Traditionally, personal care products were relatively simple vehicles designed for functional benefits via the delivery of an ‘active ingredient’ to the skin to provide a specific benefit – moisturisers to address skin dryness; surfactants to clean hair; pigments to cover and enhance the complexion.
The link between ingredients and the product performance was relatively clear. However, in today’s crowded personal care market, new products need to do much more to stand out from the crowd, disrupt behaviour and earn a long term place within consumers’ repertoires. This poses three important questions for formulators. Firstly, how do you formulate for an emotional benefit? Marketers are continually trying to raise the bar by devising more sophisticated new product ideas that connect with consumers emotionally. They promise experiential benefits borrowed from adjacent categories, for example Spa-like ‘pampering or indulgence’ or designer ‘glamour’. But what exactly is a luxurious product appearance or premium viscosity? The second question is how to generate belief that the product actually works? It is not enough to formulate products that work. Consumer distrust is at an all time high. People are looking for proof that products are effective as they use them. They do not want to rely purely on claims and advertising. Finally, why do products with great emotional and functional performance still fail in the market while others flourish? In a world where we expect instant gratification, consumers have become hooked on the experiences they get from products. After all, dry shampoo is applied to freshly shampooed hair for the experiential benefits, not to make the hair cleaner. A simple lip balm might be bought over and over again because the smell and taste reminds someone of fond memories of a holiday, making the consumer feel confident and relaxed by the act of application. Personal care is a market fuelled by innovation but some products manage to rise above this and achieve real staying power in the market. But how do they do this? Successful and iconic products need to deliver both functional and emotional benefits, and importantly, to fulfil the concept promise throughout the experience at every possible touch point. By delivering this consonance across all the consumer touch points – from the first exposure to marketing, to the interaction with the packaging, to the experience of the product – a holistic, winning proposition can be created. The excitement generated by initial marketing support and novelty needs to translate into repeat purchase and further recommendations for product longevity.
The challenge for formulators
It can be exasperating to formulate a great product that fails in the final qualification stage or even in market because the product signals do not match the expectations set up by the idea. It can be equally frustrating for formulators to see technically inferior products deliver a holistic experience and generate real loyalty because the concept and product have built off each other. The power to drive experiential, emotional and even the perception of functional benefits through the sensorial properties of a product is well known. However the challenge is to know which sensory cues link most strongly with the targeted benefit area and to then determine what the ideal sensory profile would be. How do you know which formulation parameters will generate the perception of pampering, indulgence or glamour? What sensory cues will help the consumer know that a product is lifting or will create a radiant appearance? It is particularly challenging to determine the formulation brief for these types of benefits as the links between the formulation and sensory cues are not as evident as for the transitional functional benefits. MMR Research Worldwide (MMR) conducted a study which clearly demonstrates how the sensory characteristics of a product can change consumer perceptions of both its functional and emotional properties. The research found that altering the fragrance of the same base shampoo formulation had the power to impact significantly the perception of texture both of the product and of the hair itself when wet and when dry. Altering the colour of a face cream from pink to white significantly changed the emotional associations of the products – from sophisticated, classy and feminine to ordinary, traditional and simple. While this makes intuitive sense and formulators are well aware that fragrance and colour have a major impact, what is often missing is a systematic understanding of exactly what each sensory attribute brings, and how best to utilise it. This is where early, sophisticated scientificallyrobust consumer research comes in.
