Sunday, 29 November 2015

Engaging thoughts

Putting everything into promotions risks unbalancing the marketing mix

Mon, 20 Oct 2014

New research from the British Promotional Merchandise Association says that half of the British public have taken action after receiving a promotional product, compared with only 19% after seeing TV advertising, 11% for online advertisement, 10% for print and 9% for direct mail. Promotional products are also considered the least annoying by consumers.

But what does this actually tell us and are there lessons that brands can draw as a result? First, the top line shouldn’t really come as a surprise to most of us. It merely underlines the fact that people love free stuff and that in a world of virtual complexity and interactive communication, the brute simplicity of a classic marketing approach can still cut through.

The other caveat we would add is that consumers, generally, ALWAYS ask for free samples. It shouldn’t be a surprise they claim this to be the most effective form of promotion, because it is tangible and they are aware of the link between getting a sample and then making a decision to purchase. You don’t necessarily rush off to the shops the moment you see an ad on TV but it will subconsciously warm you up to that brand next time you’re in the supermarket.  And a promotion might lead to a very short term response whereas advertising is more likely to build brand perceptions over the long term. 

Given we know that other forms of marketing work, often at a more subconscious level, we would caution that research used to identify (a) what sorts of promotional strategies brands should adopt and (b) what has been effective, need to take account of the unconscious effects of different comms strategies. This will range from observational qualitative approaches which explore the effect that a range of communications, media etc, have on people’s behaviour, perhaps over time, to quantitative work which uses behavioural economics frameworks to cut through what people claim, to identify what they are likely to actually do.

We should also be careful in research not to equate likeability with effectiveness - e.g. before the now familiar approach to Cillit Bang advertising became all post-modern and iconic, consumers just found it plain annoying - but it worked!

Promotions are also rarely used in isolation and are usually part of a wider marketing mix. If I’ve seen an ad for Cereal X and I get given a sample at the same time - it’s more likely a combination of the two that leads me down the brand bonding route. This makes it problematic to genuinely measure the effectiveness of a promotion quantitatively or try and disentangle it from a wider campaign mainly because few people ever claim to have seen/experienced the promotion and if they had it was mixed up with a multitude of other brand touchpoints.  

Brands, for example, which use digital and social platforms most effectively, are those who do so to engage with their target market and reward users for their time. Promotions may deliver short term spikes, but persistence is the key to sustainable relationship-based marketing. This means combining engagement with measuring RoI as far as possible and then repeating if successful. 

That’s not to say promotions aren’t effective.  As well as getting a product into people’s hands they can also work to build good feeling towards a brand - consumers are getting something for free. And that is probably the real message here - marketing these days is much more of a dialogue with consumers - consumers don’t want to just be told to buy something, more and more they expect something in return.

Time to consult if brands are to gain more informed insights

Tue, 18 Mar 2014


Brands should consider adopting a more “consultative” approach to certain research projects as a way of yielding a more informed and considered level of insight as there are lessons to be learned from the deliberative approaches used in public consultations in social research.

Accepted theory often states that respondents are incapable of solving marketing issues.  This can be true, but it does not follow that they cannot comment usefully upon them; the deliberative approaches employed by social researchers expose respondents to often hugely complicated public policy issues and yet overcome this complexity to produce valuable and constructive insight.  In a deliberative methodology, respondents are carefully exposed to the issues over a period of time, feeding back each time they reach a new level of understanding.  It is powerful but can be ponderous. 

However, with careful staging and clever pre tasking, deliberative techniques can yield advanced insights for the commercial world quickly and easily.  One reason for this is that consumers start with a far better understanding of the issues than is usually possible in public sector work.  Whilst they may not know exactly why they feel the way they do about a particular product or brand, or indeed what makes them buy it, they do interact with it on a regular basis – and, as we have seen, at an increasingly intellectual level.

This is where the pre task comes in – a series of exercises, usually ethnographic or webnographic, which are carefully designed to reveal consumers’ current behaviour to researchers and stakeholders, but which at the same time slowly focus the consumers’ attention on their own behaviour, prompting them to begin to question and analyse it.  Outputs from the pre task are then used to generate stimulus which is used at the start of the face to face sessions in order to generate discussion and debate, until respondents are closely attuned to their individual brand and product needs.  This whole process follows the same path as much deliberative work, with the key difference being that it is the respondents, rather than the research team, that supplies the necessary information for increased understanding of the issues.

In a standard methodology, respondents would be discarded at this point, considered too sensitised to the issues to be able to provide insight untainted by the research process.  However, it is this very sensitivity which equips them to contribute to the consultative session – their deeper awareness of the way in which they consume a clients’ products or brands means that they can take on the role of ‘consumer consultants’ and provide a much deeper level of feedback.

It is the moderators’ job to ensure that these outputs remain focussed and valuable without killing off enthusiasm.  Establishing a clear blueprint for success at the beginning of each session is key – illustrated ‘WILF’ (What I’m Looking For) boards, explained in the introduction session and kept on view throughout the research, are particularly helpful.  It also helps if, wherever possible, the moderator can share some of the thinking behind a particular issue or approach – the respondent arguing passionately for a multi-million pound ad campaign will change track happily if the cost implications are briefly explained, but can feel crushed if the subject is changed without explanation.

For this reason, consultative moderation can work particularly well in the experiential setting where there is a strong element of cooperation between clients and respondents, as the moderators can draw upon clients as necessary to explain the marketing context.  At the same time, the consultative approach puts respondents on an equal footing with stakeholders by giving them expert status, whilst the experiential buzz ensures that they are equally involved with and committed to the process.

