Consumers lead the way

Preeti Khicha / Mumbai September 21, 2011, 0:28 IST
Business Standard
FMCG companies are involving customers early in the product co-creation cyclePreeti Khicha / Mumbai September 21, 2011, 0:28 IST

As markets become increasingly cluttered, the power is shifting to the hands of the consumer. Thus, FMCG companies are going the additional mile to study the target consumer through innovative ways that are up close and personal.

A recent example is ITC which is setting up its first customer interaction centre in Bangalore for its personal care division. Spread over an area of 10,000 square feet, the space is equipped with a skin and hair evaluation clinic where consumers are invited to come and experience products in their development phase.

Designed by Bangalore based FRDC (Future Research Design Company), the space reflects the mix of nature and science, the foundation on which ITC’s Fiama Di Wills personal care range of products is built. For a company which is a late entrant to the personal care business in India, where global behemoths Procter & Gamble and Hindustan Unilever dominate, such a centre is vital. “This is yet another initiative that reflects ITC’s commitment to bring to the consumer superior and differentiated products based on a scientific evaluation of consumer insights”, notes an ITC spokesperson. The centre has specialised rooms which focus on various elements of the product and will ultimately influence the way products are designed.

This clearly reflects how companies are involving consumers early in the product co-creation process.

As Godrej Industries chief strategy officer Vivek Gambhir explains, “Consumer insight is now going beyond market research. Conventional methods are designed to avoid failures rather than feeding into innovation. Consumer insighting today is both an art and a science, which requires a combination of both left brain (the traditional objective methods) and right brained (subjective and innovative methods) thinking.”

While Godrej does not dismiss the traditional ways of research, it is increasingly focusing on new ways to involve consumers. For example, the Godrej Hair Care Institute in Mumbai (spread over 10,000 square feet and designed like a salon) was set up in 2000 to invite consumers to test to-be-launched products. The Institute allows rapid prototyping and experimentation, notes Gambhir. “The recent rebranding of hair colour brand Godrej Expert with additional benefits was a direct outcome of the research we collected at the institute,” he adds. Godrej also has a Design Lab within their campus where designers work closely with consumers while creating product and packaging design.

French cosmetic major L’Oreal too is unveiling a research and innovation centre in Mankhurd, Mumbai ,a hub for developing products locally. Like its global facility, the India centre will be equipped with ‘model bathrooms’ where consumers are invited to test out products while observers take note of particular usage habits. “This will aid product formulations and significantly improve our speed to market,” notes Vismay Sharma, director (consumer products), L’Oreal India.

Nestle India has a facility within its campus in Gurgaon called ‘Maggi Kitchen’, where consumers are invited to share their experiences around food and even allowed to cook! “We are rolling out Maggi ginger and garlic cooking aid and Maggi Pazzta in the mushroom variant – flavour innovations which have been co-created together with consumers,” says Chandan Mukherji, associate vice president (consumer insights), Nestle India. The kitchen is also used in gaining feedback about other product categories.

But not everyone is convinced about the efficacy of an in-house customer interaction centre. Some companies like Dabur believe that inviting consumers inside the company premise often leads to a bias in results. “We prefer to engage with consumers either in homes or in a neutral setting,” explains Krishan Kumar Chutani, head of marketing (foods), Dabur India.”We believe that the product and company should be completely anonymous early on in the research process,” says Chutani.

However, most companies argue that you need a judicious mix of both. Thus companies like Godrej, Nestle and L’Oreal not only invite consumers to their facility but also study consumer idiosyncrasies by visiting their homes. “Home visits are exploratory in nature but reveal some vital insights,” notes Sharma. For example, the Indian specific innovation Garnier Fructis Shampoo+Oil, launched in 2010 was a direct outcome of a visit to a consumer home in Kolkata. “A young girl revealed that she realised the importance of oiling her hair as practiced by her mother, but never found the time to do it. This insight not only led to product creation but also the message of the advertising commercial,” explains Sharma.

Another recent launch Garnier Easy Rinse shampoo available in sachets is triggered by listening to the way consumers bathe at home. “In India, beyond urban areas most people do not use a shower and bathe using a bucket. Thus, the Easy Rinse shampoo requires only two mugs of water to rinse out,” says Sharma.

Godrej, for instance terms home visits as ‘immersions’, where everyone from the Chairman to senior management across different verticals of the Group visit consumer homes to observe people . “The objective is to understand the context in which consumers live their lives. Every quarter we choose a different region – for example, rural India, tier 1 cities,” explains Gambhir. “We are also initiating the process of staying in consumer homes overnight,” he adds. Likewise, Nestle, has cross-functional teams that visit consumer homes at least once a week.

Cadbury-Kraft, in February this year launched a consumer connect program called Amazing Anjali (after the success of Amazing Grace in Philippines) to better understand Anjali, a representative Indian consumer. As part of the program, 100 top managers visited consumers in 16 cities to gather insights on how Indians consume confectionery.

While co-creation is just another tool in a marketer’s bag of tricks, it needs to be approached through multiple lenses. “Beyond inviting consumers to a centre, companies need to engage consumers through unique methods like mystery shopping,” says Gambhir. Mukherji of Nestle believes organisations need to embed consumers into the research process rather than engaging in sporadic bursts of research. “It is equally important how companies connect the dots and interpret the information collected,” notes Gambhir.

One thing is for sure, consumers today are irreplaceable in a company’s innovation stream.