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POV: Brands in the Dark

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SAN FRANCISCO Are some big brands dancing the fox-trot while the legions of prospective customers are looking for a mosh pit? Apparently so.

Despite marketing research, consultants, MBA hires and all the rest of it, some brands that focus on pricing, such as energy drinks, are unaware that shoppers don't care about discounts and do care about flashy packaging. So all the marketing brainpower behind that discount strategy is well, basically, a waste of good music.

And the reverse, naturally, is also true. Some products, let's say coffee, are redesigning labels and graphics to art gallery standards while their customers mostly want to be able to find them quickly on the shelf and get to the checkout line.

Evidence that some marketers don't really know how shoppers shop can be found in a study based on customers' in-store behavior conducted by Nielsen Customized Research. It surprised even the researchers how out of touch some marketers are. The study, released this summer, was designed to teach food marketers about shoppers' habits by category.

Based on information that NCR has gathered over the years by observing shoppers' body language, the group crafted a survey to establish behavior patterns based on product category. The researchers then overlaid their findings with information (from Nielsen's Retail Measurement division) about how much various product categories spend on discounts and promotions.

The study found that shoppers look for discounts and special offers for canned tuna, canned fruit and pasta sauce, but they want products like cheese, mayonnaise and coffee to be recognizable and easy to find.

For energy drinks and chocolate, shoppers care little about price but want eye-catching ads and snazzy packages. When it comes to salad dressings and chewing gum, they want to try out new products. The purpose of the study is to help food companies fine-tune their marketing strategies around these shopping patterns.

But here's the rub. The study shows that some categories are wasting marketing dollars by misreading the body language and mind-sets of their shoppers. For example, offering discounts will not boost purchases of energy drinks and soda, but beverage makers are still spending fortunes on price promotions, says Manjima Khandelwal, svp of Nielsen Customized Research (which is owned by the same parent company as Adweek.)

To check this out, I took a field trip to my nearby chain supermarket—which has been dolled up to resemble a Whole Foods store—to see for myself. Granted this is only one store, but this chain uses basically the same circulars and discounts at all of its outlets here in California. Sure enough, Monster energy drinks, Gatorade Fitness Water, Coca-Cola and Fresca were all heavily promoting discounted prices. In contrast, Red Bull was the savvy one. It had no discounts but was hyping the heck out of its new sugar-free drink in a fancy can.

Most coffee brands, particularly the new Dunkin' Donuts line, followed the smart path of keeping their logo and package consistent and unmistakable. But then there was Folgers, which uses different colors and designs on each product line and overshadows its brand name with large, empty words such as "Gourmet" and "Simply Smooth."

Perhaps brands like these are out of sync with shoppers because beverage and packaged-goods companies don't devote enough money and manpower to consumer research? Not likely. What it does suggest is what I've always sensed deep down, and maybe you do too. It's that corporate marketing departments—like people—too often hear what they want to hear.

As a result, traditional consumer research is often just an expensive pat on the back to the status quo.

So let's hear it for listening harder and looking for surprises. Body language studies might help, although it's kind of creepy to think of people studying me examining all those packages of chocolate cookies. Consultant Dan Hill told us in an interview last month that studying facial expressions can tell marketers what consumers feel.

Techies swear by the patterns that come from tracking and counting our clicks on the Internet. Many agencies hold client sessions in rooms decorated to look like consumers' homes. Some even host brainstorming meetings in grocery stores. The insights and information are out there, but marketers must be listening. They must be willing to be surprised.

No one wants to act like tuna when they're an energy drink. Are you sure your brand is not falling into that trap? Pay attention. Stop wasting money.

In the meantime, please point me to the coffee aisle; I'm in a hurry.