Ground work

When developing new products, consumer feedback should inform the design from the start. Research may lengthen the process, but it can avoid future defects and save on long-term costs.

When a new product is under development, how much should the manufacturer trust intuition and how much should it rely on research? Intuition is important, but is seldom sufficient to gauge how consumers are likely to respond to a new product. Whatever the sector, it is difficult to dismiss the arguments for thorough prelaunch consumer research.

Research should inform product development from the beginning, rather than become a crutch towards the end of the process.

Traditionally, most research has been concentrated in the packaged goods sector, where the cost of entry into the market is relatively low. Before the proliferation of packaged goods, many of the strongest brands, particularly in the pre-war US, were manufactured products, including consumer durables. Packaged goods then discovered the power of marketing and took the lead.

Meanwhile, constant improvement in technology meant that consumer durables could rely on features and functionality to sell products. Consequently, the sector put less emphasis on consumer research, failing to recognise the importance of exploring the emotional values of the brand.

But differentiation in a crowded category has always been the prerequisite for a successful brand. Recognising this, research companies are now seeking to demonstrate that by being more involved in the development process, they can cut costs and leadtimes rather than add to them.

BMRB International has the UK licence for IdeaMap, a research tool which introduces a quantitative element to the earliest stages of new product development (npd) when this would not normally be available.

BMRB associate director Phil Sandy explains: “A relatively small sample size – say a group of 100 people – gets taken through various elements of new product ideas on a computer screen. These might include designs, promotions or copy.”

One-off ratings are given for these different features, allowing the client to get a clear idea of the strongest selling points of the proposed product, says Sandy.

Because of the small sample size, it can be a cost-effective way of narrowing down the later stages of npd, such as concept testing. “There is no reason why the technique should not work for consumer durables, as long as you get hold of respondents when they are actually looking at the type of product in question,” he says.

Louise Southcott, managing director of Link Strategic Research, works primarily with the faster moving brands, but has seen increased interest in research from the durablessector. “There’s definitely been a shift,” she says. “Manufacturers are far more concerned about how the product looks. Increasingly, there is choice for consumers, even if it is only on the level of colour, particularly with the smaller appliances.”

In all sectors, says Southcott, clients are wanting research to progress more quickly. Link now follows more interactive research patterns, she explains, with early discovery work being followed by a client workshop, further consumer research and then another workshop, and so on, all in a short space of time. As with BMRB’s system, the aim is to establish a quantitative check as soon as possible.

Testing manufactured goods

Some designers of manufactured goods are also keen to promote the contribution that in-depth consumer research can make to a new product. “At the research and development stage you are encoding the DNA of your baby,” says Steven May-Russell, managing director of consultancy Smallfry. “So if you want your baby to be born without defects, you put in the necessary homework.”

Leadtimes in this sector are longer than for other consumer products, and the cost generated in terms of manufacturing processes and tooling are substantially higher, says May-Russell.

But well-grounded research can smooth the notoriously rocky path to the launch of a new product. He quotes the example of a French injection-moulded plastic product where, by carrying out research and presenting the results at various points in the supply chain, Smallfry has already generated enquiries equivalent to &£130,000 of business. This is enough to generously cover all development costs to date. And that is before a single product has been manufactured.

After working with various research consultancies, many of which had no specific experience of the industrial goods sector, Smallfry has opted to bring this function inhouse, with the appointment of a psychologist and researcher.

“We are a bit maverick in the way we carry out our research, so we considered it best to do it ourselves,” says May-Russell.

Even where research is conducted with consumers, says Smallfry, it rarely goes beyond examining the physical properties of the product. But it is emotions, and in particular the “joy of use”, which will transform a successful product into a star, he says.

The motor industry has already become adept at tugging on the right emotional strings in appealing to the consumer. It has found that it is often easier and more beneficial long-term to differentiate a product through personality than through features.

Brand personality

Aesthetic appeal lines up alongside functionality to give several points of entry to the brand. In fact, it often seems that lists of features are included only to provide conscious justification for an increasingly subjective choice. Given the amount of investment involved and projected product lifetimes, research into brand personality has to be painstaking.

There are signs that other product types are starting to discover the benefits of appealing to aesthetics and fashion. Mobile phone companies have begun to use features as a springboard for more emotion-based appeal, and with the launch of iMac and now iBook, Apple has literally brought a dash of colour to IT.

Meanwhile, among packaged goods manufacturers, the role of research in preparing for the launch of a brand has evolved.

It is not just the bigger multinationals that commission research to establish a precise positioning for their next snack or countline brand. Increasingly, it is the smaller company which invests in research during the product development phase, because it does not have the budget to market aggressively at a later date.

Owner of the Breakfast Milk brand, Quality Milk and Dairy Products (QMDP) has spent the best part of two years researching its market. Managing director Minze de Vries explains that milk tends to be a preplanned purchase, with consumers lavishing their attention on the added-value milk shelf for an average of one eighth of a second.

The results of T-scope tests, hall tests, group discussions and 5,000 doorstep deliveries followed by telephone interviews, led to the development of a new blow-moulded pack to replace the carton. QMDP used Cambridge Foods for its research, as well as other local or specialist companies.

Designed and produced by Plysu Liquid Foods, the pint bottle has a curved profile, a full-length decorated sleeve and a gold top as the ultimate quality cue. “It is possible to succeed in adding value to milk, even though it’s a very functional market which presents itself in a fairly dull and uninteresting way,” says de Vries.

At the other end of the food and drink sector, where the premium, high-margin product is king, research is just as important. Swedish company V&S, owner of the Absolut brand, studied the American market before launching its top-of-the-range Sundsvall vodka. According to Eva Kempe-Forsberg, director of product development at the V&S spirit division, the challenge was to link the brand values of a traditional producer with an appeal to the experimental vodka drinker.

But market research does not necessarily equate with consumer research. V&S focused its attention on bar staff in the US, who would have less entrenched preconceptions about what a vodka should be like than consumers.

Design consultancy Pearlfisher, which worked on brand development for Sundsvall, believes that consumer research can sometimes be a hindrance rather than a help in the npd process. “Most consumers find change uncomfortable and are often reluctant to accept revolutionary ideas,” says planning director Sarah Bovim. “But in the real world, these consumers are often persuaded to accept a new idea by opinion leaders, early adopters or through the power of advertising.”

Updating research

As a tool, research is continually reinventing itself in terms of how it approaches the consumer for the most accurate – but at the same time, the fastest – results. Other areas which are constantly being updated are the sectors which benefit from the npd process and the application of results in such a way that creativity is not stifled.

While it is relatively easy to project a lifestyle statement about vehicles or electronic media through advertising, the same cannot be said for mundane consumer durables, electronic products and white goods, however thoroughly the market is investigated. But perhaps more importantly, if research is carried out early, the results can be used to influence design itself rather than simply the way it is presented post-launch. At that point, design can itself become the brand’s advertising, and for a fraction of the cost.

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