By  on November 30, 2012

The Procter & Gamble Co. first realized the power of consumer insights when it introduced Ivory bar soap in the late 1800s. The company was inundated with letters from consumers asking where they could find “the soap that floats.” P&G adopted that consumer insight in its marketing, and has since reached out to consumers to find out what makes them tick.

Retailers credit P&G as perhaps the best consumer market research company in the industry. “Few do it better,” said Joe Magnacca, president of daily living products and solutions at Walgreens.”

A former industry consultant added, “When you want to know what customers are thinking or even how to design stores, you turn to P&G.”

P&G set up the first consumer research department in a company in 1923, noted Dominique Barral, vice president consumer market knowledge, Global Beauty and Grooming. Ivory is said to have made the first scientific claim ever with its 99.4 percent pure promise.

The company’s dialogue with women — and men — has shaped product launches, marketing campaigns, packaging, fixturing and even product placement on shelves. Just getting the raw research isn’t enough. Instead, the company has found the recipe for marrying the art of listening with the science of market research tools to create products consumers want — often before they even know they desire them.

According to Barral, P&G’s market research started with “field girls” visiting women door to door to chat about product usage — a breakthrough concept at that time. The telephone, and eventually the Internet, broadened the company’s reach. In beauty alone, studies have ballooned to more than 7,500 a year contacting more than 3 million consumers globally.

The department totals more than 350 people who help analyze the raw research and connect the dots.
Barral cited two products, SK-II for Men and Old Spice, as examples of how research is ultimately applied.

SK-II for Men was born after P&G found that men were coming to the brand’s beauty counter inquiring about the products, and that they were using their wives or female friends’ products. That sparked a line launched first in Korea of SK-II for Men, which sold over two times expectations, selling out in four days. “It wasn’t just launching a men’s line, but removing barriers men had as far as packaging and marketing” said Barral.

Similar thinking was behind the expansion of Old Spice into bath products. The move came after P&G began hearing that men were using female body wash, but hiding the items from friends for fear they’d notice. The solution: a full line of men’s bath and body products bearing the manly Old Spice logo.

Consumer input also has played a big role in Cover Girl’s mascara business. The cosmetics brand has been at the forefront of the evolution of mascara wands, ushering in a whole new breed of mascaras with rubber brushes versus wire. “We tested not just performance, but how the brush looked,” said Barral. “Some were too scary looking.”

P&G’s knowledge doesn’t only translate into product innovation. The vast studies on how consumers shop is shared with retailers to help determine how consumers shop, where products should be positioned in the store, what items should be next to each other and how the entire store layout should flow.

Hair care is a prime example. The insight that consumers like to buy several items within a brand spawned brand merchandising that equated into multiple sales.

The company’s consumer research funnels down to the store experience. P&G sets up store laboratories to simulate how people shop and use those findings to help retailers design planograms and entire departments.

Market research also gives P&G a global view. For instance, consumers in India want quality hair care, but can’t often afford a full bottle, so research helped P&G create a smaller sachet at an affordable price.

The future — marked by social media and smartphones — means that consumer insights on products and the store experience can be analyzed almost in real time.

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