The result is a strongly welded stakeholder-consumer partnership, where each party has clearly delineated yet complementary roles – a switch from the transactional to relationship approach in research which is the first step towards achieving the same vital switch in the wider marketing context.


Detailed consumer testing essential for products to pass the dunking test

Mon, 3 Mar 2014


The announcement that United Biscuits is to revert to a former recipe for its digestive biscuits because some consumers had missed, what the company called, the ‘taste, texture and dunkability’ of the original recipe, highlights the importance of undertaking detailed and repeated consumer research before fundamental changes to favourite products are made.

Preparation for any change in recipe, though, should include detailed and repeated consumer testing to ensure that the new product meets the same consumer expectations.

A lot of the time research will need to consider the motivation for the reformulation.It is important to generate the right expectations so that you get an accurate reflection of how consumers will react in the real world. This is why some testing is undertaken blind and some branded. Sometimes, though, the questions will also be dictated by whether the reformulation is being driven by internal factors, such as a need to reduce cost, or an external motivation such as reduced fat or salt in response to a pressure to be healthier.

History is littered with examples of new formulations of favourite products being withdrawn in favour of the original. Most notable among these is New Coke, the reformulation of Coca-Cola introduced in 1985 to replace the original Coca-Cola. Public reaction to the change was less than favourable leading to the subsequent reintroduction of Coke's original formula. 

It’s essential to get your research positioning right.If you tell me the product is ‘light’ I may have different reactions or expectations than if you don't. If everyone around you is reducing salt levels in their products you may be able to reduce salt at a faster rate than if you are alone in doing it, as other products will affect people's taste tolerances. But you are likely to be testing products several months ahead of when they hit the shelves so research needs to take this into account.

With a reformulation, we would have identified early on that either this change in recipe would not work or we would have worked out how to position it and communicate it so that it did work. Rather than testing once, making changes suggested by the research and then hoping for the best, we would re-test each iteration of the product qualitatively, so that the optimal version is put forward for quantitative research, which again saves wastage.














Kids' cereal brands – use qual more effectively or risk becoming toast!

Mon, 13 Jan 2014

With sales of children’s breakfast cereals under threat from both new product formats and from those who claim they contribute to childhood obesity, brands should use research to better understand the key messages on which marketing and communications should focus if they are to resonate more successfully with potential consumers.

Many brands undertake research but still fail to extract the insights from the data needed to make the exercise commercially valuable. And this at a time when figures suggest that last year in the UK, the second-largest cereal market in the world, volumes were up just 1%.* The boxed cereal category for children has traditionally been particularly successful. According to Euromonitor they account for £1.64bn in sales in the UK alone in 2011.

If you look, for example, at children’s breakfast cereal brands, ask yourself what a product in this category needs to say about itself in order to maximise its chances of success?

Cereal manufacturers know that mums worry about nutrition, and that kids want taste – you don’t need research to tell you that. It is much more complicated. Often, for example, mums just want something kids will eat first and foremost, and, some just pay lip service to nutrition as long as they get something the children will eat quickly and without complaining so they can get them off to school as fast and easily as possible.

Some mothers do place nutrition higher up their scale of priorities but understand so little about it that just putting ‘no added sugar’ or similar on a pack may be enough to convince them.  Emotionally, many do need health reassurances.

It is thought, however, that concerns over the nutritional content of children’s cereals will continue to impact on demand. With some health campaigners claiming they are high in sugar and salt and low in nutrients, brands must be able to demonstrate that their product does not fit this profile. In addition, there is growth in other areas of the breakfast category - cereal bars, breakfast biscuits and instant porridge  - that give consumers options to move away from conventional boxed cereals.

Mums are juggling a myriad of different and often conflicting needs. Research needs to do more than just identify these needs, it must also help indicate how to balance them all.  By weaving qualitative techniques into research, it is possible to deliver greater respondent engagement and involvement to produce a fresh, deeper consumer perspective.

Brand collaborations could be used more to encourage consumers to try new brands

Tue, 3 Dec 2013


Bread brand Kingsmill and cheese brand Cathedral City have recently announced a new collaboration, which will include in-store cross-merchandising tools to help independent retailers maximise basket spend opportunities and drive lunchtime purchasing. This will include POS material for bread and chiller sections.

Usually, you see brand collaborations intended to help consumers who need inspiration to 'make' products work together. For example, we have seen this with bagels and cream cheese. In this case, though, bread and cheese buyers may not require inspiration, but in crowded categories up against other branded and own label products, a collaboration with another well known product can help push these two brands to the fore.

Brand collaborations are nothing new, and as a result, consumers are increasingly receptive to a collaborative approach. Take the fashion industry as a case in point, where collaborations have been the norm for some time, with for example Versace creating a range specifically for retailer H&M.

Although collaborations can be successful, the challenge of asking separate companies to collaborate on messaging and communications could be one reason why they don't occur as much as they might. However, giving the collaboration the best chance of success remains important and we advocate combined online qualitative and quantitative research to facilitate client-consumer interaction to gain insights on how to maximise the positives of both client brands. But the link does not necessarily need to be formal.

We have seen how certain products, for example prawns and smoked salmon, sometimes don't do as well as they might because consumers struggle to find occasions to serve them and perhaps only know one or two recipes for using them. In these situations, retailers and brands can collaborate effectively to provide 'inspiration' and prompt purchase.


Frequency of purchase can be supported in other ways through in-store signage, perhaps showing an occasion or a delicious meal involving the products, recipe cards and placing other category products, perhaps sauces, alongside so that an easy meal is signalled.

Tesco’s charity meals move should prompt brands to tap into ethical consumers

Fri, 1 Nov 2013

Tesco’s announcement that it is to provide the equivalent of seven million meals a year to more than 1,000 charities across the UK could tap into consumers’ growing support for ethical brands and retailers.

