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The Main Ingredient: The Market Research in your Pantry

Posted by Dana Vaille on Wed, Apr 17, 2013

market research foodThe New York Times article, The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food, caught my attention by linking the hot topic of “junk food” and the obesity epidemic to the market research that supports it.  This is where my inner geek gets really excited—it’s not often that two things I’m passionate about (nutrition and market research) are so perfectly linked. 

Ever wonder why it’s virtually impossible to eat just one Dorito? Or how they got the recipe for Dr. Pepper just right?  How do you think they engineered Cheetos into the perfect cheesy, crunchy, melt-in-your-mouth treat?  As any market researcher knows, it goes far beyond basic trial and error—this isn’t like asking a few people if they like your new brownie mix. But even for someone who lives and breathes market research, the article was incredibly illuminating. Companies put a lot of time and effort into developing foods that will both taste good and be profitable; they consider the basic principles of supply and demand, and couple that with food science and a lot of market research to fill our needs and desires.

Because I know very little about food science, I won’t talk about the “bliss point” (the levels of sugar, fat and salt in processed food that keep us craving more) though I find it fascinating.  Instead, here are some fascinating examples of how market research plays a role in determining what foods end up on the shelves of your local grocery store and in millions of pantries around the world.

Qualitative research identifies a need
In the article, we learn how Oscar Meyer conducted focus groups comprised of working moms to learn not what they were feeding their kids for lunch, but how they felt about the challenges and expectations they had in providing meals for their children. Oscar Meyer learned that these moms were strapped for time and felt pressured to provide a full lunch, while also getting themselves out the door, and to the office. The qualitative research revealed some of the tremendous sociological, psychological, and economic pressures faced by moms.  The company’s solution was Lunchables—a hugely successful product, with sales of $218 million in the first year.

Conjoint analysis configures a new product
Campbell’s Soup used a statistical method called conjoint analysis, to determine the optimal product configuration(s) for their soups.  We use conjoint analysis quite often ourselves because it lets us measure and evaluate the relative importance of individual characteristics and determine the right combinations of these characteristics. Campbell’s used conjoint the same way—to optimize the perfect combinations of ingredients, texture, taste, mouth feel, and so on, to (literally) engineer the ideal food.

Segmentation pinpoints a new target audience
Prego conducted segmentation research to find that there are three primary segments of spaghetti sauce consumers: those who like their sauce plain, those who prefer it to be spicy, and those who like it extra-chunky; the key here is that when the research was conducted, there was no extra-chunky tomato sauce on the market! Prego was able to identify a huge segment of the market whose needs (for extra-chunky tomato sauce) were not being met; the result was a new Prego “extra chunky” sauce that dominated the market.

Food is more than just fuel, especially for those of us lucky enough to have plenty to eat… it’s about things like family, comfort, convenience and love.  And whether you won’t touch a GMO or want Mayor Bloomberg to leave your giant sodas alone, it’s important to know when you grab that bag of chips—the first ingredient is most likely a ton of market research.

Dana is Research Director at CMB. Her husband’s recent conversion to a vegan diet has her thinking about food science even more than usual, though she continues to enjoy cheese.

Check out our latest webinar: The 6 Secrets of Succesful Segmentation, it's much healthier than Doritos we promise.

Topics: advanced analytics, qualitative research, market strategy and segmentation