If you need to ask consumers how to grow your brand, you shouldn’t be in marketing

Maggio 6, 20204 Minuti

One of our areas of expertise is new product development. Ten years ago our focus was on a category leader owned by a multi-billion dollar confectionary company. At the time it was selling over 30 million packs a year in America alone but was starting to show its age amongst the competition. We knew we had a winner with a chewable version of the famous mint and with excited anticipation attended the consumer focus groups. When the concept was presented we were pleased to observe from behind the one-way mirrors an extremely positive response.

All was good until an outspoken participant revelling in the attention loudly declared “It’s a mint. It’s always been a mint. Could never be a gum!”. I smiled and dismissed the comment thinking to myself, obviously it won’t be a gum until of course it also becomes a gum. But immediately the smiles of the others turned into confused looks and frowns. It’s much easier for people to express why they don’t like something than why they do and no one wants to look stupid. Being part of the group became more important then exposing their honest feelings. One by one they fell in line and in the end rejected it. We had all witnessed their enthusiastic first reactions which for a product in an impulse category should have been enough of a green light to go forward. But a single offhand comment was enough to lead the research “experts” to conclude otherwise. The project was shelved in spite of the huge investments made and all of us knowing that it was the right strategic move for the brand. It would take another ten years to finally get it to market and it quickly became a very profitable extension in the successful renewal of the brand. Perhaps that man, unaware of the impact his comment had made has bought it and maybe even boasted to his friends that he was one of the first in the world to have tried it. Fear of making mistakes permeates the marketing departments of many companies. Brand managers tend to be fairly young with only one objective in mind. Getting promoted. The obvious way to do that is by increasing sales. It’s a fairly easy thing to do with promotions and discounts but that often goes counter to building a strong brand. The only way to increase brand value is through continuous innovation. Unfortunately risk aversion has led to an over reliance on market research. Consumers will almost always prefer what is familiar to them so using it is a bit like trying to drive forward looking in the rear view mirror. It only leads to mediocrity.

Not all companies can be as purpose-driven as Apple but it’s interesting to note that they have never relied on promotions or consumer tests. Instead of throwing away millions on market research, companies should spend more time simply asking themselves the right questions and recognise that we learn much more from our mistakes than our successes.

During the second world war the RAF had a motto, “Who dares, wins”. It’s still so true today.

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Drew Smith

An award winning designer and an expert in consumer brand management, NPD and packaging design with over twenty years of experience. Canadian by birth, he has been the Creative Director of several leading international consultancies and is a graduate of Art Center College of Design and Sheridan College, School of Visual Arts.