Thursday, July 7, 2011

Research. It’s What’s For Breakfast.


An Oat By Any Other Name…

By Marc Dresner, IIR USA

Last week, as I perused the packaging on a box of Post’s Honey Bunches of Oats while tucking into a bowl, I came across an interesting bit of marketing copy highlighting the research that had gone into naming the product.

Yes, I read cereal boxes. The sides and back panel are always of particular interest, especially the latter. While the back of the box isn’t a dead zone, it’s certainly not prime real estate—it doesn't greet us on the store shelf or call out like a book's spine in our cupboard library—so I’m always intrigued by what the manufacturer does with it.

In this case, Post opted to tell an origin story: “How did they come up with this amazing cereal?”

Well, it turns out that one of Post’s plant managers and his daughter came up with the concept, tested variations in their own kitchen, picked a winner and presumably passed it along to the folks at corporate, who presumably liked it enough to give it a green light.

Now here’s where the tale got interesting: The marketers behind this particular box—the one I was reading—saw fit to mention that research showed consumers liked the product, but they didn’t like the original name.

So, as the story went, the project team turned to a brand manager, who came up with the current name, along with a suggestion for adding honey to the recipe, both of which tested well and led to a successful launch in 1989—a year in which, according to the box, Honey Bunches of Oats “garnered an impressive share of the total cereal market.”

Consequently, people like me have been starting their day with a bowl of Honey Bunches of Oats ever since. I would call that a happy ending and I’m sure Post would agree.

So where the heck am I going with this? Let’s start with the obvious: An advertiser is directly referencing consumer research results in its marketing collateral.

And you’re probably thinking, “So what? Nothing terribly new here.”

You’re right. We frequently see research used as an advertising gimmick in lots of categories in lots of ways. (Even if nine of 10 dentists surveyed recommend it, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this practice, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Post’s inclusion of research in its messaging in this instance stood out to me for several reasons.

First, talking to the consumer about “brand managers” and “market share” seemed a bit unorthodox for the origin story milieu, which typically features folksy yarns about everyday people creating extraordinary products, and/or appeals to our sense of nostalgia, family, tradition, history, etc.

Consistent with this formula, the Honey Bunches of Oats story began in a consumer’s kitchen (albeit that of a Post employee, but a consumer nonetheless) with his daughter. Check and check. But then it took a rather unexpected turn and tunneled inside the corporation. Not exactly the kind of brand imagery one associates with breakfast products.

Second, with its relatively uninhibited use of marketing speak and its focus on the internal development process, it reminded me of a case study one might hear presented at a marketing or research conference. You know the type: “The research told us X, so we took the following actions…”

Granted they didn’t get too jargony or provide the crash course in multivariate modeling I had hoped for, but how many consumers actually know what a brand manager is/does or understand the implications of their breakfast cereal’s runaway category market share? Quite possibly more than we expect.

To wit: My mother, who has no background in marketing, recently informed me that Facebook is really geared more to her “demographic” than mine.

Smarts withstanding on a debatable point, when did the term “demographic” become colloquial? Is this the vernacular of mahjong parties today? Do they sip iced tea and share segmentations in lieu of gossip peppered with (in my mom’s case) Yiddish?

Not likely…But they definitely get marketing and the research that precedes it. They understand our language; they know what we’re up to.

(By the way, this may be my last blog post ever, as my mother will probably read it and kill me.)

So I ask you: Was this peculiar twist on the traditional approach to origin stories—with its specificity, its window into corporate R&D and its research and marketing bent—a blunder or a sign of the times?

Lastly, what did you think of the approach to research depicted in this story? (Keep in mind the project took place in the late 80s.)

It seemed fairly unilateral to me. Consumers didn’t like the name, so the brand manager proposed a new one—and happily it stuck. As noted, the brand manager was also credited with adding honey to the product, which also stuck (pardon the pun). What about the consumer?

It could be inferred that while consumers’ opinions were taken seriously enough in “the project” (another term used in the copy) to be asked whether or not they liked the name and whether or not they liked the product’s taste, smell, texture, etc., they were not invited to help rename the product or improve the recipe.

I’ve argued that the man behind the curtain, or mirror as the case may be, was exposed long ago. Indeed many of the techniques in the research toolbox today are collaborative in nature—online communities, co-creative methods, etc.

We tend less to treat consumers as lab rats and more as partners in the process these days.

Was Post right to tell consumers a research story that essentially credited the brand manager with the outcome?

Author’s note: Special thanks to the old Cattlemen's Beef Board campaign narrated by Robert Mitchum—“Beef. It’s what’s for dinner”—for inspiring the title of this entry, and to William Shakespeare for inspiring the cutesy subtitle.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marc Dresner is an IIR USA communication lead with a background in trade journalism and marketing. He is the former executive editor of Research Business Report, a confidential newsletter for the marketing research and consumer insights industry. He may be reached at mdresner@iirusa.com. Follow him @mdrezz.

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