Early stage research – agreeing the rules
In order to achieve consonance in an efficient way, it is important to understand from very early in the process what both the functional and emotional associations of the concept are and how to cue those via the sensory characteristics of the product itself. To deliver on this, both marketing and R&D need to have a clear set of fully aligned guidelines for product development. Working with leading global personal care manufacturers, and answering their need to understand how specific ingredients, product attributes and functional benefits ultimately link to and drive emotional perceptions and concept performance, MMR has developed a methodology which physically brings together switched-on consumers and marketing and R&D teams along with sensory and consumer research experts all in one room (Fig. 1). The objective is to create a clear set of rules for product development to ensure that it delivers not only transitory liking but longer-lasting emotional satisfaction. Called ‘Early Rules of Success’ (EROS for short), it is an intensive workshop-based approach, normally taking place over one evening. The process starts well before the workshop itself (Fig. 2), beginning with an immersion session with all client stakeholders to define the objectives and to ensure the best product selection is made to represent the current marketplace and/or client prototypes in terms of sensory boundaries. A matrix is created covering the key formulation parameters, such as appearance, fragrance, and product aesthetics (on and off skin) etc. Appropriate test products are made available for each parameter. Marketing input ensures the product concept is articulated to the group in terms of meanings, but that it does not in any way inhibit what the product could be. In parallel, around 70 category users are recruited and pre-screened for articulacy. These are ‘special’ consumers in terms of sensory acuity and their ability to talk about the sensory properties of the product and what these properties mean to them in emotional terms. Only about a third is selected to take part. All parties then break out into groups to create a functional and emotional ‘lexicon’ for the concept. This incorporates terms from a core library of specific terms preselected for the brand and concept and includes any terms consumers feel they want to add. It is important that the agreed vocabulary covers both what the concept is and what it isn’t. At the sensory exploration stage, the group investigates possible product executions which can include competitor benchmarks in an iterative process. The products are profiled sensorially and the emotional associations cued by these sensory properties are explored. The session ends with a cross comparison across the two groups – looking at consensus and divergence to deliver an integrated output. The output is a clear understanding of which emotional dimensions are important for the product and which sensory attributes link to these. Each prototype is shown on a continuum (like Figure 3) in terms of where it fits on these attributes as well as overall liking and fit to concept. For each dimension identified as important, very clear rules are given both as to what the product should and should not be, the closest match to this is highlighted, as well as guidance on how to optimise.
Rescuing an underperforming moisturiser
A recent study involving MMR in the facial moisturiser market concerned a product aimed at young women, just beginning to establish their skin care routine. The product and the concept had both tested well pre-launch, using traditional liking and fit-to-concept ratings, and the support and packaging that had been put in place should have ensured its success. However, it was failing to fulfil its promise, with strong trial but limited repeat. The client felt intuitively that there was something missing in ‘fit-to-concept’ to make the proposition really special but was not sure what that was or how to optimise the product. Using the Early Rules of Success principles, a refined concept was tested and several possible prototypes as well as a range of existing products that represented extremes of sensorial vectors for key attribute areas. For example, for skin feel stimulus, products varied in terms of their slipperiness, powdery feel, wet feel, tackiness, silkiness and residue. To start with it was established that the key emotional conceptualisations that linked to the concept were around youthful, fun, exciting, treat/indulgence and approachability. These ‘emotional conceptualisations’ were then used throughout the research as the anchors by which to assess the stimulus. This enabled the team to:
• Elicit a rich sensorial understanding of how products are perceived, not just ‘…I like this one for feel’. • Uncover the product attributes and corresponding sensory cues that link with the concept promise for the target consumer.
Developing an optimised application and skin feel model
It was found that the current prototype delivered quite well in terms of the skin feel. For example, Figure 3 shows that the amount of residue delivered by the current prototype was low and close to ideal compared to the other products shared. However, although it was light and cooling, combined with a luxurious feel, the perception of ‘youthful’ could be further driven by the combination of this with a wet skin feel as illustrated in Figure 4. In fact we found that this wet skin feel was the strongest driver of youth for this target audience. It also enhanced their perception of ‘moisturisation’ which matched the technical performance actually delivered. The emerging skin feel model is shown in Figure 5, which clearly highlights the wet skin feel areas as the key product optimisation to drive fit to ideal for this concept and target consumer.
Identifying the ideal colour and fragrance
It was also discovered that colour and fragrance of the product were both too extreme and the team was able to recommend more ideal territories (Fig. 6). In order to differentiate from the adult market and to inject fun and youth into the product, the formulation was a fairly bright peach/orange colour (both the product and in fact the packaging). Additionally a very fruity, almost single note fragrance was used which was very sweet. EROS demonstrated that while being fruity was a definite benefit, a more complex fragrance with fewer sweet notes was desirable and necessary in order to fit the concept promise. While the current product was ‘likeable/nice’, it had strayed too far from youthful into childishness. Clear references were given in terms of where each prototype sat on each sensory dimension as well as overall performance in terms of ‘fit to concept’ – and rules (Table 1) to optimise further the strongest performing prototype. At the end of the study, the R&D team had a specific, tangible target for formulation optimisation derived from the consumer input and the marketing team felt it had the evidence to confirm its previous intuition about where the product’s failings lay but now had the knowledge for what to do next.
Using a more systemised approach to early stage product development, aligning marketing and R&D right from the start, and combining liking with an understanding of emotional satisfaction can make all the difference – saving time, money and creating a step change in NPD.
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