Market Research: The Customer Is Not Always Right
So, what went wrong? Coke speculates that even though customers did indeed like the taste of New Coke, they failed to take into account the emotional ties to the original brand. In those moments of testing, they were solely focused on the taste of the new product. It wasn’t until customers had to make actual choices while shopping that they realized they no longer felt connected with the brand.
Coke went about product development in the “right” way. They used their expertise to develop a new formula, they tested the new formula on the consumer and they released what the customer said they wanted. Unfortunately, the customer was wrong. What else could Coke have done in order to ensure a more successful launch?
While Coke was on the right track with testing, they conducted their tests in unrealistic settings. When purchasing beverages at the grocery store, most consumers go in knowing what they want, though packaging, pricing and spur-of-the-moment preference changes can affect the final decision. Coke tested its new product in a blind A/B format against its original flavor. This hardly mimics the multisensory environment in which true purchase decisions are made. So, unless Coke was planning to sell its new product to crowds of blindfolded customers in laboratories, with no other choices at hand, there was an immediate problem.
That testing problem could have been solved by conducting a limited rollout of New Coke in select markets. Today, many food and beverage companies do exactly that. Pringles tests dozens of new, even avant garde (mmm...bacon caesar salad), flavors in various markets before deciding on a nationwide rollout.
In the end, even in highly competitive industries, companies are better off testing actual sales of products in a natural setting (e.g., a grocery store), than basing product choices on statistically sound clinical tests. Consumers are a fickle bunch. Motivations, preferences and brand loyalties can shift quickly — and without clear rationale. That is why smart brands meet customers where they are — without disrupting the normal purchase process — to test new products and assess likely success or failure on the only thing that matters to their companies: sales.