With growing evidence that consumers will spend more with brands and retailers they regard as socially responsible, it is any area that both FMCG suppliers and the multiples should use as a way of getting closer to their consumers and understanding what motivates them.

A recent Nielsen Global Corporate Citizenship Survey which found that 46% of global consumers were willing to pay extra for products and services from companies that had programmes in place to give back to society. In terms of demographics, just over half of consumers between 15 and 39 years old said they were willing to pay extra for such items, compared with 37% of those over 40.

We are not suggesting that Tesco is doing this for anything other than altruistic reasons but having a fundamental understanding of consumer attitudes and behaviour is what underpins most successful strategies for both brands and retailers. For brands and retailers to connect most naturally with ethical consumers, they themselves must be authentically ethical.

Ethics needs to be an inherent part of brand behaviour. It can’t be skin deep. A brand can't major on being green yet have unethical production methods going on in the background. Brands need to live and breathe these ethics to be plausible. For example Tesco’s decision earlier this week to end multi-buy promotions for large bags of salad and develop mix-and-match offers for small bags with the aim of cutting food waste shows a holistic approach to ethical behaviour.

A lot of time and money is spent on consumer marketing and activation programmes yet attitudinal research remains an area that is generally underexploited.

Brands should recognise the value of investing time beyond factors usually associated with research: becoming fully immersed in consumer attitudes to a whole range of social issues that may affect their brand and their products so that it can be used to develop a clear analytic path going forward.

When seeking consumer insights, brands need to also be aware that what people say isn’t always what they actually do, especially in this kind of area. Brands are advised, therefore, to consider the use of qualitative research to observe consumer behaviour both in the home and in-store to gain a first hand understanding of what products are actually purchased and why.

Tesco will provide the food via the charity FareShare, which now supplies food to more than 1,000 charities across the UK - a 15 per cent increase in just six months.  More than 50,000 people a day are being fed through these charities. Tesco will be diverting all surplus fresh food from its distribution centres and online grocery centres to support FareShare.

Increase in families reducing food waste to save money should have brands looking for a way to get up close and personal

Tue, 8 Oct 2013

Brands need to gain and act upon a more detailed understanding of the way we are living our lives today, after new research from the consumer organisation Which? found that consumers are making greater efforts to waste less food.

The survey, which says that around 14 million people are reducing food waste by cooking with leftovers, making smaller portions and freezing more to save money, should have brands working hard to gain a more detailed understanding of the challenges their consumers are facing.

It is a very revealing study. Brands not only need to be aware that 78% are worried about rising food prices and 45% spending a larger proportion of our income on food compared to a year ago, they need to consider what they as a brand can do to support consumers at this time and, in so doing, create a sustainable brand/consumer relationship.

The Which? report also detailed how 47% of shoppers said they freeze food or cook with leftovers to avoid waste, whilst 39% said they cook smaller portions, so there is less chance of meals going to waste. A third (35%) are buying less food and a quarter (26%) are doing more frequent top-up shops rather than one main food shop.

Repackaging of Hardy’s wine highlights role of consumer insight in setting up expectations of price and quality

Fri, 4 Oct 2013

The announcement by Hardy’s, the UK’s biggest wine brand, that it is repackaging its products to give consumers a clearer understanding of the price tiering within the range, shows the extent to which packaging can set up consumer perceptions of a product. 

Hardy’s owner, Accolade Wines, has said that the new packaging has been designed to better reflect the quality of wine inside the bottle and highlight to consumers a clear progression up the tiers. The redesign, apparently, is also intended to help mitigate the effect of promotional mechanics which could see high-quality wines being sold at the same price as less premium ones.

Consumer insight can play a vital role in creating and redeveloping a product proposition. Price, name and packaging are such an integral part of the product mix that from an early stage of development they should be considered as part of the process.  No one wants to stop a great idea progressing because it is tested at too high a price or with a weak name, but conversely the market success of a product will depend on the mix of these elements.

It is a widely seen in research that the same product at a higher price point is expected by consumers to be higher quality (for example, a vodka brand priced at £18 rather than £12 is not only higher quality but seen as being for more special occasions). 

More interesting is the evidence that the price also impacts on perceptions of product delivery.  In tests, those who are told a particular wine is more expensive think it tastes better than those who are testing the same wine but who were told it was less expensive. More interesting still is evidence that not only is the more expensive wine rated more highly but it produces a more pleasurable experience in the consumer’s brain when MRI scanned. This is not simply the consumers rationalising their experience; they have been conditioned at a subconscious level by the price.

A key factor in getting the pricing strategy right at launch is where the proposed price point sits relative to competitors.  This is because consumers will consider the price in relation to other products, either directly because the prices are displayed together, or indirectly by using the nearest available benchmark.  This relational way of viewing prices can be exploited by marketers.  For example, the launch price may be set at a premium to the competition in an attempt to establish high quality credentials even if the typical selling price would be lower.  The idea is to “anchor” a price point in the consumers’ minds, and then the lower price will appear to be good value in relation to the anchor price. 

In reality, there may be a number of different price settings for different retail environments, e.g. a large discount retailer and a small local shop.  Consumers will tend to respond to the relative differences in price between products in the same retail environment rather than differences in absolute prices between retailers.  This demonstrates the case for always testing price within a relevant context.  

Packaging design and merchandising also provide key consumer cues about the product. In a crowded retail environment, consumers use short-cut reference points to navigate through the complexity.  For example, where a product sits in store can have a profound impact on what people think about it.  The placement of the product and what surrounds it will have an impact on consumer perceptions.

