Alienation: Subconscious Style

Behavioral Economics is HOT right now.

The industry is gaining appreciation for the inconsistencies between self-reported and actual behavior, which we at REAL Insight are obvious fans of. As a team, we spend thousands of hours in stores each year observing how these behaviors differ across shoppers. One specific area we have come to better understand is “subconscious alienation” and how it relates to package redesigns that impact structure and primary coloring.

A habituated shopper can enter a category they shop every week, scan the shelf for their typical item, and never notice a new package containing their product. Without even recognizing it, they have deselected the new packaging. This is what we mean by subconscious alienation.

Subconscious alienation, I would argue, is much more dangerous than conscious alienation because few consumers are so invested in a particular brand or package that they would consciously say, “no,” to it based on aesthetic. There are far more people who have acceptable alternatives in a given category; if they don’t see you, they will move on to the next option.

There is really only one way to test packaging for subconscious alienation. It is in a real store with real shoppers because authentic mindsets are just as important as authentic environments. We have directional and validational solutions to help you gain this critical learning. Let us show you how it’s done!


30 Years and Counting

Jim Cahill (we call him “The Founder”) discovered the importance of genuine engagement shortly after starting this company 30 years ago. He noticed there is something different about seeing how people behave in an environment and then speaking with them, for even a few minutes, rather than at a scheduled time in a research facility. At the time, very few companies understood or appreciated his approach, but he stuck with his convictions. 

He never made much money in the early days, but decades later, we continue to utilize similar methodologies in an evolved industry environment where companies and clients have a true appreciation for this authenticity.

Healthy Versus “Healthy”

The New York Times recently released an article detailing the differences between what nutritionists think is healthy versus what the general public believes is better for you. While a difference between the public and nutritionists is to be expected, NYT discovered quite a disparity in ranking within each group as well. Certain foods obviously ranked high (e.g. kale, chicken, oranges) and others were solidly in the low camp (e.g. chocolate chip cookies, white bread). The most interesting, however, are the foods that divided the public and nutritionists and just how those perceptions came to be.

Overwhelmingly, granola bars were the food that most divided the public from expert opinions, with 71% of consumer ranking them as “healthy” versus 28% of nutritionists. Granola, too, fell into a similar disparity, with 80% of the public ranking it has healthy versus 47% of experts. On the opposite side, 89% of nutritionists ranked quinoa as “healthy” while only 58% of the public agreed. So, where do these divisions come from?

On the quinoa side, it is probably safe to say that as an upcoming “superfood,” there is a large percent of the population that is still unfamiliar with the product (or stopped trying after being unable to figure out how to pronounce it).  Granola and granola bars, however, have been a “healthy” snack that has been popular for years and continues to find itself a staple in many American pantries.  Being that what is “healthy” and what is not flip-flops on nearly a daily basis, it is safe to say that marketing plays a considerable role in these public perceptions.  And by what we’re seeing here with public opinion, it’s working.

As a market research firm, REAL Insight is well versed in what cues “healthy” to a consumer and what will lead them to think the opposite. There is certain language and positioning that paints products in the perfect light that assures shoppers feel that what they are purchasing is good for them. Granola bars are a good example of a product that highlights the right qualities to appeal to its target audience.

While one could criticize the health halo that granola has granted itself, there is a second, perhaps more important takeaway from this survey. There are healthy and nutritional items that the public can purchase and consume. However, without cues as to how these items will benefit the consumer or assuage a need, their chances of going into the cart are slim. Where a box of granola bars will have claims leaping off the package about its benefits, a bulk bag of quinoa never will. Though as of today, only 58% of the public see quinoa as healthy, time (and marketing) will tell how that perception may change.

-Sarah Morrison, Communication Strategist & Mary Dolan O’Brien, Project Coordinator

Out of Focus

When the field of market research comes up, a common image that materializes in the mind is that of the traditional focus group: padded chairs clustered around a gray table set with uniform place settings of pens and paper, a white board easel off to the side, and a large two-way mirror leering omnisciently from the back. If you were to question the ability of such an environment to produce authentic and honest insight, you would not be alone.

Neil Stevenson lays out the case against continued use of this methodology, starting with its history and ending with one proposed replacement. Stevenson’s point is that the focus group either needs to be reinvented or left in the past. Initially ran by skilled psychologists contracted out by large companies, the insights produced from these focus groups were fairly large leaps based on emotional conversations that aimed to understand respondents at a deep level. Companies trusted these insights and built marketing and advertising campaigns around the interpretation of the psychologist.

