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Breaking through into hyper-competitive markets: Is more consumer testing the answer?

At present, two facts are beyond dispute.

First, the economy is slowing down; both in terms of consumer demand and private investment. This means that there currently exists no rising tide to lift all boats.

Second, and simultaneously so, the number of options available to the consumer have gone up substantially. Ten years ago, there existed 2 kinds of herbal toothpastes; now, the consumer can choose from 10 options. There are also available 23 life insurance players. And, at least 10 options of entry-level car brands are on offer, aside from the possibility of buying second hand sedans for the same price. And when not buying at all, using an Uber or an Ola when required.

Thus, the risk of failure has gone up substantially.

In a rapidly growing market, all players have a chance at gaining some part of the share, and hence, also gaining a share of consumer demand. However, with a slowing and stagnant market, the risk of failure is pretty much a given for some brands and products.

And business failure means that distributors or brand owners end up with mountains of unsold stock, which then needs to be liquidated at throwaway prices, and often without covering the cost of production.

Marketing common sense suggests that risk reduction be pursued through extensive consumer research, and the feedback be utilised to catch all potential points of failure.

Depending on the time and budget available, this attempt at course correction and improvement could entail a combination of both qualitative, voice-of-consumer research, and quantitative testing. And the quantitative testing could become increasingly sophisticated, with eye tracking and simulated shop shelves, going all the way up to neuro-brains scans; all to understand what consumers would go for.

However, reality is unable to accommodate such measures of risk reduction.

For many marketers, there is never enough time for multiple rounds of testing. Competitive pressure demands that they have their options out in the market sooner rather than later. So, marketers often have to rely on their intuition when making some calls.

Moreover, the number of options generated at each stage are also significant. If there are 6 stages of development, and 3-5 options or ideas emerge at each stage, then a minimum of 20-30 possible options are generated.

And since each selection is also a rejection, and the roads not taken several potentially successful scenarios with a few modifications and changes, who can tell that if an early reject had been improved, it may have turned out to be the best option possible?

Finally, there is never enough budget for rounds and rounds of consumer feedback and testing – of product formulations, packaging, pricing, advertising, activation, offers, or of sampling; the list of possible marketing mix options is endless.

However, it isn’t tough to circumvent these limitations with the aid of Semiotics. When employed upstream, at the beginning of the development process, it can help marketers immeasurably.

A category Semiotics study is of immense value. It reveals the Meaning Map of the product/brand category. It also provides a detailed product/packaging Semiotic analysis which uncovers hidden codification (embedded cultural meanings that drive consumers).

Category evaluations of this kind are bound to provide structure to the marketing team’s intuitions in one stroke, making them more equipped to make informed choices, as opposed to relying on guess work and hoping for the best, or going by consumer testing results as the gospel.

Additionally, marketers will also be able to understand the nature of their innovation better. Is it just a minor idea change within the established category context? Is it reframing? Or even more radically, is it a significant re-imagining that can alter the underlying mental models or image schemas of the category?

Answering such questions will help them figure out what kind of marketing efforts are required to be successful.

All factors considered, in a hyper-competitive market with slowing growth, investment in Semiotics is the smartest move a marketer can make.