in research groups. Consumers said it would be great if they had something that allowed them to do e-mail on their mobiles. But they found when WAP launched, its usability was limited – not enough other people had WAP and it was slow, it was easier texting or sending e-mails from their computers.

This is partly a problem with “concept product testing”, where the concept is outlined to research groups to gauge their response. Such an approach may miss out on the realities of using the product once it is on the market and draw blank faces from respondents. For new technology products, far greater emphasis needs to be given to “ergonomics” – the way people use them.

One way to avoid these pitfalls is to let respondents take the products home so they can find out how to use them in their own time. As Joel Conway, associate director of researchers RDSi, says: “Choosing the best way to do product testing will depend on the product itself. Often it is best to show it to respondents for the first time during the session, so the researcher can watch them evaluate it. The other choice is to pre-place respondents with the product so they can live with it for a week or so before the group.

A lot of product areas have had to overcome initial consumer scepticism. There were those who predicted the failure of mobile phones in the early days, but the industry has managed to drive huge uptake of the technology.

A method researchers use to bypass the tendency of consumers to reject new developments is to drill into their motivations through in-depth questioning or “laddering”. As Dr Tamsin Addison, head of research at RSM Robson Rhodes, says: “It is crucial that any qualitative researcher is able to identify the motivations behind the information being collected.”

An example of this was research RSM undertook for a company that planned to launch a mobile phone information service. Careful questioning showed that people assumed the company would keep them on the phone for as long as possible to make them pay more. The reality was that on average each inquiry would take about two minutes and cost about 50p. But RSM’s research showed people would be more willing to pay a fixed rate of 70p for each inquiry than trust the company not to keep them hanging on the line indefinitely.

Another crucial factor in testing new products is being able to read social trends. Louise Southcott of Link Research believes that research can indicate when companies are going to have to put sustained long-term investment behind a new product.

One new product Southcott helped develop was Dettox, an anti-bacterial disinfectant from Reckitt Benckiser, which she says was “ahead of its time”. But Southcott adds that the research results said a lot about how people felt about disinfectants, and why the launch of an anti-bacterial was a wise move.

Anti-bacterial products now include Cussons Carex, Fairy Liquid anti-bacterial and Sainsbury’s Microban and the sector was boosted by some high-profile food poisoning cases in the Nineties. Southcott says Dettox has lived up to the promise revealed in the research groups and interest in such products has increased.

Another technique is ethnographic research, which involves observing and often filming consumers in their homes, which can also be used for product testing or coming up with the initial idea for an innovation.

Homing in

Research company Everyday Lives has developed a new system where Web cams are placed strategically around people’s homes and are switched on automatically when someone enters a room. The cameras are linked into the company’s network, and if an interesting observation is made, this can be e-mailed to clients anywhere in the world.

Company director Siamack Salari says this can have great uses for assessing technology products. Philips has run a “Philips House”, where people can be taken to try out new technology. Salari says: “Those promises have failed because you had to get people from outside to go and live there. With our method, you are taking technology to people’s homes to see real-life usage.” He says the system can be used to either come up with new products or for testing them once they have been developed.

And he sums up researchers’ role in the marketing process: “A lot of our work is about anticipating people’s needs before they can express them. The question is: how can those occasions be owned by us or a company?”

Getting a strong initial product concept is crucial to a successful launch. Testing in the final stages may be nerve-wracking, but it is key to assessing whether the product needs tweaking, improving or scrapping altogether.

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