Toby Coates, Research Director at food, drink and personal care market research specialists, MMR Group explores the science of tapping into the consumer’s subconscious
Today’s supermarkets are crammed full of great products. For every purchase we make, there is a bewildering array of alternatives. Research and development departments are full of smart, creative people who ensure that there is simply no such thing as a bad product anymore.
Yet, despite the fact that there is little to choose between some products; the trajectory for brands varies greatly. Some flourish and become iconic, whilst others disappear as quickly as they arrive. Indeed, most estimates put the failure rate of new products at between 80 t0 95 percent.
If the market research industry is doing its job properly by supporting R&D teams, and providing data and analysis that is utilised effectively by brand owners, then how can this level of failure occur?
As most businesses realise, the key to success is more than developing an appealing product. After all, how often has a concept or product that scored favourably on liking and purchase interest failed to gain traction in market?
Research teams are failing to note this gap between liking and intention to purchase and work on the assumption that consumers make rational choices. There are more factors at play that drive purchase behaviour.
We like to think of ourselves as being in control of our own actions, making choices based on logic. However, when confronted by the reality of a supermarket crammed full of fit-for-purpose products, consumers make rapid decisions about what they want without consciously thinking. This is possible due to a human ability to interpret a multitude of sensory signals at once and attach meaning to them without being aware. The more experienced consumers become through increased exposure to these stimuli, the more efficient their sub-conscious decision-making becomes. They select the same brand time and again, even when good alternatives are available.
Consumers may not be able to explain it, but they display this seemingly irrational shopping behaviour because it feels right. The recurring brand experience provides emotional rewards (such as excitement, sophistication and trust) that make them repeat purchase. Such emotional reward may not present itself until several weeks or months after the purchase event and even then, the full extent of the reward is unlikely to be fully apparent to the consumer.
The true consequence of the brand interaction resides deep in our sub-conscious. This makes this element of brand loyalty, indeed any long term consumer behaviours, difficult for many market researchers to detect and predict, especially if they base their conclusions on fleeting interactions in a typical consumer test.
Understanding the frustration involved in finding research that uncovers brand decisions, we at MMR Research Worldwide (MMR) decided to get to the heart of the matter. We wanted to establish a new and deeper understanding of the consumer decision-making process, building on our extensive knowledge as sensory scientists and consumer researchers. We believe that although a consumer’s ability to recognise and explain what they are seeing, tasting and touching etc. is an important element, it is only the tip of the iceberg.
Our hypothesis is that the important, and most often largely missing, part of the process is how we decode this recognition into meaning, and ‘conceptualise’ the sensory signals. We know that consumer research is starting to focus on consumers’ sub-conscious and emotional response. However, emotional responses can be impractical to gather and misleading due to being context driven and so are likely to change on a minute-by-minute basis. In contrast, what products, packs and brands mean to the consumer on an emotional and functional level is far more stable and accessible to research. We refer to this interpretation as conceptualisation.
Brands that succeed, communicate a promise to the consumer and then activate this at every consumer touch-point. Advertising, promotion, sponsorship, packaging, point of sale, product experience and consumer support all reinforce the brand values. Presuming that the proposition is sufficiently motivating, we believe it is ‘consonance’ or a harmony between each touch-point that brings the consumer back time after time.
ACCESSING THE SUBCONSCIOUS
The challenge is to develop research tools that can effectively access consumers’ sub-conscious; probing them to think more deeply, but without over-rationalising their decisions.
MMR developed a suite of tools that we call Brandphonics®. At the heart of the process lies a master lexicon of emotional terms, developed to cover the full spectrum of emotional equities associated with brands. In parallel, choice-based, comparative research techniques were developed to elicit quantitative emotional and functional profiles for brands, packs and unbranded products. In fact, the tools can be used to create profiles for anything! These profiles provide a quantified hierarchy of equities that are communicated to the consumer at any touch-point.
The benefit of these profiles is that they are replicable and can be used to establish brand consonance and track brand values over time. It allows brand owners to ensure that any new initiative is on message every time.
We recently investigated the rapidly growing dark chocolate market, to understand the emotional and functional equities of different brands currently on supermarket shelves, and the relationship between brand consonance i.e. what the brand promised vs. what the product experience delivered, and ‘liking.’
A range of dark chocolates were included in the study, each with around 70 per cent cocoa content. The liking performance of Bournville Deeply Dark stood out from the rest. Having only been recently launched, a blind taste test showed the product was highly liked with one of the market leading brands, Green & Blacks, performing much less favourably. However, the conceptual profiles generated by the packaging and brand communicated a clearly defined set of emotional equities which were poorly aligned with the conceptualisations generated in the consumption experience. What the brand offered, and the experience of the product delivered, were very different.
Soon after our study, Bournville Deeply Dark was withdrawn from sale. We can only hypothesise at the reasons for Cadbury’s decision to do this, but it is clear from our research that what the brand promised the consumer was not delivered by the product. We believe this led to customer confusion and disappointment.
By the same token, Green and Blacks, whilst not as liked in a taste test, delivered what it promised and enjoys longevity on supermarket shelves as a result. There is much more to a brand than meets the eye. At MMR we recognise that to successfully lead brand decisions, research techniques such as Brandphonics® need to extract brands’ true meaning and ensure the product on offer is in tune with consumers. The subconscious is difficult for consumers to explain, but failure to address it could come at a cost that manufacturers cannot afford.