Today, the format is much different and the types of questions asked in focus group tend to be direct, non-emotion driven (e.g. which design do you prefer?), with the hopes of eliciting verbatim quotes that can be used as evidence to prove the direction down which a company should go. However, this type of questioning can commonly lead respondents to either say what they think the moderator wants to hear, say something just to respond, or say something influenced by the group around them. If one person in the group is particularly vocal, it is not uncommon to have the rest of the group swayed along.

As a company, we at REAL Insight align with Stevenson’s argument against focus groups. Our advocacy has always fallen on the side of in context research due to its ability to elicit more honest and authentic feedback. Innovation options we bring to the table include our Brewed Insight sessions and REAL Immersion journeys. We have also created a design thinking team focused on growing and adapting our current methodologies. Innovation is a necessary component to successful research. As the history of the focus group shows, no methodology is guaranteed to remain relevant forever. REAL Insight knows this and makes a point to keep our methods current and relevant through innovation and adaptation. Focus groups are a comfort level for some companies, and stepping outside of that comfort zone can be daunting and nerve wracking, but general wisdom also says that’s where the magic happens. Or in this case, that’s where authentic, actionable insights can grow and flourish.

-Jennifer Carrasco, Associate Project Director

(New)trition Labels

Though perhaps unconventional, one way a curious observer might monitor modern food trends is by studying the evolution of the nutrition information label on packaged foods. First mandated by the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, the latest chapter for the familiar black and white box will take effect by July 2018. Stalwarts against change might initially bristle at the news, but besides the new labels being yet another reminder that certainty can only be found in death and taxes, such a decree from the FDA merits further examination.

So what is going to change? Well, a few different things. To begin, the calorie count will be featured more prominently and in larger font. Though calorie count in itself is not indicative of a product’s health, for those who are calorie-conscious, the large font will be easy to see. Also, the serving size will change to better reflect what a normal person actually consumes in a serving. For example, ice cream will change from ½ cup to 2/3 a cup and soda will change from an 8 ounce serving size to a 12 ounce.  Which makes sense, because who stops drinking a can of soda 2/3 of the way through?

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U.S. Food and Drug Administration

The idea behind both of these changes is that the nutrition label should be there to help consumers manage their consumption and make it easier to interpret the numbers on the package. Doing mental math when a child is screaming and the ice cream is melting, and getting out of the store in ten minutes to make it home in time to get dinner started can be taxing. The new labels hope to streamline the process.

Further, the requirements for which vitamins need to be included on the package have changed, swapping out vitamins A and C for D and potassium. Back in the 90’s, Americans were lacking in A and C, but recent studies on food consumption have pointed out that deficiencies lay in other categories these days. The reasoning here is that people generally consume enough A and C, but need to be more mindful of their D and potassium consumption. Calcium and iron will stay put.

Of the proposed changes, the most debated is the requirement for specifically calling out added sugars from the total sugar amount. This decision stirred up some rumbling among food companies who argued that sugar is sugar and therefore, calling out added sugars is redundant. However, health advocates applaud the change, standing firm in the assertion that added sugars (as opposed to naturally occurring sugars) are a hidden danger to the health of the population.

The inclusion of added sugars took off in the anti-fat trends of the recent past (think anything “lite”), and have hung around even as fat has gained somewhat of a recovery in the public eye. Now, health professionals hope to draw attention to the empty calories associated with added sugars, which, unlike naturally occurring sugars that usually come along with vitamins and nutrients, offer no nutritional benefit whatsoever. Dairy products have naturally occurring sugars, so do fruits; pop does not. The FDA’s new rules aim at giving customers more knowledge about what they are consuming so that they can make the best choices for them and their loved ones.

The goal of the change in nutrition labels is to help consumers make good decisions based on current diet and consumption patterns. Time will tell if the intended impact comes to fruition, but the desire of the FDA to use data of current consumption as a basis for reformatting shows a desire to adapt regulations as the general public evolves. Time will also tell if the new labels have an effect on not only health, but purchase behavior. Will new nutrition labels affect FOP call-outs? Will they force a change in product formulation? Will they have an impact at all? Good questions. Time (and good research) will tell.

-Sierra Dooley, Research Associate and Mary Dolan O’Brien, Project Coordinator

The Future is Now, and It’s Focusing on Food

Shoppers paying more attention to what is in their food is not a new revelation; it’s a trend that has been growing in popularity for quite some time and has been influential in any number of products that have been rolled out recently. Target Corp. is taking this want for transparency a step farther in their new, multi-year collaboration with design firm IDEO and MIT’s Media Lab. In January 2016, they collaboratively launched the Food + Future coLab which will explore urban farming, food transparency and authenticity, and health.

