Detailed consumer testing essential for products to pass the dunking test, says Engage Research

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United Biscuits’ announcement it is to revert to a former recipe for its digestive biscuits because some consumers had missed, what the company called, the ‘taste, texture and dunkability’ of the original recipe, highlights the importance of undertaking detailed and repeated consumer research before fundamental changes to favourite products are made.

Customer insight agency Engage Research says preparation for any change in recipe should include detailed and repeated consumer testing to ensure that the new product meets the same consumer expectations.

“A lot of the time research will need to consider the motivation for the reformulation,” said Hetta Bramley, Engage Research’s qualitative director.

“It is important to generate the right expectations so that you get an accurate reflection of how consumers will react in the real world. This is why some testing is undertaken blind and some branded. Sometimes, though, the questions will also be dictated by whether the reformulation is being driven by internal factors, such as a need to reduce cost, or an external motivation such as reduced fat or salt in response to a pressure to be healthier.”

History, Bramley says, is littered with examples of new formulations of favourite products being withdrawn in favour of the original. Most notable among these is New Coke, the reformulation of Coca-Cola introduced in 1985 to replace the original Coca-Cola. Public reaction to the change was less than favourable leading to the subsequent reintroduction of Coke’s original formula.

“It’s essential to get your research positioning right,” said Bramley. “If you tell me the product is ‘light’ I may have different reactions or expectations than if you don’t. If everyone around you is reducing salt levels in their products you may be able to reduce salt at a faster rate than if you are alone in doing it, as other products will affect people’s taste tolerances. But you are likely to be testing products several months ahead of when they hit the shelves so research needs to take this into account.”

Engage said it specialises in qualitative product testing, where consumers work on product and concept simultaneously, ensuring that both are optimised. This, the agency argues, stops too much time and effort being wasted on concepts which cannot be realised and/or products which fulfil no clear need.

“With a reformulation, we would have identified early on that either this change in recipe would not work or we would have worked out how to position it and communicate it so that it did work. Rather than testing once, making changes suggested by the research and then hoping for the best, we would re-test each iteration of the product qualitatively, so that the optimal version is put forward for quantitative research, which again saves wastage,” Bramley said.

Engage’s iterative approach also means sending expert respondents home with products to test with their friends and families. Having taken part in face to face research, which includes concepts as well as products, they are closely attuned to what research is trying to accomplish, so their in home trials are likely to be thorough and rigorous.

Engage Research is an independent customer insight and market research agency specialising in consumer & market strategy and innovation primarily across the FMCG and media sectors.