When consumer experience wildly differs from ‘market research’, apply truth serum

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Posted 17 May 2021

What test panels say about a product is often not an accurate reflection of how it is perceived and received by customers

TimesLive 16 May 2021

Remember when Unilever scrapped its traditional Sunlight dishwashing liquid bottle and replaced it with an upside-down one with a nozzle that dispensed a specific amount of the green stuff?

It was back in 2004, and I remember it well, mainly because there was huge public outcry about it – consumers hated not being able to control the amount dispensed, some said it leaked, and many complained that as it emptied it became very hard to squeeze.

The manufacturer relented and brought the old bottle back.

I mention this detergent packaging fail because Unilever said that before its launch extensive market research had revealed that South Africans absolutely loved that upside-down bottle.

Right. How many people were on the tasting panel, how were they selected and what percentage of them loved it? I never did find out.

Same story with Kellogg when they whipped the iconic Rice Krispies off the local market and replaced it with a multigrain, sickly sweet “vanilla” version that was met with almost the same degree of revulsion as that Sunlight bottle.

When I asked if the new, “improved” version had been tested on the local market before launch, Kellogg told me it indeed had, and the results had indicated that Rice Krispies Vanilla was “significantly liked” by all.

Well, a lot of South Africans who bought it thought strongly otherwise, and while Kellogg has not brought back the old ones, it does now import the UK version – with the original taste – for those who miss it enough to pay the premium.

The point is that very often what test panels say about a product is not an accurate reflection of how it will be perceived and received by buying customers.

Which brings me to Nivea’s claim that the Perfect & Radiant Anti Dark Marks Serum visibly reduces 10 years of dark marks in four weeks, based on a study involving 215 SA women.

Consumer activist Dr Harris Steinman, who’s been challenging product claims for two decades, asked Nivea if he could see the study on which those claims were made.

No, he was told, it comprises “confidential and proprietary information” and can’t be shared with any third parties.

“We can, however, assure you that the study was conducted in compliance with the necessary international and local standards applicable.”

“If the evidence is strong, then release it upon query, surely?” Steinman argued. “Failure to do so does not inspire confidence.

“It cannot be the case that 100% of those 215 women felt the same, yet your claim is very emphatic: SA WOMEN AGREE!

“We are expected to believe the word of a company – without any details being provided.

“The fact that you are not supplying the results suggests that the claims are not strongly supported by the evidence.”

Intrigued by what Steinman had shared with me, I asked Nivea the same thing and got a similar response.

The claim can be substantiated, as required by the Code of Advertising Practice administered by the Advertising Regulatory Board (ARB), I was told.

Beiersdorf, the company that owns the Nivea brand, commissioned a Product-in-Use Study in August last year by a “highly reputable” market research company.

They followed all the internationally accepted protocols for the study, the company said, and therefore the “SA WOMEN AGREE: VISIBLY REDUCES 10 YEARS OF DARK MARKS IN 4 WEEKS” claim is fully substantiated.

I was given a summary of the research, which doesn’t reveal the methodology or results.

Steinman has lodged a complaint with the ARB, and that body will get to see that confidential information. I’ll be keeping an eye out for that ruling.

Two weeks ago the ARB’s directorate had a case come before it about another cosmetic brand’s claim.

A Mr Lekoape said Shield deodorant’s claim to give “72-hour protection against sweat and odour” was misleading, because in his experience of using the product for two weeks, it doesn’t even last 12 hours, never mind 72.

Unilever said the product had been scientifically tested and verified by independent experts and the claim was valid.

It contained a new formulation with a patented antiperspirant active system that enabled it to provide wetness control, and therefore stronger sweat and odour protection, for 72 hours from the moment of application, the company claimed – the product, both roll-on and aerosol, was significantly more effective against sweat reduction and odour protection than “baseline”.

To cut a very long ruling short, the directorate said the outcome of the study was that 72 hours – three whole days! – after applying the product, a person would smell better than they would have done without the deodorant, but not as good as they did when they first applied it.

“In this case, the consumer would understand that at the end of the 72 hours they would not, to be blunt, stink,” the directorate memorably said.

“There is, however, nothing in the substantiation that shows this is the case … Users would simply smell statistically significantly better than they would have without the product.”

So the 72-hour claim was deemed to be unsubstantiated and Unilever was ordered to stop using it in all its advertising, including packaging (the label).

In the case of packaging, they have three months – end of July – to get new packs on shelf, but the existing ones do not have to be removed.

I imagine the ruling caused quite a stink in the marketing department.

If you think a product doesn’t live up to its claim, lodge a complaint with the ARB. It’s free and it forces the company to back up their promises with hard proof.

If they can’t, they’ll have to scrap it, and live with that dark mark against their name.

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