Recently launched in a test store at a Fenway Target in Boston, the coLab-created Good & Gather initiative aims to capitalize on transparency by reimagining traditional food labels. Instead of listing ingredients on the back of packaging as they have been traditionally, they are being displayed on the front. The second concept allows consumers to scan produce and learn information about it in real time. As this technology develops, it will be interesting to see how food companies will react to a transparency they may not have been prepared for. How will products and packaging adapt to a food space that goes beyond the characteristics that currently aid in shopability? Research will be imperative as our interaction with food becomes more and more entwined with technological advances. Though we are heading into territories that are new and largely unexplored, the opportunity for innovation will be an exciting development to watch.

-Tyler McGruder, Research Assistant

Saving Cereal

Sales in the cereal category have fallen, and companies are trying to gain intuition around how to hold onto their current consumers and bring back some of those they have lost. In general, people are eating breakfast differently. They’re saving the first meal of the day for work or are reaching for yogurt, breakfast sandwiches, or bars. But for Milliennials, the access to variety isn’t what is changing their breakfast habits. The need for convenience may be what is preventing them from eating cereal for breakfast. For Millennials, it seems that washing a bowl is too much work.

So, is this attitude truly born out of laziness and, if so, where does it come from? Roberto A. Ferdman suggests that this mindset is more the result of the inherent busyness of households with two working adults.  Fuller family schedules allow for less time to cook and clean. Even more so, when most of these adults were expected to do chores as a child, only 28% of them ask the same of their children. Rather than changing their lifestyles to fit their food choices, Millennials are looking for foods that fit their lifestyles. With this in mind, focusing on convenience will be important, especially for industries like cereal that are trying to adjust to the changing times.

However, as companies address rising trends and falling sales, it is important to keep the “why” at the forefront when reinventing, revitalizing, or creating products.  When crafting solutions, it is imperative to first understand the root of the problem.  For instance, are Millennials too lazy to wash a dirty bowl or are they transitioning to other options due to health reasons, better benefits from other products, or something else? A product developed solely on the hypothesis that Millennials would use cereal if it was convenient might miss an opportunity to pivot on an alternate reason for the drop in usage. Companies need to understand this consumer mindset before launching new products and packaging; bringing consumer perspectives to life will help our clients to uncover the real needs of their consumers.

-Beth Wogen, Associate Project Director

Introducing Brewed Insight Sessions by REAL Insight!

As a company specializing in in-context research, the lack of authenticity tied with traditional facility studies has often made them a less-than-ideal methodology. Especially now, as Millennials become the favorite targeted audience, the synthetic rapport of old-fashioned focus groups can be a barrier to truly understanding this target consumer.  They are harder to find, less willing to jump through the proverbial hoops, and are more affected by sterility.

With a desire for a more authentic, empathy-building environment (and inspired by our NE Minneapolis location), we recently fielded a project that overcame many of those challenges with focus groups and promptly tagged it a Brewed Insight Session. With a study structure created and facilitated by our team, and a taproom provided by a nearby microbrewery, we successfully introduced this new and promising methodology into our repertoire of in-context research.

Brewed Insight Sessions deliver strongly on understanding who a consumer is. (*Note, it isn’t  intended to be a solution for business questions better answered by observing buying or usage behavior.) In a relaxed, less-formal setting, consumers are more comfortable engaging in real conversations and honest sharing. This casual atmosphere is essential to create and maintain; therefore the facilitator/moderator must be someone who is able to keep the laidback vibe alive. Empathy and intuition building are imperative these days, and the environment created at a Brewed insight Session is designed specifically with these goals in mind. 

The time and activity breakdown can be structured a number of different ways, based on the specific project objectives, but our recommended method begins with a lead facilitator guiding the group through a few topics and then having time for small group breakouts with the client team. As there is no two-way mirror to hide behind, training and managing the client team is very important. However, the benefit is the team being able to directly interact with the consumers. Another point to consider is, though a little alcohol can help with the mood and authenticity of the session, it is important to have a plan for how to make sure things don’t get too loose. Our facilitators and moderators are effective at providing this plan, as well as offering any additional team training that may be required.

The Twin Cities, like many cities nationwide, have felt the impact of the brewery and distillery explosion. With such a large pool of locations available (and the consistent availability of these spaces early in the week), there is an abundance of options for fielding this type of research. If you are interested in learning more about Brewed Insight Sessions or want to partner on a similar type of project, please feel free to reach out to me at lcahill@insightrealized.com

-Luke Cahill, Managing Principal

Fat, Salt, and Sugar: Together Again.

Margarine is good. Margarine is bad. Diet soda is the key to weight loss. Diet soda will give you cancer. Fat free is the way to be. Fat is your friend. No sugar. Yes sugar, no high fructose corn syrup. Hooray for cane sugar!

Exhausted yet?