Neuroscience sounds great, but it’s not the panacea for all research ills

Wed, 14 Aug 2013

There was an interesting piece in Marketing Magazine recently by Mhairi McEwan, chief executive and co-founder of Brand Learning, which discussed the way the world of customer insight is being influenced by two apparently conflicting forces: neuroscience and big data.

In her article, McEwan set out the differences between a neuroscientific approach with its subconscious associations, beliefs and emotional triggers influencing our behaviours, and data, where prediction analytics can be used to predict behaviour. Her view is that “neuroscience explains a quick, more intuitive style, whereas big data can drive a slower, more analytic style”.

As researchers and marketers, we are in the business of understanding why consumers do certain things. This is going to be a mix of rational reasons (which can be accessed by direct questions) and less rational reasons (which can’t so easily be accessed by direct questions). The upshot of that is that no one approach used in isolation will give you the rounded findings you need.

There’s no doubt that mention of neuroscientific approaches impresses potential clients. It also gives a clear impression that we as an industry we are progressing, but at present it remains a very small part of research, and actually not used by many. The reality is that the tools at our disposal are only as useful as the questions we ask.

The neuroscientific approach is useful in gauging people’s reactions but it does not give any idea of those reactions within any kind of context or if a subsequent conversation with someone else causes you to reappraise your thoughts. The data approach may be lacking in this but it will give you more of a balance view based on the responses of many more people.

We need to achieve some balance and recognise that neuroscience is just another tool if you have access to using it. It is not the holy grail of research, as more than one person has espoused at times “it can tell you what people are thinking even when they can’t”. As McEwan’s article points out, for most marketers all tools can be useful; no one tool is the panacea. There is no universally conclusive tool for all situations and, as researchers and marketers, we should always keep that in mind.

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Lunchbox wars : Navigating the shark infested custard of healthy school meals politics

Wed, 31 Jul 2013

After a government-commissioned report found that just one per cent of packed lunches were as nutritious as school meals, it is being claimed in some quarters that packed lunches should be banned and free school lunches made available to all primary school pupils.

Whether this is practical – or even desirable – is a matter for others to decide - but what steps can brands take to win over children and mums to healthy food? Can – or should - brands be taking steps to become the champion of the healthy packed lunch, or is their responsibility simply towards selling the products they make?

The report found that the packed lunch bias remains in favour of a sandwich, crisps, drink, chocolate and fruit (which is often returned uneaten). In an ideal world the aim would be to subtly change the 'make up' of a packed lunch, but the vast majority of parents probably want something that is easy to prepare and acceptable to their kids – eating something of indifferent long term health is better than the short term risk of their kids eating not eating anything.

Combining the benefits of convenience and acceptability to children gives us the plethora of "individually wrapped" products to place in a lunch box. However, there are products like Cheestrings, which are undeniably child-friendly in their focus and convenience, which have also tried to leverage their health credentials.

So how might brands develop products that kids will love and parents will approve thus making inroads into this significant territory? How can they get the correct balance between the sometimes competing wishes of kids, parents, teachers, campaigners, the government... One of the problems in this debate is the dissonance between what people need, what they want, what they say they would like and what they subsequently do. It is undoubtedly the case that the children of our nation need healthy lunches (whether in boxes or school meals), however what our kids want is often a different matter. Thus, when asked, parents might say that they would like healthy options but what they then put in their packing up reflects what their kids want rather than need. How can better research help brands navigate this sea of cognitive dissonance.

First of all do involve parents – who will probably remind you that convenience is the elephant in the room in all of this – preparing several packed lunches day in day out can be a tedious and time consuming chore. But don’t just involve them by asking them what they want. Instead a combination of self-ethnography (e.g. via smartphone to capture real behaviour, real rituals) combined with a behavioural economics-inspired quantitative study will provide a far more authentic account of what will work in market, than relying on a more classic approach.

Brands that take this more sensitive approach will understand which buttons to press to deliver the healthiness that many parents would love to provide, in a way which fits with kids wants & with the practicalities of family’s everyday lives.

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He who shouts the loudest...

Tue, 16 Jul 2013

Britain is becoming a complainant’s society. A report published earlier this year by the Institute of Customer Service reported that Britons are more likely to complain than they were five years ago. 

Indeed, it seems – if you are to believe some recent examples – that this complaint culture has been extended to brands and the ways in which they advertise their products. In recent weeks, soft drink IRN-BRU and Lynx shower gel have been among the products whose advertising has been subjected to scrutiny and subsequent decisions by the Advertising Standards Authority based on viewer complaints. In both cases, the complaints were dismissed.

However, closer examination makes for interesting reading. The IRN-BRU case was investigated on the back of 176 complaints; the Lynx advertisement on the back of just seventeen. IRN-BRU is the third best selling soft drink in the UK, after Coca-Cola and Pepsi in a carbonated soft drinks market worth £3.2bn per annum. In Scotland the equivalent of 12 cans of IRN-BRU 330ml are consumed every second. Yet the brand was held to account on the back of just 176 complaints. Similarly with Lynx, a brand used by more than eight million men across the UK & Ireland every day; equivalent to having the brand in one of every four households in the country. And seventeen people complained.

So how representative are these complaints about television advertising, especially compared with market research? And are these complaints a proper barometer for public opinion, or just the dissent of a vocal minority? On its website, the ASA confirms it needs just one justified complaint to begin an investigation into an advertisement. The ASA’s concern is whether the Advertising Codes have been breached rather the number of complaints it receives. In this sense it is judging whether the brand has breached the code rather whether it has caused offence, which can be quite a subjective measurement and may not always be the same thing. 

