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February 2, 2010

Concept Screening: Redefining the Task and Tools


All of a sudden, several companies have asked me about new ways to screen concepts with consumers.  When I ask them why this has become an immediate concern, they cite one or more of the following:

  • Project timelines have shortened and brand owners need to make better decisions in less time, and with fewer steps.
  • With more experience launching and evaluating new products in the marketplace, brand owners realize that their research tools aren’t helping them to pick winners as often as they should.
  • The cost of producing models or prototypes for review doesn’t align with today’s budgets.  Brand owners need valid, early-stage assessment of multiple concepts without development cost.
  • Consumers have become more astute, coached and practiced at providing feedback.  Their intent isn’t malicious, but it stems from a desire to please recruiters and the corporate deep pockets that are paying them and weighing their words.

Today’s marketers need to get an early bead on the perceptual, emotional and functional variables at work in a concept set.  It’s no longer a matter of flashing some concept sketches and getting visceral feedback.  Focus group discussions just can’t dissect concepts into what’s truly working, what isn’t and why.  Instead, they provide a murky, unfocused and less actionable reaction that is often limited to “I like it” or “I don’t like it”.

Volumetric and conjoint tools are useful, but too little, too late.  At that point, you’ve whittled 30 concepts down to 3.  But have you chosen the right ones?  And more to the point, what if the right solution was a hybrid of attributes not found in one cohesive concept?  By picking a few, you have by definition sub-optimized the screening process.  While the “winner” will be relatively more attractive than the others, who knows what you’ve left behind? Or what combination of attributes might have been a stronger absolute performer?

So what do you do?  First, abandon your notion of what “concept screening” means.  The evaluation of individual, fully integrated product concepts at an early stage is inherently flawed in execution.  Every comparison is a mixed bag of feature apples and oranges.  Some overlap in the concepts and some don’t.  Each offers a different way to interact on shelf and in use.  Or, it doesn’t.  Asking consumers which of 20 concepts they like in the midst of all these moving parts is an exercise designed to fail.

What’s the better way?  First, let’s come at the problem from another direction.  Redefine concept screening as “attribute” screening.  In the early stages of concept development, concepts are too immature for valid independent screening.  They are comprised of different, rather raw ways of delivering certain valued utilities.  You can’t even call these “features” yet.  So the right question is not “which concept does the consumer prefer”, but “which set of attributes across concepts delivers the most consumer value?”

Am I talking about an early conjoint test?  Not really, because this approach answers both the “whats” and the “whys” in vivid perceptual and functional terms.  And if presented properly, the answers are not constrained by invalid verbal response or feature interpretations that may miss the mark.  Once attributes are properly explored and valued, they can be recast in an optimized product configuration or, at the very least, a given concept can be chosen that does the best job of delivering on captured consumer expectations.

Are there any research tools that can provide a solid, early stage concept (er…attribute) assessment to help narrow the field and guide development?  As you might expect, I’ve invented a few, and have been using them successfully for some time.  They are grounded in qualitative methods, yet have “qual / quant” benefits.  You can find out more about them on this site in the Tools section.  Or, just get in touch with me.

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