Make Sure Your New Product Is Not A Lemon, And If It Is, Is It Bitter Or Sour?

Howard Frost and Vivien Wilton-Middlemass explain the role of sensory testing in new product development across a range of products.

New product development usually treads a familiar and well worn path. Once the need for a new product has been identified there follow the concept development stage, concept testing, fine tuning, prototype production and so on. At the same time decisions are being made regarding various marketing issues, for example, the creation of an advertising platform, promotional launch details and maybe a review of the distribution channels for the new product. However, this process is detailed in numerous marketing tracts so it is not our intention here to bore the reader with that which can be readily found elsewhere. We want to sharpen your senses or rather show you how sharper senses can ensure you have got the best product and that you are ready for launch.
Let’s assume that you’ve identified the need for a new product, ascertained there is demand, done the concept development and testing, made the prototype and have all your marketing ducks lined up. But, and this is a big but, how do you know you have got the best product, the product that, out of all the ideas you have looked at and out of all the prototypes you’ve produced, has the best chance of success?
Well, if you accept the assumption that there are reasons behind everything, then there have to be reasons why people will select your new product over the competition. To give your new product the best chance of success you need to accurately identify those reasons. Let’s take an example, some people buy dark chocolate and some milk. Those who prefer dark chocolate often describe it as being more bitter than milk chocolate and cite this as one of the main reasons as to why they choose the former over the latter; but what does bitter mean?
Assume that you are about to launch your new dark chocolate bar, but, is it too bitter, or not bitter enough? Taste tests with the public are all very well but one person’s ‘very bitter’ is another person’s ‘a little bitter’. How does your new product score on the other criteria that feed into people’s decision trees when buying chocolate? Oh, you think, if only I had a definitive metric of bitterness and a measure of where my competitors’ products and my new product scored on the ‘bitterness’ scale, and how well my target market’s taste aligned with each of these, then I would be in a position to launch the optimum product. Guess what – you can! And not just for chocolate but also for mobile ‘phones, cosmetics, cleaning products, cars and a whole heap of other products. In short you can enlist the help of sensory testing techniques in any situation where your senses play a part in product selection – you tell me where they don’t.
Sensory testing and new product development go hand in hand; it can be used at various touch points throughout your development process to ensure that your new product matches what the market wants. For those unfamiliar with the basic technique it relies on the recruitment and training of a panel of experts who, through the use of consistent test stimuli, develop an appropriate and common language for a specific product or group of products. Panels can be trained for taste, for example for different kinds of food and drink ranging from yellow fats to beer, or touch, an example here being cosmetics where the difference between a product being smooth or greasy can make all the difference, through to sight – what is the optimum hue for a tomato? Think of all the ways that your product interacts with your customers’ senses and at each of these points there is a potential role for sensory testing.
Sensory testing dovetails perfectly with research methodologies that enable the understanding of the wider audience that report their motivational drivers to buy a particular product and together these techniques will provide any person, working in NPD, with a solid base on which to make decisions. Take, for example, a car manufacturer that learns that a customer is likely to pay more for a car (or their kitchen cabinets) whose doors shut with a satisfying, opulent sounding ‘thunk.’ Even though this is only one of a myriad of factors in the choosing of a car, the manufacturer would be somewhat remiss if they dismissed this aspect when designing their new models.
So where do the lemons come into it? Like me you might be surprised to know that there are forty seven varieties of lemon. Interestingly, lemon growers classify them as acid or sweet but how many people have you ever heard asking for a sweet lemon?