Whilst no brand intentionally sets out to offend in its advertising, brands will knowingly tread the line between appealing to the demographic most suited to its products. A brand targeting 25-year-old men is not necessarily going to be thinking about the impact on 55-year-old women if they are not its core target audience. 

What is perhaps more interesting is that proper market research is being conducted every day on behalf of brands in a scientific and proven manner, to test products, packaging and advertising for the way in which they resonate with their target audiences. The investment in this research will produce, inevitably, some negative comments but this will be fed back into the process to deliver a result that works best for the brand and its consumers. How, then, can it be right that brands can be held answerable to a number of people that are – without being disrespectful – a statistical irrelevance? Even if you accept that the number of people who complain are representative of a bigger, silent demographic, their numbers would still be insignificantly small.

The ASA has long demanded on all our behalves – and rightly so – that advertising be legal, decent, honest and truthful. Three of those are black and white decisions; the fourth – decent – is always going to be a matter of opinion and it remains questionable that the decency of brand advertising should be questioned on a sample as potentially small as one person out of the nearly 70 million who live in the UK. 

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Do brands need to get into bed with promiscuous consumers?

Fri, 12 Jul 2013

The news this week that product promotions in supermarkets  are failing to produce the increase in  sales  they once did could prompt not only a change in the way brands and retailers approach the issue of deals but also has potential implications for the  relationship between brand and consumer.

A study by IRI detailed how the  volume  of goods sold on promotion fell last year. The report outlined how the total volume of food and non food products sold on promotion here fell  0.8% year on year to the end of March. The UK remains, however, the most heavily 'promoted' market in Europe with  55% of food and 59% of non food products sold on promotion. That is a huge proportion, especially if you look at the most  promoted categories, according to IRI:  beer & cider, where 68.7% of goods are sold on deal and confectionary, 66.5%.

There is a long term trend behind these figures of which  brands would be wise to take note. Promotions are a perfectly legitimate and valuable sales device whilst they retain the power to surprise or even shock. But when they become the norm and consumers take them for granted, returning a product to a normal price structure and margin becomes tough. This is compounded by situations in which brands are required to bear the burden of expensive trade promotions. 

There is a need for research to assist brands in gaining a greater understanding of what goes through the shopper’s mind when they encounter promotions in-store. How do they affect shopping plans and habits and but also perceptions of brands? If continual promotion has the effect of decreasing brand equity in the eyes of the consumer, eroding its ability to command full price over time, what conversations do brands need to have with consumers to counter these perceptions.

Most retailers have moved some way in this direction with the launch (and subsequent rebranding) of economy ranges. This may well represent the future as a recent Mintel study revealed a drastic turnaround in the fortunes of economy and premium ranges. Their report showed that, of the 12,500 products launched in 2012, 9% were economy and 7% premium. This compares with five years ago when it was 9% premium and only 2% economy. The Mintel study further showed that of those surveyed, 55% said they would only buy certain brands and products  when on promotion.

There are two learnings here: first, the balance of power is shifting in favour of the consumer. The consumer is beginning to dictate - perhaps by economic necessity or perhaps by a new-found canniness borne out of necessity - the way products are produced and made available to them and at what price points. The success of discounters like Aldi and Lidl supports this theory. Second, with multiples taking control over economy ranges with own label products, brands need to use research more heavily than ever to become intimate with the consumer across all the various retail platforms, understand their changing demands and buying promiscuity and use those insights to inform their NPD and marketing strategies moving forward.

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When it comes to brands, this time it’s personal

Thu, 6 Jun 2013

Whether it’s a complimentary engraved chalice from Stella Artois, a personalised bottle of HP Sauce with your Dad’s name on it for Father’s Day or whether you’ve been hunting through supermarket shelves to find a bottle of Coke with your name or your best friend’s name on it, one thing’s for certain, brands are getting personal.

Personalisation, of course, is nothing new. For some time you have been able to personalise your Adidas trainers, buy a bespoke bottle of Famous Grouse whiskey, or design your own Converse shoes, but this is really the first time that personalisation has gone mass market.

As difficult as it is for mass consumption brands, if you get it right, it really works. It taps into our present desire as individuals to both stand out from the crowd whilst also fitting into it, enjoying the thrill that somehow something has been produced just for us or for us to share with someone we love. And, for the brand, to be associated with that feeling is priceless.

Although Starbucks created a stir with their personalised coffee cups, it is Coca-Cola that seems to have made the most obvious breakthrough.  Named Coke bottles have stepped out from the supermarket shelves and created active spontaneous and engaging brand conversations. It has become a subject of real world conversations between friends; people are posting pictures of their personalised bottles on their social media sites. It is a rare example of a brand actually meeting people in their real lives rather than merely pushing a marketing message at them.

So, where do we go from here? At the moment personalisation has extended to allowing limited influence over the design of products, within the confines of certain options, or simply having your name (which of course is not unique) on something. Could more targeted personalisation be the next thing where brands offer you the chance to select the composition of products to influence their strength to suit your personal tastes.

Either way, after a campaign as seismic as the Coca-Cola name campaign, anyone looking to merely repeat the exercise risks appearing a little late to the game. The key to leveraging our desire for personal recognition is to know clearly what your customers are going to value, how and why. Research will give you the data and the insights to ensure it is conceived in a way that is right for both the brand and its customers.

Coca-Cola named bottles



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Welcome to the age of the bargain-hunting, time-poor consumer

Wed, 29 May 2013

The annual Grocery Retail Structure (GRS), compiled by William Reed Business Media and IGD is always a source of interesting insights, though we can’t be certain if it reflects consumer trends or anticipates them.

This year’s report reveals three key areas that should be of interest to brand marketers.

