Consumer-products companies are turning to new technology to overcome the biggest obstacle to learning what shoppers really think: what the shoppers say.
It turns out consumers aren’t a very reliable source of information about their own preferences. Academic research has shown focus-group subjects try to please their testers and overestimate their interest in products, making it hard to get a read on what works. But getting testing right is crucial for consumer-products companies because they ship high volumes and lack direct contact with shoppers.
To find out what really draws their test shoppers’ attention, companies like Procter & Gamble Co., Unilever PLC and Kimberly-Clark Corp. are combining three-dimensional computer simulations of product designs and store layouts with eye-tracking technology. And that, in turn, is helping them roll out new products faster and come up with designs and shelf layouts that boost sales.
A ‘heat map’ created by measuring how long and how often test shoppers looked at packages. (Photo: Unilever)Kimberly-Clark’s researchers used computer screens outfitted with retina-tracking cameras when testing the newest packaging for its Viva paper towels in 2009, says Kim Greenwood, senior manager in the company’s Virtual Reality Group. Their goal was to find which designs got noticed in the first 10 seconds a shopper looked at a shelf—a crucial window when products are recognized and placed in the shopping cart. They also wanted to know if the preferences held up on different count packages, from single rolls to multipacks.
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By measuring the shopper’s response to different designs, Kimberly-Clark deciphered what caught shoppers’ attention, the most common starting point and the viewing sequence.
“Combining these factors helped us select a ‘wave’ design over a ‘splash’ design,” Ms. Greenwood said.
Unilever selected this package design after its retina testing. (Photo: Unilever)Marketers have long been aware that product testers unconsciously seek to please researchers conducting the tests. Moreover, psychology and marketing professors say people often don’t realize what draws their eyes or how they truly feel about a product. They also overestimate the likelihood they will make a purchase, ignoring competing products and their own budgets.
“There’s often a big disconnect between what people want to do and what they say they want to do,” says Steve Posavac, a professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University. “Any attitude,” he says, “becomes more extreme” in research studies.
Researchers have watched test consumers’ eye movements for clues to their thinking since the early 1900s. But vastly improved technology in the past few years has helped them actually track retinas to get a true fix on where people are looking, for how long and how often. That information has helped dispel myths about what really matters in design.
For instance, there’s a persistent fallacy among some companies that a bigger picture on a package is better, says Michel Wedel, professor of consumer science at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. He says that retina-tracking research shows the eye can process pictures so quickly that size doesn’t necessarily matter.
Original curvy packaging (Photo: Unilever)Falling costs are helping to make the use of such technology more commonplace. A retina-tracking camera embedded in the rim of a computer screen and attached to special glasses or free standing typically costs $25,000 to $40,000, Dr. Wedel says. The information it collects can be used to form a “heat map” that uses color to show where people looked on a simulated shelf.
Some companies also attach bands to testers’ heads to monitor brain-wave activity showing which designs trigger pleasurable responses, says David Johnston, a senior vice president at JDA Software Group Inc. Companies also track involuntary facial expressions to gauge true emotional reaction, says Jonathan Asher, an executive vice president at marketing firm Perception Research Services International Inc.
When it was redesigning the bottle for its Axe body wash, Unilever set up a virtual 3D environment and had its testers wear specially equipped glasses outfitted with three balls tracked by sensors corresponding to consumers’ sideways and vertical motion within the virtual scene, says Joanne Crudele, Unilever’s director of global skin consumer technical insight.
The results led them to change the bottle’s shape from curvy to straight, embed the brand in a black X with blue background to make it more visible and increase the font size of the product description. It also used eye tracking to test shelf space for deodorant, and it recommended that retailers use angled shelves to allow products to slide forward and constantly face front. At one retailer, sales of the deodorant category have increased 3.5%.
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“With a virtual shelf set, in a few seconds, with a click of the mouse, you can modify your product, your pack, your display, and really co-create it with the consumer almost in real time,” Ms. Crudele said.
P&G Chief Executive Bob McDonald knew the company had to find a better way when he attended a Pampers meeting a few years ago and was chastised for picking up a prototype diaper. Someone told him, “Don’t touch it. It’s a $50,000 diaper, and it took us four months to put it together,” he said at an investor conference this past March.
P&G said most physical prototypes cost more than $1,500. Now, 80% of the company’s new products are developed using some form of modeling or simulation.