The Not-so-Dark Art of Listening to Your Consumer

One of the things I’ve learned along the way as a food marketer is that great brands grow not because of some mysterious variable but because of a series of simple but powerful responses to the needs and wants of a very specific type of consumer. In other words, great brands ask the right questions of the right people and the right time.

The so-called “magic” of success is really just a journey of discovery.

  • Consumer Insights & Trends
  • Strategy
by Nate Douglas
July 28, 2021

The brands and products we love exist because they have taken the time to listen to what we, the consumers, say and do. We’re devoted to these brands because we feel an emotional connection with their products or services without feeling sold to.

It’s easy to say that these brands “get us”, but the truth is that this seemingly simple connection can sometimes take a long time to create. Listening to consumers may be a simple act, but it’s not always simple to act on what’s been learned.

As food and beverage marketers we can only achieve brand loyalty when we systematically ask our audiences for feedback at every critical product and marketing step we take. Without the proper feedback loop in place, we lose our bearings.

Everyone talks about testing their ideas, but so few do it – and even fewer do it right. Gut feelings, past wins, competitor emulation, and ego are just a few of the variables that plague a brand’s ability to guide the creation and marketing of a product. The most important, yet often misunderstood variables lay within the minds, hearts, and behaviours of our consumers.

Brands that struggle to innovate, expand into new markets, or nurture a niche category are at risk of squandering their opportunity to explore the core questions their business is trying to answer.

When we fail to test our assumptions with our consumers we fail to create a meaningful connection.

Testing ultimately helps you discover how to answer key questions with facts and the conviction you need to succeed. Here’s a quick snapshot of the what and how of testing that should be considered when preparing to do, well, anything:

  1. Category Context
  2. Brand Positioning
  3. Product Experience
  4. Communications

Remember: When testing ideas, your biggest risk comes when you frame the conversation to only justify your starting point. 

1. Category Context

Your goal here is to not only identify and understand which grouping or classification your planned product will be assigned but to gain insight into who, where, and what drives the conversation surrounding that category.

If you’re exploring the notion of a new category (niche or otherwise), you’re going to want to make sure you have a very clear sense of your surrounding categories. Temper your expectations with the reality that your consumers are already seeking alternatives exclusively.

When researching a category make sure you’re not holding on too tight to any one idea; you might be surprised by the spin-off benefits as you consider nuances present in the alternatives.

Take the plant-based category for example. Alternative “milk” has been around for a while, but by listening intently to the preferences of those so-called “fringe” consumers, buckwheat beverage brands like Buck can make their mark in a rapidly expanding niche genre.

2. Brand Positioning

Your brand means something to you, but that’s not the point. Ultimately, your consumer has to make that connection. Your brand encapsulates a bunch of critical elements, such as story, tone, voice, style, design, value, and benefits the most pivotal one being your claims.

It’s important to know which product claims mean the most to your primary and secondary consumers. Your brand's position in the market will always be relative to competition and alternatives. Along with consumer feedback and insights, you will be able to determine what differentiates your product or service from other comparable brands, and in which product traits consumers place value and loyalty.

A great differentiation position involves a Unique Value Proposition delivered by a tailored value chain that is difficult to copy.

Determining how your consumers feel about your brand, and at what point in the brand story they connect, will make all the difference when strategizing to set yourself apart.

Take Hardbite Chips for example. This was once one of many chip brands on a local shelf that is now a premier national product, exported because of its robust innovation and brand positioning.

3. Product Experience

Most marketers are more comfortable with this one. Getting feedback from consumers about taste and packaging (to name a few) is pretty familiar territory when it comes to testing. Asking which flavour, type, size, feel, format, or look they prefer can help you fine-tune things before launching a new product. It’s too bad so many wonderful brands think this is a one-and-done process.

The most common mistake here is when the innovation stops and the message is locked, loaded, and…forgotten.

Consumers are humans with changing desires, the market has new entrants all the time, retailers have dynamic ecosystems; your product journey must remain fluid enough to adjust accordingly.

It’s so important to go beyond the public reviews. Testing and tweaking, listening, and learning, your product is creating a conversation and it’s our job as marketers to make sure it’s not falling on deaf ears. The great thing about testing pre and post-launch is that you can qualify your sales data against actual consumer behaviour; your assertions and assumptions can be measured, compared, and contrasted – and that’s when things can get really fun.

Take Carrick Bros. for example. Do you think they’re going to stop at syrup? Not a chance. Their product line-up will continue to evolve because they are listening to the desires of the market, and they know how to make a beautiful product that people cherish.

4. Communications 

Ah. Finally, the sweet sounds of marketing. When you’re ready to scale your business, what’s going into the market is what consumers will start to associate with your brand. Will your message break through the clutter and will it be motivating?

Your audiences’ insights are imperative when a brand is making decisions about key marketing messages. Whether it is the almighty “Big Idea” or it is campaign messaging - or anything else in between - testing alternative messages with your target audience can take a lot of the mystery out of the equation and set you up for a greater chance of success.

One of the facets that always stands out to me is Big Idea Territory Testing. You may have a great key message, but there many ways to bring that message to life. A message may resonate but without consumer feedback, you don’t really know if it’s fresh and compelling in the way you hope it is.

Plus, there are a lot of ways to trigger awareness and sales, so choosing the ideal territories can help maximize these results.

Though this is an overly simplistic POV, an emotional territory pulls at the heartstrings, a funny territory makes people laugh, a celebrity territory injects instant credibility. Testing these territories allows you to explore a lot of creative options, but more importantly, it creates the necessary constraints for you to hone your next campaign into an effective communication effort.

Take Ontario Pork for example. Their most recent campaign of “There Are Many Ways to Pork” employed a comedic narrative to spark the audiences’ attention in a way that connected to both the audience and the brand.

This is a quick snapshot of consumer listening as it relates to testing. Hopefully, this reinforces what you’re doing or sparks an idea or two about how you can leverage the voice of your consumer. I want to remind us all that at each stage of this journey there is a refinement period. This is when you respond to the previous assumptions and make practical changes in light of the facts.

When it comes to tools – there are a lot out there, but if you’re new to the testing game consider poking around Zappi -- they have a very approachable system to help with this process.

If you have any questions or comments I’d love to hear from you.