First, the seemingly unstoppable rise of convenience shopping. Our current fast paced lifestyle suggests that many of us are putting together our weekday meal options on the go, as we leave work, as we get out of the station and rush for those last minute pieces to our Tesco Express or Sainsbury’s Local. Although the GRS reports that the sector grew only slightly, much of this growth is accounted for by the multiples with the number of independent stores falling by 260 in the year. This reinforces the growing hold that the multiples have over our shopping destinations and why brands need to factor this in to their market planning.

Second, as many of the multiples continue to bring previously independent high street “staples” in-house, the number of independent off-licences, butchers, greengrocers and are all down. But, there are some anomalies.  The report suggests that the success of the BBC's The Great British Bake Off could be behind a 4.4% increase in the number of bakers, whilst with provenance increasingly important, the number of farm shops has also increased. It should come as no surprise therefore that so many of the multiples are working overtime to promote the provenance of their fresh produce.

Third, many of the discounters have grown by double-digit percentages in the past year. The report cites B&M Bargains, Heron Foods, Aldi and Frozen Value as the biggest movers. 

It may not be scientific, but what we get is a picture of a time-poor consumer, keen to keep costs down and shop for a bargain, but frequently without the time to do it. It certainly sounds as if it was written with me in mind. There is a dichotomy, of course, between the way we are embracing convenience, which carries an inevitable premium, and our drive towards discounters.  Perhaps we are looking towards the latter for our bigger shops and convenience for the everyday essentials.

However, the same consumer wants to know the provenance of the fresh produce they are buying and, given the right vehicle, would be interested in supporting some independent retailers.

Given this steer, brands would be well advised to get closer to and better understand the behaviour of their customers because understanding customer behaviour is the greatest currency available to brands today. This means there is real potential for brands to benefit from an ethnographic approach to their research. Observing and discussing the ordinary activities of people in their naturally occurring settings can uncover more insightful information about what people do, rather than what they say they actually do; this might not sound much but the impact can be significant. It allows for a more personal and in-depth view of the participants, their behaviour and choices in order to provide valuable insights about how, why and when customers might choose brands or new products and the role that these will play within the consumer’s life.

Ronald McDonald had a farm and he used it for brand advantage

Mon, 20 May 2013

At first glance, the decision by McDonald’s to open up some of the British and Irish farms that supply beef and eggs to its UK restaurants to selected consumers appears to be a clever, carefully crafted PR exercise to take advantage of the horsemeat debacle.

Except, of course, it’s not the first time McDonald’s has taken this step; it did so in 2010 as part of a PR campaign in the run up to the London Olympic Games. For this reason, it is too easy to merely dismiss the move as a PR stunt. As a brand McDonald’s has worked consistently to promote health and the provenance of its ingredients. If it is a PR stunt at least it appears to be one with substance; an effort by McDonald’s to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.

But there are some interesting elements to the move. For a company that is renowned for exercising close control over the way its brand is managed and perceived, allowing consumers to roam around farms suggests an apparent surrender of control even though the initiative is almost certainly being managed in a very controlled manner. But perhaps the balance is that it may contribute significantly to McDonald’s ability to modify perceptions of what fast food is all about. In this sense, by focusing on provenance McDonald’s has put itself in a space you might more likely expect to be occupied by a Waitrose or a Morrison’s.

It is not unreasonable, though, to believe that McDonald’s would only have taken this step if it felt it was commercially the right thing to do. Could it be that the ethical thing has now also become the commercially best thing to do? If that’s the case, this could represent something of a sea change for brands. Will it make us feel better about McDonald’s if we are users, or reappraise McDonald’s if we are not? And how do you measure that?

Understanding the impact on the target audience from this kind of campaign is important. If you don’t get insights from it that can be fed back into the business, you have to question whether the bulk of the value is being missed.  

Experiential marketing like this can, and should, go hand in glove with experiential research.  By using the farms, McDonald’s is giving its consumers an experience of its business they wouldn’t otherwise have gained. They will be immersed in the brand and encouraged to re-evaluate the way they think about it, offering unique and fertile ground for researchers to till.  Indeed, conducted effectively, research at this stage will enhance consumer engagement still further and produce a better level of insight than would otherwise be obtained from more classic research techniques.

This adds depth to an initiative that might otherwise be dismissed as a stunt.  It creates a “co-creative” attitude amongst all stakeholders – tell consumers what the issues are so that they can help address them. By using the farms, they have an unusual venue that will help create more theatre and experience. They could optimise the events by enabling direct interaction between client teams and consumers, which is great for client teams because they get to ask questions immediately, observe people up close and personal and also answer questions to move the process along; great for consumers because they feel valued and included and their curiosity about who is behind their favourite products is satisfied.

The company's confidence in its proposition is such that McDonald’s is going even further and giving its consumers a broader experience to secure more detailed insights. Why stop at the farm? It's quality scouts initiative is now leading it from field to box with a group of consumers observing the chain from the farm through production all the way to the restaurant.

Engage with consumers, don’t market to them

Fri, 19 Apr 2013


There’s a Holy Grail for brands and retailers: to embed themselves so much with the families that make up their core demographic that their place in the family shopping basket is secure. Some try this through sporadic, tactical promotions which tap into interests and trends – collect tokens for a free tennis lesson, for example – whilst others try to create initiatives that lead to deeper, longer term engagement.

So it seems with Waitrose, which has unveiled a national ‘Grow and Sell’ initiative aimed at encouraging 7 to 11 year olds across the UK to grow their own produce and sell it to Waitrose customers, and Heinz with a Grow Your Own campaign to encourages families across the UK to grow their own tomatoes. Heinz is giving away free seeds via Facebook.

