The better-for-you food and beverage categories — indeed, the wider consumer packaged goods marketplace — have shown repeatedly that consumer preferences change unpredictably. And those changes happen more quickly today than even five years ago. For marketing and growth executives, that means simply buying and reading the latest trends report is no longer enough to maintain a competitive advantage.
Marketers and CGOs are tasked with getting more done and having a higher success rate than ever. So they need tools and teammates that work.
Data is important, but anyone can get data. Trends are important, but anyone can buy a trend report. Real opportunity lies at the intersection of the two, along with a competitive and category audit conducted through the lens of your brand’s culture and team dynamics. Information plus analysis equals actionable, category-exploding insight.
Do you have a spidey sense that the market may be shifting right under your feet? Worry that your brand may not be keeping up?
Let’s look at ways to verify or disprove those hunches, and how to act on what you learn to drive business results.
Signs Your Old Assumptions are Incorrect
First of all, your instinct is correct: The market is shifting constantly. Consumers are fickle, even those who are super loyal to your brand and choose your products every time.
Brands can get away with coasting on old assumptions and tactics for a while. But eventually, you’ll begin to see signs that you’re missing market shifts that impact your results. Maybe that award-winning new packaging design system didn’t boost velocity. That massive ad spend didn’t pay off. Social media engagement isn’t translating to real-world sales. (We’ve kinda heard it all.)
So leaders think, “Hmm, this didn’t work the way we thought. It didn’t disrupt our competitors or gain net new customers.” They begin to question their thinking and to recognize that the issue lies up-funnel from creative expression. There’s something much more human going on in the market.
How can you make better hypotheses about your brand positioning and product offering that account for those shifts? How can your brand thrive in a world that keeps proving to us that forecasting what’s coming is impossible?
Consumer Data is Only the Start
Begin by understanding where and how to get (and keep) the pulse of your industry beyond SPINS and IRI data. Market data are backward-facing views of the market; they don’t predict future consumer demand. (Plus, everyone in your category has access to the same data.)
A competitive brand traction audit is a good place to start. Different from a category audit (which focuses on how your brand stacks up to others in your retail set), a competitive audit surveys the full landscape of the consumer’s life your brand lives in. It examines what else a consumer might spend their dollars on if not on your products. Would they buy a snack for their kids instead of buying your product for themselves? Buy a high-end skincare product instead of your nutritional supplement?
Our competitive audit often starts with purchased category and demographic data. Then we benchmark the brand against seven key marketing disciplines to understand how it succeeds, or doesn’t. (Interested in learning more about these seven factors? My book Beloved & Dominant Brands dives deep into them.) This rigorous examination often reveals problems brand leaders didn’t know they had and opportunities they didn’t know to look for.
Know When to Trust Your Gut
Even the veteran CPG marketers we work with can start to lose confidence in their own decision making over time, because the tactics they know and trust start to fail. So they hedge. They and their teams overthink consumer testing and design studies to verify their own point of view. They rely too heavily on data, become paralyzed, and take way too long to make decisions.
Trusting your gut can be useful, especially in highly uncertain circumstances where gathering more data and analysis simply will not change the evidence. When your team is tasked with creating the next new horizon for your brand, too much data can become debilitating.
So how do you learn to build the “trust your gut” muscle?
First, understand the type of problem at hand and be candid about the level of unknowability. Consider this: A true category disruption (for example, determining a new category or ingredient or seeing when dietary trend will become a real opportunity) comes with a higher degree of unknowability than line extending a successful product in pursuit of incremental growth. Routine brand evolutions are typically based upon high probability of success with clear and minimized risks.
By contrast, when you’re reaching for an audacious goal with a high degree of unknowability, attempting to reassure your decision making with consumer testing and data gathering beyond what’s readily available is unrealistic and damaging. Not only does this overanalysis delay important decisions, but all the second-guessing can also demoralize your team.
Next, understand the corporate cultural context. If your company values charts and graphs, KPIs, mental models and canvases, by all means use those to emphasize what can be known (for example, stage-gate methodology and execution planning).
Then you can better explain known, vs. unknowable decisions that need to be made and speak about the areas that require gut instinct. And then agree to respect using your gut as another input based upon the myriad of experiences that, in addition to the available KPIs and research available, have gotten you here. When you’re confident in your brand promise — its mission to right a wrong or serve the consumer in a meaningful way — then data should verify, not make, your decisions.
Your brand strategy tells you who you are. A competitive audit shows you where opportunity lies. And data says, “yep” to your decisions.
With that trio of inputs, your team can act in an entrepreneurial fashion. Your innovation process will be more focused and product launches more successful. Your organization will be more nimble and less beholden to the way you’ve always done things.
One closing note about consumer data: When we’re advising food and beverage brand leaders, sometimes we know we’re on the right track because there’s no data there. A lack of consumer research or syndicated reports can indicate there’s a huge opportunity that’s ready to explode.
That’s when we know we’re onto something.
If you have a hunch that an opportunity is ripe for the taking and you’d like us to help verify your thinking, let’s start a conversation.