As a specialist new product development (NPD) research agency, we increasingly hear ‘What do I need to do to get this through Bases?’ – Nielsen’s approach to testing the potential of new products. Unfortunately, as markets mature, all too often the easiest answer is to add buzzwords and broaden the communication to ensure more and more people have something to latch onto. Rambling descriptions promising a ‘clean-eating, great tasting, protein enriched, ethically sourced product that will fit into your time-poor, guilt-ridden lifestyle’ might be a good way of achieving target ‘propensity to buy’ scores, but they rarely equate to a well differentiated and passion-inspiring proposition.
We are not just observing this with concepts either; it is the same with products, where the tendency can be to minimise risk by producing something so generally appealing that it neglects the very things that were unique and exciting in the concept. It is a double-whammy, often leading to uninspiring NPD. Appealing? Yes. Passing a Bases test? Probably, but lacking the edge to displace products already adopted into people’s lives.
Don’t get us wrong, we have nothing against Bases (or similar) testing. What business would not want a reliable prediction of the short-term return on their investment? But based on our experience working in crowded FMCG markets, we are wondering whether the cart’s coming before the horse, with ideas being developed and shaped with the primary aim of getting through such tests, rather than with a focus on how they will succeed and flourish in the long term. The testing itself is not at fault, it is often our requirement for instant success that is short-sighted.
Casting the net wide
Nobody said NPD was easy. But in most FMCG situations there are two ways for a product to succeed: ‘trawling’ and ‘line fishing’.
Trawling is the classic way to pass a volume estimation test and launch a big new product, and is the norm with stronger brands that can command high levels of awareness and distribution. Here you have a target ‘fish’ in mind but you cast the net wide, with the primary aim being to develop an idea with real breadth of appeal and support this with a product that satisfies as many of these potential buyers as possible. As long as the idea is sound, it is relatively easy to hit two-year sales targets in volume estimation research, and it tends to be very appealing to marketing teams and retailers as initial trial figures will invariably look attractive.
This can work really well –think Stella Artois Cidre, Activia, Pepsi Max, or Walkers Sensations (in the early years). It is often very successful when you plan to support the brand heavily, it is a tactical launch, or it really does deliver something new and compelling. It’s the classic Ehrenberg Bass approach: punch your weight and drive success from a position of advantage.
But, as well as requiring a chunky budget, the problem here is that it often involves targeting breadth of appeal rather than strength of appeal, which can leave gaps for others to exploit (further to the above, think Rekorderlig, Arla Skyr, or for ones that really broke through, Kettle Chips, Red Bull and Absolut).
By contrast a ‘line fishing’ approach is much more targeted (you focus on catching a certain type of ‘fish’) and, importantly, requires more patience.
This approach is about identifying a tight target and having a clear vision, then developing a concept that stays single-mindedly true to this. You accept that keeping things tighter will limit the initial breadth of appeal, but it should mean you are generating real interest among people who view your new product as different and have a clear emotional and/or functional connection with the idea.
Then, instead of designing a product to appeal to the masses, you design one that focuses on delivering against this vision – using its sensory characteristics (product and packaging) to deliver the right experience hedonically, emotionally and functionally. This leads to a proposition with consonance (where every piece of the jigsaw fits perfectly), and the potential to be special enough to change behaviour for those who buy into the brand’s purpose; BrewDog, Propercorn and Innocent are good examples.
Line fishing seems like an obvious enough approach in the modern world, but for many large FMCG manufacturers the outputs of a volume estimation test can be disappointing as a targeted approach means the initial buyer base is smaller, hence trial rates appear low. Although repeat rates should be high, volumes in years one and two will invariably be restricted and in this way it is easy for brandowners to miss the potential for a strong idea to build over time.
There is also a feeling that true line fishing is the preserve of challenger brands, but we feel it is a great opportunity for the big boys too. Whereas challenger brands are often forced to develop their proposition over the longer term, bigger businesses have the budget to commercialise opportunities more quickly, scaling distribution and awareness, and allowing the ideas that they know are great (because good isn’t enough) to flourish more quickly – assuming they are not cast aside at the first volume estimation hurdle.
Sit back and enjoy the voyage
We are not eschewing the trawling approach at all – it can be very successful if your pockets are deep, or the idea is strong enough, but with consumer demand increasingly characterised by the millennial mindset and the associated drive for purpose, story and meaning, we increasingly believe that a higher proportion of the NPD that develops into the successful brands of tomorrow will be designed with more focus.
We appreciate that such a strategy requires patience and stamina, and a different approach to the retailer sell-in, but consider that even Nielsen quotes Beiersdorf head of innovation Mark Schulzig in its December 2015 Breakthrough Innovation Report: “Focus on fewer innovations and sustainably support them for a longer period to finally make them big – no innovation is born big.”
This means we need to consider a step change in how we evaluate the potential of NPD ideas. When we are line fishing, we need to have the courage of our convictions, confident that developing a brilliant product perfectly aligned against a compelling brand promise can lead to sustained success, even if it takes a little longer to manifest itself. Not every innovation is born big, we need to afford time for great ideas to grow.