How merging consumer insights with technical expertise leads to better products

12 April, 2021
Turning ‘what makes people tick’ into usable data is vital to any successful R&D project, Science Group experts say

Of the 30,000 new consumer products introduced every year, around 95 percent are destined to fail, according to Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, so any new launch is always going to be a challenge. Incorrect assumptions about what the customer wants, failing to solve the problem a product is designed to address, and poor design choices are among the myriad reasons why this may be so. History is littered with examples – from the smallest start-up to the largest multinational – of ideas that may have looked good on paper but didn’t translate into real-world appeal.

There’s a curious kind of alchemy at work in any R&D project, combining elements of the arts and sciences, converting what cutting-edge research can tell us about how an innovation should perform into a proposition that’s appealing to the end-user. This combination is central to the success of any innovation, whether that’s a consumer cosmetic or a game-changing medical instrument. The blending of the technical with the human ensures that as much guesswork as possible is removed from the process of innovation, by linking consumer preference to product formulation from the very start and minimising the role played by chance to provide more predictable outcomes. It’s also at the heart of everything we do here at Science Group and is a key motivation for our colleagues, who make it all possible.

Meet Emma and Simon

Two such colleagues are Emma Gubisch and Simon Norman. They approach product development from different perspectives, bringing their respective skillsets to bear, but their combined expertise affords benefits to the products they help to shape that would be missing without such a collaborative approach. Emma, who is Head of Consumer Science at Science Group, says she’s always been fascinated by people and ‘what makes them tick’ and the ‘messiness’ or inconsistencies in human behaviour which we can all probably relate to – why, for example, do we spend longer planning what smart phone we want to buy than we do planning for our retirement? She also has a passion for creating stories and weaving narratives which explore human behaviour, and what that means for the world we live in. Emma brings these interests to bear in her work, understanding how people engage with products and the factors which impact their experiences.

Simon, on the other hand, has a background in chemistry and is passionate about experimentation, whether that’s in his role as Head of Product Development, Food and Beverage, at Sagentia or baking bread at home in his spare time, bringing a sense of curiosity and even playfulness to bear on whatever task he turns his hand to. Simon’s days in the lab are largely behind him and his main role today is to help client companies establish what they want to achieve – and how to achieve it. He does so with the help of a talented team of scientists, who – Simon jokes, somewhat self-deprecatingly – are “much more systematic and good at their jobs than I ever was”.

How we operate

Every project we undertake at Science Group balances these competing concerns, matching what our technical expertise tells us with our understanding of how the market – and, ultimately, the end-user – will react to the finished article. Yet Emma and Simon both agree that, for them, consumer insight is vital to getting this right, helping them create a product that people need and want to engage with, long after it’s created. For Emma, a big part of her job is to ensure that the consumer voice is reflected in everything she does, while Simon helps to ensure these insights are applied by scientists in the lab.

One thought experiment that serves as an illustrative example of this approach in practice is the creation of a new meatless burger. Soaring interest in plant-based diets suggests this a lasting trend, rather than a passing fad and plant alternatives to meat products have proven big business over recent years, with NASDAQ forecasting the sector will be worth USD 24.11 billion by 2024. Lab-grown meat is also moving ever-closer to commercial reality, with one regulator signaling in December 2020 that they are ready to approve such products. Time will tell whether consumers follow suit and widely adopt artificial meat.

Let’s imagine Sagentia has been asked to create the best plant-based or meat-alternative burger possible. They may have some initial ideas on how to go about this but without consumer insight working out what really makes a good burger, and what they should be focusing on, would be guesswork. “Is it that beefy, meaty flavour or is it that sort of crust that forms on the outside of a burger,” Simon asks, “or is it the juiciness inside?”.

That’s where Emma comes in. She and her team use a blended approach of sensory and consumer insight to explore this question. Firstly, the sensory panel, trained experts – much like wine tasters – can describe the sensory characteristics of the product in an in-depth and objective way, without expressing any personal preference. Discussions and tasting sessions with consumers bring an understanding of behaviours, preferences and experiences surrounding the product and how it should be positioned.

These insights can be combined to create a detailed picture, which can drive what happens in the lab. Simon and his team can use all of the tools at their disposal to further measure and analyse what’s happening, at a chemical level, to drive these sensory preferences, translating human experience into technical insights.

The benefits this brings

This specific example epitomises the wider approach we take at Science Group. Whether that’s creating an exciting new customer-facing food product – and ensuring it overcomes the hurdles of regulatory and compliance jurisdictions worldwide – or developing a new industrial B2B appliance, our colleagues work together to combine their wide-ranging and detail-oriented expertise, to ensure that your organisation’s needs are not just met, but exceeded.

“We bring different skill sets to a project, but I think the best project is when you work together to solve a challenge,” Emma says. “And that's very much what we're developing, this kind of hybrid approach where Simon can bring that scientific knowledge and we can bring the human voice.” Simon agrees, adding: “Without working closely and collaboratively with consumer and sensory scientists, we'd be swimming in the dark. When somebody can objectively tell you ‘this is creamier’ or ‘this is less bitter than the last variant we tried’, and not just that, but ‘it's 20 or 40 percent creamier or less bitter’, that's just so useful from our perspective.”

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