Choices, choices: are brand managers missing the point with market research screeners?

Karen Johnson argues that, due to overwhelming choice available to consumers, the high failure rate of FMCG products may possibly be linked right back to the screening questionnaire.


A few years back an article in The Economist opened with the statement: ‘If you have everything in 57 varieties, making decisions becomes hard work.’

The article went on to talk about the concept of consumer choice and FMCGs, highlighting that the average American supermarket now carries 48,750 grocery items, five times more than in 1975.

In a bid to attract time poor consumers, it’s no surprise that Australian marketing and brand managers are committed to making their product stand out in the supermarket, competing for the attention of consumers and for shelf space. But, is their focus and personal relationship with the product causing them to think too narrowly about who is actually going to purchase that product and how often they are going to do it?

In 2014 product lines and consumers have moved on, but, marketing and brand managers remain tied to convoluted market research screening questionnaires.  These screeners fail to acknowledge changing consumer habits, choice and the proliferation of variety within individual product lines.


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The example provided by The Economist is the perfect case in point. These days crisps (or chips as we refer to them) don’t just come in plain or crinkle cut, they come in huge variety of flavours like jalapeño pepper, roast ox [Yum! – Ed], horseradish and sour cream, chilli, sweet chilli, sea salt, etcetera etcetera.

Chips are no longer just plain or crinkle cut, they are crinkle-cut, thick-cut, ridge-cut, square-cut, hand-fried, reduced fat, sold in six-packs, grab bags, party size or family packs.

So what does this mean for overwhelmed and time poor consumers and market research screening questions? Do they actually accurately remember what they have brought when and how often? We have found that marketing and brand managers tend to want to ask questions tightly and scripted and outdated questions that continue to drill down so much that many quality survey respondents are ultimately excluded.

The concept of the ‘lapsed or light user’ provides a good example. If a consumer doesn’t buy a product for a while it doesn’t necessarily mean they are a light or lapsed user. Due to the overwhelming choice that consumers have today they might not accurately remember the last time they purchased a particular product. What if they bought chilli chips one month and sweet chilli the next? It doesn’t mean they are actually a lapsed user, they are just choosing a different flavour of the same product. So what if they haven’t brought something for a few weeks, they could just be waiting longer between purchases.

Also, don’t changing lifestyle factors also influence the frequency that consumers purchase FMCGs? For example, research released by Woolworths last year highlighted that the big weekly shop was dead. The ‘Woolworths Trolly Trend Report’ highlighted that more than a third of the items in Woolworths’ supermarket trolleys are purchased on promotion. If large numbers of people are purchasing on promotion then screening questionnaires should be developed to take this change into consideration. After all ‘lapsed or light user’ might be more inclined to buy something that’s on sale or take up a ‘buy two’ discount offer meaning they may not purchase that product again for a while.

We believe that changing consumer habits need to be given as much consideration as crafting questions that weed out serial survey respondents. Well-designed screeners in turn promote quality research panels and quality research panels give relevant insights that can be used for marketing and branding purposes.

It has been reported that over three quarters of new FMCG products fail within a year of launch in Europe and it’s feasible that these figures could also apply to Australia. So, could a high failure rate of FMCG products be linked right back to the screening questionnaire? It’s a subject that definitely needs further investigation.


This guest post is authored by Karen Johnston, director of Stable Research.