A quick search on Amazon.com shows 59 thousand books on “Innovation”. The string “how to innovate” leads to 46 million hits on Google. For sure, there is no shortage on guidance if one wants to innovate. Yet, in fast-moving consumer markets, 80 to 90% of all new products are said to fail on the supermarket shelves. Apart from being appallingly high, this number has also been remarkably stable over the past 20 years. This inevitably raises the question on the efficiency of innovation theories, processes, methodologies and advice as suggested by universities, business schools, consultancy firms, consumer research agencies and others. With all this advice, one would expect the failure rates to go down…
This article focuses on the (non-)contribution of consumer research to successful innovation.
The pressure to innovate
FMCG companies embrace innovation as a last resort to protect their margins against private labels. With traditional branding and segmentation strategies becoming increasingly inefficient, as private labels evolve into real household brands offering propositions in each price tier from value to premium, the pressure to innovate is immense. On the other side sits the consumer who is expected to absorb the continuous stream of innovations although being notorious for being conservative and opposed to change. Indeed, there is an increasing gap between the corporate need to innovate and the consumer need for change.
Market research companies have been trying to bridge this gap by developing techniques and methodologies to involve consumers in the innovation process. The promise to their corporate clients is to help them to conceive and develop innovations that consumers really want. But do they? Whether or not the consumer should get a voice in the innovation debate is an old and controversial question. Many successful innovators/enterpreneurs (Steven Jobs, Richard Branson, Howard Schultz, James Dyson…) proudly stated to have not relied on consumer research when developing their vision. Also remember Henry Ford’s famous “if I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse”. However, in most corporate environments where no visionary leader is available, innovation teams do rely heavily on consumer input and feedback to steer their innovation processes and to justify the required resources and investments.
But still, there is this 80/90% failure rate… Is consumer research then merely like blowing in your hand before rolling the dice? Is it merely providing some psychological comfort to managers with no real impact on the outcome? Or can it be more? Can consumer research really change the odds? I think it can, but in order to do so, the traditional consumer research paradigm has to change.
The old research paradigm: “asking questions to respondents”
The traditional paradigm is based on the reduction of uncertainty by asking questions to respondents in a more or less controlled environment. The assumptions are that the respondents are representative for consumers and that their answers can be extrapolated to the consumer universe. In this paradigm, representativity is the big challenge, most often reached through sample quota on gender, age, social class, region, product & brand usage… and, eventually, through applying some weighing factors.
there is an increasing gap between the corporate need to innovate and the consumer need for change
The second challenge is to deal with the consumer’s incompetency to answer the research question, either because of ignorance, indifference, social desirability, lack of verbal competencies and so on. This problem is tackled through the use of sophisticated interview techniques. So, participants in market research are often asked to do quite unusual things. They are asked to come to a central location for some taste testing, or they’re invited to evaluate a virtual supermarket shelf on a computer screen. Sometimes they are asked to go through several dozens of conjoint choice tasks that tend to get more difficult as the test proceeds. Maybe their eye movements are tracked and sometimes even their brain waves get measured. It also happens that they get the company of seven strangers, for a two hour focus group on a topic that they‘d never considered for longer than 10 seconds.
All too often, this means that consumers are put in a newly created reality that has little in common with the context in which their daily purchase and consumption decisions are made. As a consequence, the opinions and behaviours of these respondents give us little guidance on how consumers think and behave in the real world.
The new research paradigm: understanding “consumers” instead of surveying “respondents”
In order to be relevant and valid for innovation, market research has to focus on the consumer without turning them into a respondent. It means taking into account the reality of the contemporary shopping and consumption context. If a shopper spends only three seconds at a shelf before a decision is made, then concepts should be tested with no more than 3 seconds exposure time. Concepts that require 3 minutes to be fully understood don’t have a chance in this environment, even if they are strongly “liked”. It means not bothering consumers with questions that only matter to marketeers who need the answer to proceed with their NPD project (“should the pack be yellow or orange?”). We must accept that consumers, contrary to respondents, simply don’t have an opinion on most of these marketing questions. It means showing a genuine interest in what drives the consumer, aimed at understanding how our (new) products could (better) fit in their life. The successful launching of an innovation is in general not the difficult part, it is the successful landing of a new product in the shopping routines and consumption patterns that is the real challenge. This successful landing depends more on an in-depth knowledge of consumer behaviour and motivations, than on knowing their opinions.
The way forward
For a couple of years, a growing part of the market research industry has become aware that their old paradigm is being questioned by reality. Consequently, new techniques and approaches to market research are being developed to increase the validity and relevance of innovation research. New buzz words such as “consumer communities”, “co-creation”, “gamification” etc. have recently been added to the jargon of an industry that has been remarkably conservative for the past 30 years. One of the challenges will be to convince the corporate client side that it is worthwhile to replace short-term certainty on respondent opinions by structural knowledge on consumer behaviour as the basis for successful innovation.
Pascal Mignolet is International Marketing Intelligence Director of DE Master Blenders 1753 (formerly known as Sara Lee’s Coffee & Tea division), the third coffee company worldwide with brands such as Douwe Egberts, Senseo, Pickwick etc… He holds a master degree in Sociology and Mass Communication from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and a degree in Marketing & Advertising from the Solvay Business School Brussels.
Pascal started his career as research executive at a Belgian market research agency (today part of Ipsos group) and left the company ten years later (1999) as Client Services Director, to become Research Manager at Mobistar, France Telecom’s mobile operator in Belgium. In 2003, he became European Market Research Director of the Orange Group (France Telecom), responsible for all European market research outside France and UK. In 2006 he joined Sara Lee in his current role.
Pascal has a special interest in and experience within the areas of Consumer Satisfaction, Brand Equity research and Innovation Research.
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