Beyond the lab: Why understanding consumer behaviour is vital for R&D insights

12 April, 2021
How advances in sensory science and consumer insight are informing our understanding of how people think and behave

Considering the end-user of your new product is a vital component to the success of any innovation and understanding consumer behaviour can provide a distinct advantage in this arena, lifting your R&D process to new heights. Firms who only consider the narrow measures of consumer preference and liking do so at their own peril, and risk creating a solution without a place in the market and which won't be beneficial to their desired customer base.

At Science Group, we are fortunate to have a talented group of colleagues, with a diverse range of expertise, who can formulate questions and blend consumer and sensory methods to ensure that they capture the data most relevant to your latest project or product. This subject forms a key part of a discussion between two such colleagues, Emma Gubisch and Simon Norman, in the in latest episode of our Podcast series, in which they each consider the role that consumer insight plays in their respective roles, as explored in a previous blog post.

How consumer insight drives innovation

This is Emma’s area to shine and forms a key part of her role as Head of Consumer Science at Science Group, where she works with sensory scientists, professional tasters and consumer insight specialists to establish what is likely to appeal to the consumer. Emma says: “Every product will have someone who's going to buy it, experience it, consume it and you're in real danger of creating something which won't be relevant to them and won’t have longevity, if you don't properly consider their needs.”

As part of her work, Emma relies on consumer insight and sensory science methods to steer the direction she and her colleagues take when developing a product. The lessons Emma learns through this process are vital to informing how her colleagues – including Simon Norman, Head of Product Development, Food and Beverage, at Sagentia – proceed with their work in the lab. This process is vital in helping client companies create exciting and innovative products, which are designed from the ground up to perform optimally, while also offering an attractive solution to the specific challenges facing end-users.

The science of behaviour

Keeping the customer in mind as a key part of the R&D process is nothing new of course, but advances in our understanding of how people think and behave are constantly being made. Emma says: “We used to have this perception that you could just ask someone what they think and they'll tell you but, with developments in psychology and behavioural science, there's a recognition now that it's not as straightforward as that. I've always believed that if you just ask things in one way to a consumer, you're not really getting to the nub of the problem. If you try different methods together, each part is giving you a bit more of something, a clearer picture, another piece of the jigsaw.”

Simon agrees this approach is invaluable, whoever he is working with. He adds: “It's always about asking the right questions, whether you're speaking with consumers or a team of analytical scientists with a room full of instruments. And sometimes that means you've got to go back and forth, between asking a consumer question and interrogating ‘what did they actually mean by that response’, then going back into the lab to find out how we measure, monitor and replicate that, make an improvement and iterate back to the consumer and say, ‘okay, well, we thought we understood that, what do you think?’.”

The process in practice

While the sensory experience of taste is ‘bread and butter’ for Emma when working in the food and beverage sector, she also undertakes projects involving the whole range of sensory experiences – whether that’s taste, touch, sight, smell or sound. That might include how a person may perceive the noise of a hair dryer as annoying or relaxing, what effect the smell of bread baking has on a consumer as they enter a supermarket, or how coffee brewing as they walk down an aisle impacts their shopping experience.

Blending methods from sensory science, consumer insight, and technical disciplines is vital to understanding the consumer experience and building a better picture of how they view an experience. Emma says that every element of a product affects how it’s perceived by a consumer. She adds: “Even things like packaging can have an impact on people. We know from testing that someone can score a product one way when shown it without its branding, and then you put the branding back on and its popularity rating might drop or increase. People know certain brands, they have a love or a hate for them, and that will all come into their viewpoint as a consumer.”

While recognising the benefits consumer insight can provide, Simon is also realistic about its limits. He says: “If you're doing good consumer insight studies, I'm not sure that you can ever do too much, assuming you have an infinite budget and timescale, but we have to recognise that they take time and – if you're looking to launch a product in reaction to a market move, or a trend you’ve spotted and want get something out there within 12 weeks – delaying development for four or five weeks while we're waiting on the right set of demographics for a consumer panel is tricky.” Simon also believes that you can mitigate these limitations by carefully planning your R&D approach from the outset. He adds: “It's about making sure you do the right studies at the right time and set yourself up for success, rather than doing your product development work and throwing it to the Consumer Insight team and saying, ‘you've got one week to give me an answer, yes or no, about this’. If you do something like that, of course, you're going to set it up to fail.”

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