There are sound commercial as well as social reasons for these initiatives. The growth of online shopping and Click & Collect will lead to fewer people coming in store. With less pester power going on in the aisles, brands need to find new ways of engaging with parents and their children, whilst over the longer term consumers are going to be expecting brands and retailers to be engaging with them more at this deeper, more genuine level. Note the difference between “engaging” with them and “marketing” to them.

Both Waitrose and Heinz seem to have found something with authentic consumer appeal. The initiatives not only tap into families but, by virtue of their educational content, to teachers and businesses as well. They warm up the parents, remain close to each company’s particular brand values, fit with current trends and interests whilst being undeniably child friendly and educational.

Unlike the more sporadic promotions, where there seems to have been little contextual research undertaken into what parents really value and what would have a legacy beyond the immediate life of the promotion, here research appears to have helped create something distinctive but which has genuine appeal. Using a more experiential approach to qualitative research, promotions teams can create that engagement with mums as part of the ideation process for these initiatives. Quantitative research can also be designed to better engage with respondents – getting them involved with the issues, enabling and empowering them to feed back.

There’s a lesson here for all of us. Creating authentic engagement requires brands to work harder, think longer and research their promotions better. It needs them to research again once the initiative has happened to undertake a proper evaluation and explore how it can be developed further. Above all, it’s about showing not telling and demonstrating a willingness to have an authentic two-way relationship. 

Don’t mourn for lost brands – understand why they’re dying in the first place

Fri, 22 Mar 2013

It’s not been a spectacularly good year for some of our leading High Street brands. Well known names like Dreams, the bed retailer; Axminster Carpets, and fashion chain Republic have all followed other leading names like HMV, Jessops and Blockbuster in calling in administrators. 

However, for some of these brands, there may be a new lease of life. Republic has been snapped up by Sports Direct whilst news broke last week that ASDA was in negotiation to buy HMV with a view to reviving the brand. Tesco’s decision to buy the Giraffe restaurant chain is clearly a statement of intent to not only ramp up destination shopping and appeal to families, but also to balance the expected growth in click and collect and online shopping with a channel to drive consumers in-store. 

Some leading names, of course, have already hedged by upping their online game enabling them to successfully integrate both their bricks and their clicks. This recognises the balance to be struck between consumers buying online, dependent on the product, but only when they have seen the product in store. 

When questioned, many consumers will express sadness at the loss of some of their High Street staples – there’s still a Facebook group called “I Miss Woolworth’s” with 4000 members – but often many won’t be surprised either. But if these brands inspired such warmth and loyalty, why did they end up in so much trouble…and are there steps that others can take now to militate against nasty surprises further down the line? 

The first point to make, of course, is that customer loyalty alone is never enough. Businesses fail because of a myriad of other factors, from management structure, to size of property portfolios, to product mix to pricing strategy. But there is a clear indication of cognitive dissonance when it comes to customer perception of brands like this. 

Some years ago we were involved in exploring the effect of recession on the high street. What was apparent was that whilst people had genuine affection and nostalgia for brands like Woolworths, few people could remember either the last time that had visited the store or when it had been their first choice, rather than fall-back destination, for whatever it was they were looking to buy. 

There’s a similar feel this time around, with many HMV and Blockbuster customers, for example, acknowledging they had visited the stores to browse new releases which they then either bought more cheaply online or simply downloaded. So why wait for the post-mortem? Why aren’t brands, who feel that the path they are treading is not completely risk or problem-free, using such research now to help navigate their way through? Identifying customer loyalty and satisfaction is one thing, but using research to pinpoint why people are coming in store, what they are (or are not buying) when they are there will deliver a gap analysis between attendance at the brand and actual purchasing behaviour. Insights gained from such work can inform all aspects of the company’s strategy and allow changes, some radical, to be made before it’s too late. 

Who knows it may just save a few “much loved” brands and hundreds of jobs and even contribute to renewed vibrancy on our High Streets. Surely that has to be something to work towards? 

Getting up close and personal with the consumer

Tue, 5 Mar 2013

Picture the scene. I was sitting back at my desk, mug of coffee on my right, cheeky hobnob on my left and I began to read some new research from The Village Bakery claiming that eating unhealthy snacks at your desk could cause you to put on almost half-a-stone a year. Apparently, the average woman puts on 6lb 3oz – the equivalent of a whole dress size – while men see their weight increase by 5lb 2oz.

Needless to say, I put the hobnob back in the pack. Biscuits, apparently, are our most common vice, closely followed by chocolate, crisps and cakes. A third of us tuck in as a way of coping with stress and nearly a quarter look for a sugar rush to get us through the afternoon. 

Now this contrasts (or perhaps partly explains) the explosion in the specialist diet product market in the UK. More of us than ever, it seems, are turning to specialist slimming foods to lose weight as sales of diet shake mixes, food bars and meal replacements have risen by up to a third in the past two years. Brands such as Weight Watchers, Complan and Slim Fast have gone from being niche to mainstream in relatively rapid time. Indeed, it has been reported that Slim Fast products have seen sales increase by 32 per cent across the leading supermarkets over the last two years, with sales of these products likely to continue to grow as adults see them as an easier option to help them lose weight.

The possibility here, therefore, is that the niche becomes the mainstream and begins to seriously impact on the brands which presently make up our weekly shopping basket. However, from developments over the last couple of years, it seems apparent that brands are recognising not only our need to eat more healthily but also that there are potentially rich commercial pickings available to them by encouraging us to do so. You need only look at products like McVities Digestives Light biscuits (30% reduced fat), Baxters’ Healthy range of tinned soups and reduced sugar/reduced salt baked beans to see the direction the market is taking. Couple this with the drive by the multiples to offer healthier own brand products, as well as vast amounts of online information and recipes on healthy cooking and eating, and it’s clear to see where the battleground is. 

