One of the biggest pastimes in consumer-goods marketing is to tinker with the packaging. Nowadays, this sort of trivial pursuit has been upgraded to “innovation” and “branded experience.” And Hillshire Brands’ recent experience shows how the best tinkering can be no tinkering at all.
About a year ago, someone somewhere deep in the bowels of Hillshire’s marketing or R&D department thought it would be a good idea to hop on the “authenticity” and “transparency” bandwagons. He or she created a clear lid to sit on deli meat packaging.
A little customer research “proved” that this was the way to go, so in February of this year Hillshire rolled out the new covers.
Sales of Hillshire lunchmeat plummeted.
Executives reversed course, and put back a solid lid, in fire-engine red. Sexy as hell, consumers couldn’t miss it from a mile away, and now Hillshire’s lunchmeat sales are growing like bacteria on a slice of old turkey breast.
Given the new affinity for “failure” in today’s business world, we are certain everyone involved in the Hillshire lidgate has been promoted at least two levels. But there is some serious learning to be done here.
“While consumers consistently articulated a preference for the clear lid in numerous quantitative tests, their actual purchase behavior noticeably changed when we made the switch,” said Hillshire CEO Sean Connolly this past summer, during a quarterly earnings call.
The reference to “quantitative” suggests that Hillshire did some online paneling, showing a picture of each package-lid combo to hundreds of people hunched over a computer screen and asking which one they would prefer. The survey also most likely asked leading questions such as “Which lid gives you a better sense of the freshness of the meat?” etc. etc.
We’ll bet there were also focus groups, a research method that has outlived its usefulness. Imagine ten people around a conference room table being coaxed to understand the nuances of “our new packaging innovation.” Within fifteen minutes, all ten people will have been convinced the clear lid is the way to go.
All Hillshire Brands had to do to avoid this expensive mistake was to run a pilot in one or more test markets. It was that simple.
Marketing is a blend of art and science. Online, quantitative surveys and focus groups are two methods to ensure you strip the art part out, completely.