When it comes to defining what is “healthy,” the pendulum swings one way and then back again, leaving marketers and food executives frustrated as they try to figure out what consumers want and are willing to buy. In her article, “Foods Loaded With Sugar, Salt, and Fat? Bring It,” Stephanie Strom examines the latest public opinion around diet options. Ingredients that spent years on the blacklist are now back with a vengeance, IF their reemergence on the scene is in the right context. Examples of this include dark chocolate, jerky, and full fat ice cream. Foods that, in the not too distant past, were seen as unhealthy, are now back due to the increase in consumer demand stemming, in part, from new scientific studies that show fat, salt, and sugar are not black and white issues.

Food companies who spent years reducing or eliminating these three ingredients from their products must now dig up old recipes or re-position existing foods to meet new consumer ideas of what constitutes “healthy.” Jerky is capitalizing on the protein trend and has achieved great success as the protein content and “real food” benefits outweigh any fat or salt concern among consumers. Edy’s ice cream is bolstering their full fat varieties and making them with fewer ingredients, and shoppers are cheering all the way to the checkout counter. While the context of ingredients is key, the ingredients themselves (Are they familiar names? Can I pronounce them? Do I know what the ingredients are?) and the taste of the final product are just as important.

Understanding consumer desire is not a new topic for market research. However, the return to full fat, salt, and real sugar is a signal that sometimes returning to the roots is more beneficial than constantly innovating what’s new and next. Innovation for the sake of innovation can lose sight of what’s most important: what the consumer is wanting. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, perhaps it is time to re-purpose it to align with consumer demand, thus allowing for the option of a whole category’s rejuvenation.

Posted By: Jessica Fisher, Project Director

Consumers Continue to Court Convenience

If you haven’t heard of it yet, Instacart is an app-based service that allows customers to order groceries from a number of different retailers in their area with just a few taps of the finger. After filling a digital cart, users then arrange for home delivery at a time convenient to them. While available for larger metropolitan areas, those outside of the delivery range have been left without access to the service. However, in March 2016, Whole Foods and Instacart announced an expanded partnership with the goal of increasing the number of Whole Foods stores with dedicated Instacart shoppers up to 50% by the end of 2016 while also expanding into areas that have yet to experience the convenience.

As shoppers move towards buying less and less in stores, it will be fascinating to see how CPG companies will react to these changes. Products and their packages are often optimized to draw consumer interest, whether it’s a new product hoping to be purchased or a tried and true favorite hoping to maintain its popularity. But oftentimes, these optimizations are made to attract shoppers standing in front of a shelf. As Instacart and similar apps become more and more popular, it will be interesting to see how studies change when objectives turn from “how much shelf appeal does this product have” to “how much app-appeal does this product have?”

In a world with Amazon Prime and the even speedier PrimeNow (in some markets) shoppers are clearly enamored with the convenience of fast delivery, especially if it’s same day. With the popularity of online shopping on the rise, in-context research will have to take on a whole new lens in order to remain on top of how shoppers choose products. If people are making their purchases through an app, wouldn’t it make sense that, in time, research on these purchases will be done in the same way? With our extensive experience in online and mobile methodologies, it will be interesting to see how much more these methods will come into play, and how they will evolve as customers shop more and more from their couch.

-Jennifer Carrasco, Associate Project Director

Your Macaroni Isn’t What You Think It Is

In a surprising announcement, Kraft has revealed that their most loyal customers have been purchasing a new formula of the “Blue Box” macaroni and cheese they’ve loved for decades. The biggest revelation from this announcement? Barely anyone has noticed.

History has shown that when a new formula for a favorite product is unveiled, there’s often a backlash that may or may not be warranted (see: New Coke). When Kraft Heinz decided to remove the artificial preservatives and dyes from one of their top-selling products, they decided to keep it relatively quiet. They made a small announcement and shortly after, customers were complaining that “they thought the mac and cheese tasted different when, in reality, they were still eating the previous version.” So after that initial announcement, KH didn’t say anything further about the new formula’s roll-out.

The new formula has been on shelves since December, and unless a shopper has been diligent about reading labels, the change has gone unnoticed until now, with Kraft Heinz’s launch of a campaign announcing the change. Time will tell how consumers will react to this news as the change becomes better known, but as it stands, shoppers have been eating the new formula with no complaint.

What is so fascinating here is that while consumers are requesting less artificial ingredients in their foods, companies are concerned that these same shoppers won’t be satisfied with the new products. Just knowing that a formula is “new” is enough for consumers to project a different taste, texture, and eating experience onto a product that may not even be there. As CPG companies start to consider reformulating their products to include more natural ingredients, perhaps they will follow the macaroni and cheese model and keep quiet about it as consumers acclimate to the new product. Shoppers want to consume products that are better for them; it just might be even better if they don’t know about it.

-Sarah Morrison, Research Associate