Fundamental to this, however, is an understanding of what is going through the consumer’s mind, motivating them in how they eat and drink and, it would seem, how they assuage any feelings of guilt from having indulged a little more than they strictly would have wanted to.

Research here is fundamental. Detailed work with a panel of consumers can really help brands drill down and fully understand what motivates, what concerns and ultimately what influences their purchasing decisions as it pertains to healthy eating. We ask consumers to keep a weekly diary before we meet them to illustrate their thoughts and feelings towards food and drink; we look at their shopping receipts to see what they actually buy, when and where and why; we look at their purchases in the context of their lifestyle and their priorities, and we even look through their cupboards to explore their relationship with their chosen brands. The level of insight that this kind of ethnographic research can deliver to a brand can be critical in creating understanding of consumer motivations and can make a profound contribution to both product development and marketing strategies. 

And, in case you were wondering, I put the hobnob back and had an apple.    

Chasing the niche consumer

Tue, 26 Feb 2013

Something’s afoot on our supermarket shelves. Gone are the days when beans would be beans, or cheddar merely cheddar. This, as we know, is the era of product diversity. But not just choice in format (sliced, block or grated cheese) or skimmed, semi-skimmed or whole milk (we now have soya and lactose-free as well); this is the era when brands see real economic potential in tapping into our special dietary needs or in tweaking a product formation to attract a new demographic to the category or the brand. More and more brands are doing it because it makes commercial sense for them to do so.

The latest major brand to make the move is Heinz, which is targeting a UK gluten-free market estimated to be worth over £100 million per annum and rising, with new gluten free dried pasta and gluten free sauce ranges.  The fact that there are known to be approximately 125,000 people with coeliac disease in the UK, a figure rising on average by around 7000 people each year shows that this new departure makes sound economic sense. In the US, the market for gluten-free products is huge and was estimated to have reached a value of $4.2 billion by the end of 2012 so for products that can play beyond national boundaries the return could be significant.

However, as niche as the products may be, the shoppers are no less savvy or demanding purely because they are buying a gluten-free product. They will expect the same quality in taste, value and brand experience from a Heinz gluten-free product than they will from any other product that carries the Heinz name. And for Heinz, read any other brand looking to extend their ranges into new areas.

This increases the importance of effective concept testing at pre-launch stage.  It not only means finding people specifically appropriate to the proposition, but also presenting them with a concept that meets the particular needs of their condition. Beyond that, of course, it has to be more than just relevant to coeliacs, it has to taste good and not give them the impression that they are having to compromise in order to eat healthily for their condition. And then you need them to be interested enough in buying the product at the price point that you have set. 

The same rules apply, of course, whether the new demographic is being targeted on health or any other grounds. Douwe Egberts is launching its first flavoured instant coffee in the UK as a way, it is being reported, of driving sales among younger and non-coffee drinkers. They’re also hoping that the new range will encourage existing coffee drinkers to experiment a little more with their tastes.

Concept testing will take into account the issues and requirements of the target demographic, prioritising on features within the product that meet those needs. It can help the brand identify potential conflicts product features and proposed price points, in so doing exploring other potential barriers to purchase. And, of course, it will expose what may be blatantly bad ideas.

It isn’t foolproof, of course. There are always factors that will be beyond the control of the researcher. Research will not militate against a rival brand bringing out a product of their own that changes the consumer landscape and influences purchase criteria; a disruptive marketing campaign that affects the dynamics of the market or economic changes that influence price viability. But one thing’s for sure, not effectively testing your concept at all is almost a guarantee of failure in the market.

Horses for courses – and the impact on brand loyalty

Tue, 19 Feb 2013

Independent butchers and farm shops have reported a 75% increase in sales in the month following the start of the horsemeat scandal which indicates that, wherever culpability may lie, some brands and retailers are losing the trust of the consumer.

That’s likely to be a temporary phenomenon with consumers expected to return to the leading brands for their meat and their ready meals once faith has been restored in the supply chain. But imagine for a moment that it isn’t temporary and imagine again that the decision to switch suppliers or brands extends beyond processed meat products into other areas. Would this breach of brand loyalty matter? And, if so, why?

The brand–consumer relationship is like any other. It exists on mutual shared interest and trust. In the same way that it is difficult to pin-point exactly what the attraction is between partners, so the brand consumer relationship is about the totality of the shared experience between the two. It is about the quality of the product, for sure, but it is also about more ephemeral factors, including how the brand makes you feel, what you think it says about you and about the reliability of that brand as a partner. Once you begin to question the reliability or the quality of the brand or its products, relationship breakdown is a real possibility – and counselling may be needed to put the relationship back on track. 

In this instance, researchers can act as the counsellors. We are well equipped through a variety of techniques – from experiential-style focus groups, through structured online surveys carefully designed to elicit both a high quantity and quality of response, and even observational research and in-home interviewing – to help establish not only what the consumer feels about the brand or the product, but also what it expects from the brand or the product in order to consider re-engaging in the relationship. 

Situations like ‘horsegate’ not only anger, worry and even frighten consumers, they also empower them. Ultimately, these empowered consumers will be the ones to decide when brands have regained their trust. In such situations they often look for and act on the advice of others: family, friends and sometimes strangers.

The media will bombard them with information and opinions that will also influence their views. Brands need to consider how consumers engage in social communities, online and offline, to share ideas and views. If brands can listen, learn, adapt and prove they have done so within these changing rules, then they may be able to win the consumer back. And the fact that the brand has taken the first step in seeking that reconciliation with the consumer could be the first step towards a bright new future together.

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