5 Consumer Research Tools & What They Tell You

As we dive into a new year, we’re advising the brands we work with to make bold yet highly calculated moves for growth. Revisit your retail strategy. Upgrade your product formulations. And reach for new audiences.

Finding new consumers — without losing meaningful numbers of your longtime fans — may seem like the biggest hurdle to food, beverage, and wellness brand leaders. Why? Because you know your current audience. You understand their needs, attitudes, patterns, why they buy, how much they’ll pay, how they talk about your brand to their friends.

New consumers are like strangers on the dance floor.

And you need to not only find them, but also understand their needs, attitudes, patterns, and so on. That’s where consumer research is useful. So if you’re going to identify them and figure them out, let’s look at the different research tools you have at your disposal.

Data Types for Food & Wellness Brands

Most consumer research tells you about the current state of your brand and the people who buy your products.

Syndicated research

This is the most basic. Syndicated reports use data gathered within specific geographic markets to give you some insight into the mind of the consumer. The most commonly used syndicated research providers in the CPG space are Mintel, Ipsos, and Pew Research Center, which provide data on geography, market size, category leaders, and general demographic and psychographic information on consumers shopping the category.

SPINS (focused on the natural channel) and IRI (covering conventional grocery channel, MULO, and Club) are largely used as subscriptions by brand owners to track sales volumes per week at the national level. The advantage is that you know who is leading the category and how your brand ranks in terms of share of dollars and velocity at the store level.

Nielsen and Numerator offer consumer data collected by surveying people through consumer panels or apps where users answer questions and provide information about their purchases. This research goes beyond demographics and sales data to help marketers understand who’s buying their products (and their competitors’). Marketers can buy adhoc reports or subscribe to a never-ending stream of real-time data — which can be helpful but requires a full-time employee to mine and distill it.

Layering retail data on top of consumer data gives you a view to your brand’s performance within the competitive set. And basket affinity — what products consumers buy in addition to or instead of your products — can be important information as you look to build your audience.

On top of the raw numbers, research companies try to help marketers interpret what they mean. The intel you get, depending on the category, is based on primary school-level survey questions; because the data is pretty simplistic, the analysis can sometimes be right and sometimes wildly off.

Companies like Nielsen and Numerator also offer customers access to their databases to slice and dice in all kinds of cool ways. If you’re a data geek, this will be your jam. But there are limitations to what this kind of data can tell you. You’re only hearing from consumers who’ve opted into the survey or panel (and they may or may not be your target audience). Also, the companies’ algorithms ultimately determine the data that’s presented to you. This can be interesting but not necessarily insightful.

Usage & Attitude (U&A) studies

These research options give you a picture of how consumers interact with your brand. Who uses your products? How do they use them? U&A research typically involves surveying your existing audience by email or online (using tools like Survey Monkey or GutCheck). It’s a great way to have a conversation with your buyers, and if they are stark-raving fans they’ll likely do it gladly.

We’re fans of this kind of research, but with a caveat: Because you’re talking to people who favor your brand, it’s kind of an echo chamber. U&A studies can reinforce your brand team’s existing biases and perceptions. A smart research partner can help you find the right people to survey (including, critically, people who stopped buying your products) and the right questions to ask.

Segmentation studies

These are helpful because customer segmentation alone often doesn’t provide enough input to properly inform marketing strategy and tactics. To ensure segments are distinct, sizable, and actionable you’ll need more information. A more meaningful way to approach it is to not only understand who your audience is (demographics), but learn what they do (behaviors), and probe into why they do it (psychographics). Tools like Suzy, Nielsen NPOWER, and others help you include psychographics in your segmentation, to incorporate attitudes, aspirations, values, and emotions to identify segments based on lifestyle, personality traits, opinions, beliefs, and interests.

Trend reports

Published by organizations like New Hope and Mintel, these are written by experts who follow specific categories and markets closely. We love them and have used them for years, but because they’re so popular now and so many out there are written by less savvy, less expert sources, we’re really selective about using them. Consumer trends can inform your product innovation work by showing what kinds of ingredients, eating patterns, and flavor profiles will be popular in the next year. Trend forecasters take existing consumer preferences and behaviors and try to project forward what they’ll like and do in the future.

Proprietary research

This customized option allows marketers to directly connect the dots between consumers and their brands. Using providers like Nielsen Bases, GutCheck, and Survey Monkey, you can quickly query consumers (both current and prospective) about initiatives you have in the works like new products or new positioning: “This is what we’re trying to do, would you buy it for $4.99?” For more complicated asks, you can move into consumer-led testing (focus groups) and in-home testing. At this high level, you can develop samples or prototypes and have people take them home and use them and tell you what they think.

Custom research yields a lot of meaningful information: Their interest in your product, feelings about your brand, intent to purchase, flavor preferences, price they’re willing to pay.

Love the Data, Beware of the Data

We love data. We use data. We have thoughts on data.

The first problem we see with consumer research is confirmation bias. Most research is backward-looking and includes current customers. So brand leaders often feel smart when they look at data because it confirms what they already know about the people they already know.

The second biggest problem we see is that brands get bogged down in data. They have too much information, or it’s spread out and hidden among business units. Which is a lot like having no data at all.

Problem number three is that marketers often rely on outdated research. You can’t use 2018 data to understand how a post-pandemic consumer thinks. Data is like house guests or fish: leave it around too long and it starts to smell funny.

But the biggest problem even market-leading brands have with consumer research is that they flat-out avoid it. There’s always a risk that when you ask consumers what they want, they don’t want your products. But you should not fear bad news. Bad news points to opportunity. And you can take action toward that opportunity.

By itself, research is just a bunch of numbers. It can offer you clues, but it’s like buying a vowel on Wheel of Fortune: You still have to solve the puzzle.

It takes expertise and nerve and vision to look at data and fill in the blank spots. You have to decide where the clues lead you. Do you triple down on what you know or go to a new space? Do you stop investing dollars in an aging audience? Find new people in a different income bracket?

The real power of consumer research emerges when you gain clusters of insight within all the spreadsheets. It takes a strategic mindset among your team to translate and respond to data. Ignoring data would be foolish—but knowing what to do with it, that’s the magic.Unsure about what data you have, what you need, or how to interpret it? That’s our specialty. Let’s talk.

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Founder, President, & Chief Strategist
David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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