Taking Consumer Insights to the Next Level

Jun 02, 2006

By Ryan Mathews, Founder, ceo, Black Monk Consulting


Successful new food product development is the result of taking two basic steps, according to Dr. Mieke Weegels of Unilever’s Consumer Perception and Behaviour Department. “First, you have to come up with a very good idea – usually based on a good consumer insight,” she said. “Then you have to translate this insight into something consumers want to eat – over and over and over again.”

Dr. Weegles remarks came during a presentation called “Innovation Without Tears” presented at the ECR Europe Conference held this week in Stockholm.

“You have to learn how to translate ideas into products that deliver on their promise,” she added. That’s harder than it sounds, Dr. Weegels said, especially in food categories. “They are low [consumer] involvement categories,” she continued. “Consumers know what they like, but not why they like something.” Most consumer package goods companies try to work around this low involvement issue by an innovation methodology best know as trial and error. But, Dr. Weegels noted, not only isn’t trial and error very effective, it can be extremely expensive.

Unilever has built a consumer driven innovation model that begins with a systematic design of innovation. It that starts with building knowledge and demands consumer involvement at every stage of the innovation process. “Unilever employees like to say, ‘We are consumers,’ ” Dr. Weegels said, “but Unilever employees are not representative of Unilever’s customers.”

All innovation concepts are subject to a rigorous structured process. “We look at which [food product] attributes matter to consumers; what are the preferred attribute levels; what differences are noticed by consumers; and finally what do consumers really prefer. So, for example, research might show that consumers like ‘creaminess’ but is that enough information to base a new product on? To succeed, you have to understand what consumers mean by creaminess; learn what exactly they believe constitutes creaminess; discover what level of creaminess they think is appropriate; and finally what other attributes they are willing and unwilling to trade out for creaminess.”

Why do so many new product introductions fail?

Dr. Weegels has some theories. “Many manufacturers think in terms of make and sell rather than in terms of sense and respond,” she said. “Also, new products are sometimes attached to low profile brand carrier systems. And, often manufacturers with low risk orientation will find themselves being the third or fourth market entry.”

“Sense and respond manufacturing,” she continued, “begins by focusing on what consumers really need and not on what the organization wants to provide.” She added there is a place for the make and sell orientation, which often explores new materials and new technologies, to see if they can be exploited for new product ideas. But, she said, the make and sell approach must be balanced against the sense and respond model. “Successful consumer-centered innovation concepts are based on valid consumer insights; tied to powerful brands; hit the market first; and market based on value, not price,” she said.

What constitutes a “valid consumer insight?” These, she said, are insights that are “fresh and unexpected” and offer manufacturers an “outside-in perspective.” 

Moderator’s Comment: How prevalent is the “make and sell” approach to new product development versus the “sense and respond” path? How does this factor
into both primary brand and private label development?
– Ryan Mathews
– Moderator

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4 Comments on "Taking Consumer Insights to the Next Level"

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Don Delzell
Don Delzell
15 years 6 months ago

The Unilever approach is as close to best practice as I’ve seen in print anywhere. The one element not discussed was an analysis of the market space to determine if the need being met is already supplied. Or, if supplied, a review of the relative power with which the need is supplied.

Aside from that caveat, the Unilever approach represents replicable processes.

I am also a believer in portfolio drive strategy supporting new product innovation investment. The process of developing the idea seems well thought through. But what is Unilever determining where and how many new ideas to develop? Is there an investment process or is it ad hoc? If it is ad hoc, based on turning up actionable insights, then there’s an element which may need fine tuning.

Put as much effort into what goes into the funnel as to how it moves through it.

Kai Clarke
15 years 6 months ago

Most new products fail because manufacturers do not recognize the human dynamic in the retail environment. It is simply not good enough to create a new product, but instead it must be priced, packaged and positioned properly on the retail shelf. Without all 3 of these factors “singing” in complete harmony, the product is doomed to some degree of failure. In retail, where margins are thin, nothing short of a tremendous success is acceptable. This varies between channels, and even store chains, since different customers shop at each. The manufacturer must recognize this and position their product’s brand to embrace all of this. There are very few winning positions which can take the “value” and not price claim of the author. Value is perceived and individualistic. Price is an immediate definer. The author is correct in that there must be a balance between the “make and sell” as well as the “sense and respond” orientations when creating the product.

Al McClain
Al McClain
15 years 6 months ago

There is an article in the WSJ today about a new “open innovation” approach that Kraft is taking, in order to get good ideas directly from consumers: click here to read it.

Stephan Kouzomis
Stephan Kouzomis
15 years 6 months ago

“Make and sell” means keep the plants running, and price to the commodity, whether under a supposed Brand name or not, to what will sell more of the product!

Haven’t we passed this archaic thought? …Guess not..

By the way, sounds like the meat and canned foods (e.g.: Del Monte, Stokely’s, etc.) businesses that have minimal if any points of difference, and little consumer marketing support, based on a promise to the shopper.

Oh, yes, with a couple of exceptions, like Oscar Mayer, and the new organic meat and poultry products..

Hmmm. No wonder the supermarket business is “running on” and managed only on price. Hmmmmmmm


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