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Consumer Studies: Pumping the Lifeblood

By: Valerie Hart
Posted: August 5, 2008, from the August 2008 issue of GCI Magazine.

It goes without saying that customers are the lifeblood of any business. So understanding your customers’ preferences—and, indeed, the preferences of the people who are not your customers—is essential to the process of developing, marketing and, ultimately, selling any cosmetic or toiletry brand. Given the generally accepted 80% failure rate for all new products, it seems apparent that some companies are leaving much to chance when it comes to understanding their customers, and as is frequently the case in many games of chance, the odds are stacked against the player.

However, appropriate and properly conducted consumer studies can tip the odds in favor of the manufacturer. While they can not guarantee the success of a new product, they can identify key attributes of a product that might motivate a potential customer to buy and highlight the attributes that might prevent a one-time customer from buying again. These studies can demonstrate whether consumer perceptions match the development objectives and potentially expose whether the objectives were desirable in the first place. Armed with this information, brand managers can work during the new product development process to include more of the desirable characteristics and also direct the marketing to focus on the aspects of the product that are most likely to motivate customers to purchase.

Study Options

There are many types of consumer studies that might be undertaken. However, it is important to consider all aspects of the product experience when designing the work. One would not expect to be properly able to evaluate a bath soak or shower gel simply by sniffing the bottle in the middle of a busy shopping center, even though that is where the first purchase is likely to be made. Rather, the ideal scenario for assessing consumer perceptions of products is to match the situations of use as closely as possible, and that means conducting in-home trials. That said, there are specific consumer studies for which trials based only in-home are not the appropriate forum. Sensory evaluation, cognitive studies and dermatological studies, for example, will also require an element of a laboratory-based approach. However, these studies are often directed at answering different types of questions, which might ultimately be allied to the results of in-home trials to form a more complete picture. Neither should this preclude linking the results from in-home trials with other instrumental or mechanical measures of the product. This type of statistical analysis can often create a bridge between what the consumer experiences and how the material being assessed is formulated.

The essential point about any consumer study is to define the questions the study is intended to answer in advance. It is an obvious observation to make, but still worth making since a study designed to answer a question such as, “How does my product compare with brands A and B?” will require a different design from the study that asks, “What should I change about my product to win market share from brands A and B?” Even though the ultimate goal might appear to be the same in both cases, the specific questions asked of consumers might be different, and indeed the profile of consumers selected for the study might also be different.

Legal Issues

Defining the study from a commercial perspective is one thing. Defining the study from a legal perspective can sometimes be more difficult, especially when considering cosmetics and toiletry products that sit in the grey area between cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Here, one has to question at what point does a consumer study have to be considered as a clinical trial, or at least to question whether best practice dictates that some aspects of the study should be carried out with the same rigor and controls as a clinical trial.

This is not merely a matter of semantics.

The World Medical Association Declaration