The Myth of Novelty

hitMakersAnother key note speaker at the Corporate Researchers conference was Derek Thompson, author of Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction.  I was particularly struck by his analysis around the myth of novelty which directly impacts some of our innovation work. He describes this as “people like sneakily familiar positive variations of things of a moderate deviation to the mainstream”.  There are obvious exceptions to this claim, but for the large companies we work with who have teams searching for “breakthrough innovation,” the truth is that the vast majority of shoppers aren’t looking for something radically different.

We are uncomfortable with that.  We need a jumping off point.  A parallel comparison.

In our work, we frequently encounter this myth in action. Shoppers want to compare the offering to something they know and put it in a familiar mental “box”, which can impede their abilities to fully grasp the true essence of what they are looking at.  Product placement can further disrupt understanding in categories with inherent norms and assumptions; where a product is placed can be an advocate for similar-to-norm products or a hurdle to overcome for products that depart from the standard and are seeking to combat ingrained expectations.

Thompson would argue marketers should focus their attention on products that would qualify as familiar surprises—just enough familiarity to make shoppers comfortable with just enough surprise to make the product feel unique and novel.  That will require the least amount of effort with the greatest amount of impact.  For real breakthrough innovation to occur the runway to adoption can be very long and the cost of generating awareness and changing behavior can be very expensive; for publicly traded companies in such a challenging business environment, many big brands simply don’t have the ability to be patient.

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How do you determine if a product is innovative enough to be seen as unique without being alienating due to its uniqueness?  I am glad you asked.  We have a methodology for vetting concepts in-context early in the development process to see which ones spark yet are understood.

You may find it familiar, yet surprising.

In-Context Research Requires Environment AND Mindset


As a company whose roots lie with in-store intercepts, we have always had an appreciation for the purity and predictability of learning about shopping behavior and testing concepts/packaging in a real retail environment with shoppers who were in the store to shop.  


Reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman reinforced the idea that we need to preserve as much of the thought process purity as possible because the brain and the subconscious have a powerful ability to impact what we see and how we respond to things.

Thinking about in-store research in particular, there is a powerful difference between consumers who walk through the doors of a store to shop and those who walk in the doors to take part in a research project.  For the actual shoppers, they are thinking of what they shopping for, time constraints, budget, etc.  For pre-recruits, they are thinking about who they are going to meet for the research, what questions they are going to get asked, how they will “perform”, etc.  Each are primed for very different things. 

For research to be truly in-context, the environment needs to be real AND the mindset needs to be real.

The mission and mindset within each category can be critical to understand when learning about objectives like shelf breakthrough and concept understanding.  Someone that is in autopilot within a category is highly unlikely to break routine to consider something new or different no matter how impactful the packaging is.  Additionally, consumers use a number of subconscious short-cuts when shopping categories to simplify their shopping experience. So, what’s the implication?

There is NO way for results to be predictive IF respondents are approaching the research with the “game” mindset.

  • Be cautious when testing within retail “labs” because they consistently only check the “environment” box.   The primary issue here is respondents who are familiar with the objective and process and approach the shopping exercise as a game of “find out what is new or different.”  Recruitment plays a huge role in preventing this: make sure respondents haven’t done a similar type of activity within the last year at least.  Or just do the research in-store.
  • Rely as much as possible on intercepts and in-store recruits if conducting research in-store. 
  • Don’t overuse stores.  We recommend waiting several months before using the same store again to prevent running into the same shoppers again who already “know the drill”.

We have appreciated the traction in-context research has gained in recent years.  However, we have seen how the focus is almost always on the environment, not the mindset.  Make sure your next in-context research project accounts for  both.

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(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?

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

Organic on Demand

The consumer call for organic food has been heard. Grocery chains throughout metropolitan areas are ramping up their organic offerings, though some rural areas have been left wanting. New Prague, Minnesota is a town of about 7500 that sits 45 miles southeast of Minneapolis, and is one of those locations whose organic options were limited. Motivated by a desire to have local, organic produce available in town, Kendra and Paul Rasmussen decided to find a way to bring natural, organic foods to their community.

