Marketers have been complaining about the poor quality of concept-testing innovations since modern branding started. But does the fault with the methodology or the type of person being recruited? And does it matter whether those innovations are close-in or disruptive? Let’s examine both of those issues with three key quotes from academics over time:

This quote from Edward Tauber in the 1975 Journal of Marketing gets the ball rolling: “Concept and product tests do not work. Most marketers are aware of the high failure rate of new products, but AC Nielsen, in a study of the introduction of many new products, concluded that test markets were a good predictor (75% of time) of national introductory results. So when do all of these failures happen? Obviously they occur at the test market stage. Thus the track record of pre-test market screening is poor. And what are the techniques generally used for this screening? – concept [idea] testing and product testing.” While I applaud Mr. Tauber for pointing out the value of transactional testing (, we’re a big believer in market tests too Mr Tauber, his main insight is that the pre-market screening efforts weren’t working as far back in 1975.

One would hope that a revolution occurred in the years that followed, unfortunately, modern academics have continued to point out flaws in the concept-testing system. Looking at the academic literature in the past 10-15 years it’s easy to understand that many of these academics keep linking the failures of concept tests to the specifics that researchers were asking the average consumer to evaluate/predict. This 2006 quote from Kink and Athaide brings that point to life: “ Every step in concept development and testing is yet another chance to fail to control for factors jeopardizing validity and reliability. Unclear product characteristics, a lack of emotional appeal, and an over reliance for consumers to base their decisions on reasoning… all can affect the internal validity of the experiment.” That last point is worth focusing on, because marketing leaders and consumer insight professionals all expect consumers to be able to reason their way into wanting your new and disruptive product or service. But relying on consumer’s ability to use reasoning to understand your innovation poses another problem - who are you asking to make these evaluations?

We fully believe that type of consumer that needs to be recruited when studying disruptive innovations is different from the “average category shopper”, otherwise a concept test of innovation risks falling into a trap of reasoning, where consumers are more likely to assume that what they have access to today is probably better than an unknown, even though it may be improved, future. This point gets hammered home in this 2013 quote from Muggle And Dahl: “Consumers’ form judgments about new products by taking into consideration both positive and negative inferences. Important ones are… value inferences and learning cost inferences (Hoyer 2001, Rogers 1995). Learning cost inferences refer to the cognitive effort required to make effective use of a product (Hoyer 2001). If innovations are perceived to as difficult to understand and use, this may frustrate and overwhelm consumers. Radical innovations are very different than the product stored in memories… because they allow consumers to do things they were unable to do before (Hoeffler 2003). As a result… learning costs pose the greatest challenge. Consumers may find it especially difficult to access the relevant product category schema for radial innovations (Moreau 2001). When they feel that the innovation does not fit the existing schema, they are unsure what knowledge from these schemas can be transferred to the new products (Rindova 2007)... And therefore they feel they lack the ability to make effective use of the radical innovation.” 

In the end there are limits where your average consumer can feel comfortable with the benefit-discontinuity that a new and disruptive innovation can offer… so just recruiting a heavy-category shopper is not the right way to gain insights into, test and validate whether your new and disruptive product will succeed. We recommend that teams that work in innovation rethink this paradigm and walk away with three key insights: 1) Get clear on what needs to be measured - specifically innovation researchers & strategists should focus on diagnosing the potential of an idea instead of trying to falsely predict a shoppers future behavior; something most consumers often find difficult to do for themselves. 2) Recruit a new type of consumer: the Emergent Consumer - someone who shops the category but also has an ability to evaluate new ideas and the trade off between what they have and know today, and a radical change to that current behavior. Emergent Consumers are not “early adopters” - consumers who like trying new things as soon as they come out - they are much more reflective and able to assess the value of gained new benefits over the lost current entrenched behaviors. Lastly, 3) Use a mixture of long and short format tests with Emergents to diagnose your innovations - While online concept screens are great for evaluating simple flavor and format changes to a product line, they may not do a radical innovation justice; especially one that shakes up its category and/or creates a new behavior. In these cases we recommend using longer format tests - such as a Kickstarter test or a in-Store Weekend Test - that allow your innovation to have a chance to fully tell its story. Mission Field has been executing these principals for years in order to help our clients improve the success rate of their innovation efforts. Due to our firm belief in the power of Emergent Consumers, we have a developed and refined a unique screener that allows us to find Emergents for any category of consumer products, and we apply that screener to every project we execute. If you want to learn more, reach out to us and we’ll be happy to show you how we can take your innovation efforts to a whole new level.