Greener Products and the Pitfalls of Consumer Research

You sell a range of consumer products. There is a “green” story to tell consumers. But you don’t know the best way to tell it.

Or, your company has recently introduced new packaging or a new product formulation that has environmental benefits. But you don’t know how much consumers really care. Or whether the product changes are going to influence consumers’ purchase decisions.

You wish you knew the answers to questions  before the product teams actually designed the projects.

I recently chatted with a marketing director at a global consumer products company. These are the challenges he faces all the time. A few things are holding him back:

  1. The company’s market research is not well suited to the task. They do regular tracking studies to monitor the health of their brands. These are useful for identifying trends but not so much for understanding what is driving those trends.
  2. The brand managers are not always invested in the research. Like many companies, one department is creating insights and another department is supposed  to use them. Sometimes brand managers are thoroughly engaged in the commissioning of research, with a clear idea of how they will use the results. But sometimes they are passive recipients of data generated elsewhere in the organization. Brand managers are less likely to act on research they don’t feel they own.
  3. Key product decisions are committed before the research is done. Product teams and R&D are often selecting materials or tweaking packaging based on generalized directives or engineering concerns, not insights about what consumers value. By the time a product decision is locked in, it’s too late to influence that decision with consumer insights. The best you can do is learn how best to position what you’ve already done.

What should this company do? Here are a couple of recommendations:

  1. Use appropriate research tools. As the marketing director told me, consumers like all kinds of things. The challenge in crafting a message or designing a product is determining the relative importance of various product attributes, alone and in combination. A research technique called conjoint analysis is often used to help shed light on questions like this. But it can be costlier and more complex than other kinds of research, and many companies make use of it only rarely.
  2. Use research earlier in the process. The process of selecting materials is driven by engineering and cost concerns more than consumer preferences at a lot of companies. It can be really eye opening to employ a well-designed consumer research program to inform the product design and formulation process, alongside the harder criteria that companies tend to use.

What are your thoughts? Is your company doing this well?

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