FEATURE1 March 2010

The proof is in the pudding

Razor Research’s Chloë Fowler reports on the creation of a customer community for Gü Chocolate Puds.

James Averdieck founded Gü Chocolate Puds in 2003 and this premium brand of posh chocolate puddings has been a huge success. So much so that in January the company was acquired for a tidy sum by Noble Foods.

Gü set out to revolutionise the chilled desserts category by creating luxurious but affordable puddings. Their growth strategy was based on innovation and distribution, and they intended their consumers to grow into the category alongside them.

However, Gü would be the first to admit that for the first few years they weren’t always putting their consumers first. Or rather, if they were, it was out of a desire to create more recipes, product and pack formats rather than from starting with a consumer need. James had a great idea, Fred the chef whipped up a prototype, they tried it in the office and bingo – it launched.

For the most part they were spot on, but as the brand grew bigger and supermarket buyers became more demanding, they realised that some launches were costing more than they were returning. They weren’t entirely sure where the product-consumer alchemy was happening so they weren’t always clear which bits to recreate.

Gü might also admit that their view of focus groups and market research was initially rather a dim one. We get that. The brand had been very successful without consumer input – investment in research seemed like an expensive, possibly lumbering process that might not deliver the reward they needed.

The brief
Gü gave us a pretty clear brief when we first met them two years ago: find a way to introduce consumer insight into each layer of the business (NPD, packaging, comms, category). Make it credible, commercial and engaging. Oh, and cheap.

“Gü share the real business objectives behind their need for consumer insight with us – there’s no messing about with tricksy subtext”

The approach
Our relationship with Gü is continuous. They share the real business objectives behind their need for consumer insight with us – there’s no messing about with tricksy subtext. Although we also conduct bespoke and standalone projects, our primary research approach has been to set up a community populated with their loyal fans so that Gü’s conversations with their customers are just as frequent as their conversations with us.

We know brand communities aren’t ‘new news’ (although our personal experience at managing them was rather scant when we started). We were open with Gü about this and the decision to create one was based on a joint desire to try something new – our cost structure reflected this.

We set the community up using free software from Ning. It’s dead easy to learn and there’s almost no technical jargon to prevent the amateur from having a go. We are in control of how it works and which features we include, and we feel that the look and feel of the site helps consumers feel at home and at ease and fits with Gü’s brand values.

We specifically chose to let the population grow organically, with a small number of recruited fans recommending friends who invited more friends. This helped us maintain our promise of cost-effectiveness as we made it clear to the community that we were after their views based on the love of the brand, not the love of incentives. Of course we say thank you when we meet face to face, but it was important to us that we were speaking to people who really wanted to speak to us. As we suspected, the brand has such loyal and passionate fans that we’ve never had any trouble getting response to our questioning online or attendance at tasting and research sessions.

We think the high response rate is about more than just a love of chocolate. Consumers are captivated by cool brand stories and enjoy the fact that they can play some part in their growth. For the Friends of Gü there’s genuine gratification that they have met and contributed to the story of one of their favourite brands.

We’ve used the community in several ways. We post questions on the forums and ask for responses – no surprises there. What does surprise us is how willing even the most fervent fans are to be honest about what disappoints and under-delivers. This is not a site for wanton fawning and if it was it wouldn’t be as helpful in suggesting change. There are Gü team members involved in the forum from sales, marketing and NPD. They have all asked their own questions of their fans and arranged accompanied shopping trips independently of our hand-holding.

We have often asked for people to come along to sessions at Gü’s offices. Sometimes these are straightforward tastings and at other times they provide us with opportunities to probe more strategic issues. Inviting people to Gü’s HQ acts as an incentive in itself – fans can’t wait to get to visit the chocolate factory.

As time has gone on, we have made it increasingly clear to Gü that communicating with their panel of fans does not and must not replace ‘real’ qual. We are talking to fans who start from a position of authority and whose knowledge of the brand has grown as their relationship with the community grows. However, for the purposes of what Gü needs to find out, this has suited them very well and when we need to recruit non-users or more ambivalent consumers, we recruit and research in the ‘normal’ way.

The findings
Over the past two years, particularly since the community was created, we’ve covered a lot of ground, both strategic and tactical. We’ve helped Gü understand which occasions beyond their core are most and least appropriate, we’ve tasted and refined numerous dessert concepts, we’ve reviewed pack messages and communication hierarchies, we’ve tested advertising ideas and explored the role of sub-brands and range architecture. All in all we’ve landed consumer insight at every point where it could possibly be relevant, which is pretty much everywhere. And that’s most definitely something that wasn’t there at Gü before.

The outcome
Gü’s marketing and NPD teams seem much more confident in their decision-making now. They are able to provide evidence, internally and to buyers, that there’s a real consumer need for what they’ve created. Sonia Kapadia, head of marketing and NPD, says: “I come from the world of big brands, Pepsi and Walkers, where we didn’t make any decision without talking to the consumer first. Before coming to Gü, we’d have a hunch and run with it. Now before we even get to that hunch we hear first from the consumer to understand what it is they want (or don’t want) and then go for it. Marketing is all about giving consumers exactly what they want, and now we can do that with more confidence in our decisions.”

The insights we’ve gained have helped Gü build relationships with retailers too. Sales director Amelia MacLeod says: “UK retailers, quite rightly, put the consumer at the heart of all their decision-making and for suppliers to be aligned with retailers’ needs, we need to be doing the same thing. By gaining consumer insight from the word go, we’re able to present compelling stories on how our range and NPD fit their strategy, confident in the knowledge that we’ll be meeting the needs of our customers too.”

What next?
We are reviewing how to refresh and renew how we use the community and are dedicated to keeping the conversations with fans going. Our relationship with Gü is as strong as ever – our work is being taken directly into pitches for new business partnerships and we continue to be involved in new launches.

Razor has learnt a lot from the relationship too. In particular it’s created a passion in our own business for working with entrepreneurial brands and start-up businesses. Directly as a result of our work with Gü we’ve created First Shave, a research approach designed for start-ups and entrepreneurs. We’re taking what we’ve learnt and we’re applying it to creating equally strong partnerships with some really funky brands.