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OPINION26 February 2013

Chasing the niche consumer

More and more brands are seeing 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. But success may hinge on how effective concept testing has been at pre-launch stage.

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.