Dan Machen, director of innovation at HeyHuman

Tis the season for supermarkets to fight over consumers’ Christmas cash. No doubt there’ll be further twists on festive British classics like Christmas pudding and trifles – Heston Blumenthal’s ‘hidden orange’ take on the former sells out year upon year, while his bacon and banana iteration of the latter is something of an acquired taste.

But you can’t help feeling that some of these variants are launched on a hope, a prayer, and the chef’s reputation. Clearly some old-fashioned research will have been involved at one stage, but we all know what consumers say they will do and what they actually do are poles apart. And when the current state of play has 75 percent of retail product launches failing, you need something really special to cut through this noisy yet crucial trading period. You need neuroscience.

When the new product development process is in play, neuroscience helps weed out obstacles to success. It’s been bandied about for some time, but as a research methodology, neuroscience has come into its own. Many FMCG decision-makers still misguidedly view it as an expensive, long-winded process that needs to take place in Dexter’s lab.

Yet with a modest investment at the start of the process, brands can harness neuroscience to predict a product’s likely success when it’s still in the ideation stage, an attractive alternative to the costs associated with a potential flop. They can test the effectiveness of the packaging, how people respond to it emotionally and even identify which occasion a new product is best matched to. Put simply, it can track the subconscious reaction people have and, from that, predict likely market success. This is vital for NPD. It’s different from traditional qualitative research in the sense that it provides quantitative data, too – you can’t talk your way out of eye-tracking software measuring just how much attention you’re paying.  

This isn’t all, though. It’s actually possible to conduct neuroscience in the real world, taking brain activity tests out of the lab and onto the streets. To give this activity context, to have reactions flare up as people gaze into mistletoe-laden shop windows – that’s what neuroscience can offer. Real-time analysis in real environments: your product’s natural habitat.

And neuroscience now comes in a user-friendly guise. A study that would have taken three to six months can be turned around in five to six weeks with the latest neuroscience techniques, saving cash and avoiding potentially expensive processes plaguing the concept phase. It’s not a novelty – this is a genuine proposition for research going forward that we are finding to be increasingly popular with FMCG brands.

Ultimately, though, neuroscience should be adopted in the NPD phase because customers deserve it. They deserve the best product, something that doesn’t just stand out from the crowd but completely flattens it. Better measurement and benchmarking with neuroscience can offer that. And when you’ve got every brand trying to grab a piece of the action in a technicolour explosion of festive fury, you’ve got to have everything locked down from the get-go. Or just do a Heston and dribble chocolate on your sprouts.

 

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