After some difficulties navigating licensing and finding suppliers, that idea is now a reality—Farmhouse Market garnered the support from 230 members in just its first four months of existence. Membership costs $99 a year (and includes 24 hour access via a key card a la 24 hours gyms), and the market is also open to non-members about 9 hours a week. The owners use technology to monitor stock levels from home, which allows them to reach out to suppliers sooner when supplies are low. Farmers and suppliers have their own key cards to ease their deliveries to fit into any schedule.

Though a success in New Prague, questions arise regarding the transferability of the model. What works for a small town with a lot of industry and surrounded by farmstead, might not garner the same results in a different environment. Still, the success of the model should be acknowledged by other small communities that see price as the biggest barrier to having local, organic, and natural foods available in their own communities.

Market research companies are required to keep an eye on the ever-changing markets we study. Farmhouse Market is both a great example of the importance of organic foods to consumers at this time and as well as the growing influence technology has on how they can shop. The model itself is intriguing to study: by filling in gaps of existing grocery options in New Prague, Farmhouse Market is growing and succeeding. But what is still missing? How could this model be implemented in other demographic locations? As the traditional grocery store itself changes, so too do the competing options. The self-serve model of this store is intriguing and should be monitored as it develops, especially if the model takes root elsewhere.

-Sierra Dooley, Research Associate

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


Perimeter shopping is the latest and greatest trend in the grocery game, particularly for millennials. Consumers are eating more fresh produce and meats, and companies that have traditionally dominated the interior of the grocery store are looking for new ways to meet shoppers’ desires. The pace with which this trend has increased is fast and formidable; in his article, “Changing consumer tastes forcing companies like General Mills to change—fast,” Mike Hughlett describes how one large company is reshaping its practices to meet the desire for all things fresh and natural. General Mills started by cutting gluten and artificial colors and flavors from their cereals, but is this alone enough of a change? Will the introduction of several new Nature Valley products—that skew toward health—and a 25% sugar reduction from Yoplait be sufficient to re-capture the millennial?

This is a challenge because the millennial shopper has different food values than previous generations—47% of older millennials don’t trust large food manufacturers—and they rely heavily on the internet to inform their choices. Due to the unlimited accessibility to information, smaller brands, such as Chobani and Kind, have been able to reach out to consumers and build brand awareness without having to fork over funds for TV ad space. In response, General Mills has poured 25% of its media budget into online marketing and has continued expanding its organic and natural sales. The purchase of Annie’s last year was another move to stay relevant and appeal to the more natural/organic category. Pressure to do well throughout this changing demand comes from multiple sources, one being the presence of 3G Capital, which could be eyeing General Mills as a potential target.

Large companies have always faced the challenge of meeting new demands and trends of consumers. Due to the switching preference in grocery geography, General Mills (among other large food manufacturers) is faced with the task of keeping their products relevant and desirable to consumers. The best way to do this is through consumer-based research. What product changes/new product introductions will resonate with consumers and why? Who are these consumers and what appeals to them? In-store, in-context research is an on-point way to observe and interact with these shoppers to see what is working and what is not. As millennials become a larger part of the consumer spending base, companies will need to adjust their traditional viewpoints to point towards the up-and-coming generations. Moving forward, these questions will be essential for companies to answer, and the answers are possible with quality and experienced researchers.

-Sierra Dooley, Research Assistant

Edited By: Sarah Morrison

Labor Division: Revision

Division of labor at the household level manifests differently in each individual home. Parents figure out how to balance work, children, and household duties in a manner that suits their family.  However, when household labor trends change at a national level, it becomes something to which we should be paying attention.  Pew Research recently released a report detailing this shift in family life from a statistical point of view, focusing on two parent, mother/father households.

