Why brands should use selective hearing when listening to consumer feedback

In this guest column Antony Giorgione considers Adam Ferrier's piece on evolving a brand, and says that while there is no guaranteed method for isolating insight, asking consumers what they think is a good start to the conversation.

Antony GiorgioneThe other day Adam Ferrier wrote a piece around the subject of consumer feedback. In it he stated: “If you find yourself asking the consumer about your potential new product you are more than likely asking the wrong person.”

While I don’t necessarily disagree with that statement, I think there is an important qualification that needs to be made. To illustrate my point, I’ll present a summary of a case study by Charles Duhigg from the New York Times.

FebreezeWhen Febreze was first introduced, it was a marketing failure. Proctor and Gamble had developed what seemed like a useful new product – a liquid spray that eliminates odours in household fabrics.

In selected markets during the testing phase, they ran TVCs depicting scenarios where an unpleasant smell was eliminated by this new spray – on a jacket smelling of cigarettes, on a couch recently vacated by the family dog.

Sales of Febreze came nowhere near expectations.

To find out where they were going wrong, the marketing team went out into the field and two key insights emerged from their inquiries.

The first insight occurred when they visited a woman in her own home. She lived with nine cats and her house literally stank of its feline occupants. When they asked the woman what she does about the cat smell, the woman replied that a bad smell wasn’t a problem.

“Do you smell it now?” they asked.

“No,” she replied. “Isn’t it wonderful? They hardly smell at all.”

What the marketers at P&G had failed to account for was the sensory acclimatisation we all experience around certain continual stimuli. Think about when you go to a farm – the first thing you might smell is the cow dung, but after a short while you don’t smell it any more. Our brains dial it out.

various cleaning products -ThinkstockPhotosThe marketing team had assumed that people would smell the malodorous component of their domestic environments and would want to eliminate them, but had failed to appreciate that these people couldn’t actually detect these bad smells.

The second insight came when the researchers visited another consumer’s house in Arizona, this one ostensibly clean and odourless. This woman loved her Febreze, yet there seemed no need for her to use it. When queried, the researchers discovered that Febreze had become the reward facet of her household cleaning habit loop.

They examined videos of women cleaning their homes and identified three facets to this habit loop; encountering the environment that needs cleaning – the cue; remedying the uncleanness – the routine; and celebrating the completion of the task – the reward.

One time the reward was demonstrated by a woman running her hands over freshly-plumped pillows, and in another instance it presented as a woman smiling to herself.

Woman smiling and lying on bedFor the woman in Arizona, a spray of Febreze on the carpet, or on a comforter, was that final step in cleaning a room before moving onto the next room.

Procter & Gamble recalibrated its marketing communications; rather than remind the consumer of the bad smells in their homes – smells they probably weren’t even aware of – they presented scenarios of women at the end of the cleaning habit loop, spraying Febreze and feeling satisfaction for a job well done.

They even added a perfume to the spray so that consumers could experience a sensory validation of their successfully-completed habit loop.

Febreze and its diffusion lines now account for sales of more than US$1billion. Thanks to asking the consumer.

What Procter & Gamble asked, and what they yielded in response, demonstrates the effective use of selective hearing with consumer feedback. They were looking for the sub-text, and not the text.

Sure, they asked about the women’s opinions of their product, but that was prologue – a method of framing so that they could ascertain a positive or negative bias through which the subsequent conversation could be filtered.

It wasn’t necessarily the direct answers they were seeking, it was the insights they could identify.

Not knowing exactly where those insights might emerge, however, meant they had to subject themselves and the consumers to a wide trawl of information: conversations; in-house visits; recorded behaviours; and probably more, hoping to find a nugget.

This is where consumer-facing market research maximises its value.

Knowing when to steer the conversation and when to let it run on. Knowing what to bypass and what to focus in on. Separating the signal from the noise is one of the most sophisticated tasks in this business.

It’s too easy – and potentially perilous– to point to a statement made by a consumer and take it at face value. As Adam puts it: “Consumers are terrible at explaining why they do the things they do, and even worse at predicting how they will act in certain situations or to new offers.”

GAP old and new logoEqually, it’s just as dangerous to ignore the consumer completely. In late 2010, Gap Apparel in the US launched its new logo. Within a week the overwhelmingly negative social-media response led to a reversion to the previous 20 year-old logo. As Bob Garfield from Ad Age opined; ‘To be surprised by backlash is malpractice.’

There is no surefire method for isolating an insight – if it even exists. But if you’re going to go looking for it, one place to start is by asking the consumer what they think about your product. Get that part out of the way and then keep them talking.


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