Raising Kids and Running a Household: How Working Parents Share the Load

According to Pew, the share of two parent households in which both parents work now stands at 46%—which is up from 31% in 1970—and has increasingly impacted how home responsibilities are divided. When asked, tasks such as “handling household chores, responsibilities” are viewed as equally shared by 59% of respondents, with 9% stating that the father does more, and 31% stating the mother does more. Disciplining children was an equally shared task by both parents in 61% of households, and playing or doing activities with children was equally shared by both parents, at least according to 64% of respondents. If both parents in the household do not work full time, the division of in-home tasks differs.

The shift in more households having two full-time working parents is not surprising; what is interesting is the potential shift in purchase decision making that could come as a result. How will home responsibilities and decision making be impacted if households with two working parents increase to 60% or 70%? This shift could indicate a need for businesses to reevaluate their marketing strategies and determine how they will speak to this emerging group of working parents who are redistributing the weight of household chores, shopping, and other responsibilities.

Businesses need to better understand the decision making process in these households in order to appeal to and acquire wider audiences. Marketers must make sure that they are able to reach both moms and dads with their messages, and to do that, both moms and dads must be included in their market research. As home responsibilities become more and more shared between mother and father, the traditional “mom shopper” target will require reevaluation. Keeping a pulse on these shifting demographics is essential for businesses and market researchers because representative populations hold the key to successful, actionable insights. As households redefine their traditional roles and responsibilities, businesses will need to reconsider their traditional demographics and marketing strategies.

-Quinten McGruder, Project Director

Multicultural Mindfulness

Shifting demographics necessitate an evolved approach in how marketers target minority groups. In part 2 of Michael Applebaum’s article Ethnic Marketing Research, the author grounded his ideas on research suggesting that by 2044, “no single racial or ethnic group will lead the country in terms of its overall size.” Such a change means big things for a multicultural marketing industry that has traditionally focused on cultural differences and ignored the reality of the ambicultural shopper: one who moves fluidly in and out of his/her cultural, ethnic, and American identities. The article cites a study conducted by Geometry Global in which the company set out to illustrate how companies can re-think multicultural marketing.  The study showed that marketers need to tap into commonalities of different cultures while looking through a more “sophisticated cultural lens.” Instead of trying to appeal to the differences between ethnic groups, Geometry advocates for focusing instead on similarities in purchase behavior through this lens.

Geometry studied the purchase journey of different ethnic groups when it came to buying a mobile phone and purchasing a snack. They found that initial purchase steps were similar cross-culturally; each ethnic group began the process by researching online or going to a couple stores. What differed, however, was the reasoning and/or behavior attached to that action as well as the commitment/purpose. For example, African Americans did more in-depth research online: looking for deals, reading consumer reviews, and assessing technical details. Considered Long-Term Oriented (LTO), these behaviors place value on investing in the future. In the case of buying a new phone, LTO shoppers want a product that will last. Comparatively, Hispanic shoppers tend to begin the purchase process with online and/or in-store research and often consult friends or family before making a decision. As marketers develop strategies, using this type of research to understand different shopper mindsets will aid in targeting more expansive audiences.

When it comes to market research, clients often have an idea about from whom they are looking to illicit feedback (i.e. male, 20-45, protein driven, etc.). However, Applebaum argues that, “Instead of trying to reach African American moms or Hispanic males ages 18-29, marketers should be thinking about the shopping behaviors that unify or distinguish these consumers.” It is important not only to understand shared behavior among groups, but also to understand when those behaviors differ and why. Doing so can help to create more effective marketing strategies that can reach wider consumer audiences as the multicultural landscape evolves. Research objectives are often guided by the intended purchaser of a given product. By understanding the similarities and differences between cultural groups, companies may be able to expand the scope of their intended audience and reach demographics they never quite expected.

Posted by: Sierra Dooley, Research Assistant