Editor's note: Based in Portland, Ore., Steve August is chief innovations officer at research firm FocusVision.
The snacking market is huge. Worldwide, it is worth $300 billion in revenue and is expected to exceed $380 billion by 20171. It is driven by consumer trends, the biggest of which is healthy eating. Since 2004, the number of consumers categorized as healthy snackers has grown from 29 million to 41 million2. But the landscape is competitive, saturated with brands such as Special K.
With this, and the knowledge that the average size of U.S. grocery stores is declining3 in mind, Mondelez Canada set out to launch Potato Thins – a low-calorie, baked, potato-based “cracker chip” savory snack – in the U.S. The Potato Thins are packaged in a resealable pouch, differentiating the product and allowing the consumer to consume small portions of the 115g bag at a time.
Mondelez Canada wanted to determine where its Potato Thins should be placed in a store. “After extensive research on our part, we had eight or nine potential areas in mind. We really needed to narrow this down and validate our own theories,” says Rob McEvoy, shopper insights manager at Mondelez Canada.
A study was conducted by research agency Fresh Intelligence using FocusVision's digital qualitative platform Revelation Next. The platform facilitates research “in the moment” and provides a highly interactive interface, similar to social media – an environment this audience is comfortable with. It allowed participants to contribute their in-store experience as well as respond in real time to questions and tasks set by the research team.
Shoppers’ logic and motivations
The key issue for Mondelez was to uncover shoppers’ logic and motivations when it comes to in-store navigation and healthy snacking. So it chose to use mobile qualitative research, as it allows researchers to access consumer behaviors in-store, in the moment. This was important, as when it comes to shopping and healthy snacking, decisions are often unconscious and profoundly irrational, meaning that shoppers are unable to iden-tify different drivers when questioned. By accessing behaviors in-store as they happened, researchers could analyze the shoppers’ decisions before they analyzed them themselves.
“We needed real in-store scope for this project. Humans are notoriously bad at recalling what they did five minutes ago, let alone what they did on their last grocery run,” says McEvoy, adding that he feels a focus group or interview would have been less powerful because of their artificial constructions. “Connecting with consumers through mobile ensured the insight obtained was truly unobtrusive and genuine. As using mobile and interacting with it is a part of everyday life – 79 percent of adult smartphone users have their phones with them 22 hours a day – using a mobile app to communicate was natural for participants.”
In military slang, “ground truth” describes the reality of a situation as opposed to what intelligence reports and mission plans assert that reality to be. In a research context, being on-location and in-person with consumers can be time-consuming and expensive, making it rare that researchers can truly establish ground truth. But smartphones and mobile qualitative research have changed that. We can now be there whenever and wherever key behaviors happen.
Here are five ways mobile qualitative can be used to access the ground truth of consumer behaviors:
Usage diaries. These focus on how a consumer interacts with a particular object: a phone, an appliance, food, etc. The data capture is around the moment of use – the what, when, where, why and specifics of the use. For example, a diary of a day at an amusement park is a usage diary on how the consumer is using the park.
Spotter diaries. This is about capturing people’s encounters with things out in the world (brands, categories, advertising, etc.), to understand the presence of them in a person’s life in context. An example of a spotter diary would be to have participants post a picture and a description of where they encountered Apple on a given day.
Process/purchase diaries. These focus on a single, significant purchase decision that evolves over time. When someone makes a big purchase decision, they go through a process: they do research, talk to their friends, see ads, go to stores. This path unfolds over time and you need the whole narrative to understand the behaviors.
Behavior diaries. These are open-ended explorations and focus on a topic. For example, a hair care diary could encompass tools, consumables and going to a salon or barber. The goal is to get the whole picture of consumer behaviors around the topic.
Mini documentaries. Having participants create a mini documentary is an effective way to capture something about themselves or a specific activity. This mini documentary activity is split into three video uploads. This keeps things focused and brief, which benefits participants, and researchers, in organizing the videos for reporting. This can be adapted for process and activities, environments, and “getting to know you” activities.
A community of shoppers
For the Mondelez project, the study unfolded over a period of five days, involved over 1,000 interactions and collected over 700 images. Figure 1 shows an outline of the study. The Revelation Next platform allowed re-searchers back in their offices to moderate a community of shoppers who could then partake in activities to help uncover a deeper understanding of logic and motivations.
While the technology and interface of mobile qual tools mimic what people expect out in the social Web, there are important differences in the context of the community that greatly impact how people engage. When people join social networks or forums on the Web it is because they are brought together by a commonality – whether it’s an interest or a network of friends. However, participants in this study were strangers in an artificial environment with no pressing information or networking needs – and they needed to be put at ease. So, we started with an opportunity for them to interact, tasking participants with introducing us to the “typical them,” encouraging them to be comfortable with the app and interacting with it from the outset.
After welcoming and sharing a little about themselves, we wanted to identify what consumers define as healthy and unhealthy snacks, so the researchers asked participants to categorize them. Unsurprisingly, snacks which are overprocessed, high in fat, carbs, salt and sugar were considered unhealthy. But almost all participants recognized that there is a time and a place for these snacks, such as “in the evening,” “when I have a craving for snacks” or “when watching a movie or sports.” Healthy snacks were characterized as low in fat, sugar and salt; unprocessed; low in calories; with high nutritional value and gluten-free. Consumers said that healthy snacks are more likely to be consumed earlier in the day: “in the morning,” “before or after exercise” or “as a substitute for cookies” but also to “kill” the craving for chocolate.
This activity helped Mondelez to understand what else falls into the baskets of those on the hunt for healthy snacks.
We then sent participants on a “snack safari,” asking them to record their shops by taking photos on their mobile. During this exercise, consumers showed two distinct behaviors when shopping for snacks: They were either hunting or browsing.
When hunting, consumers tended to ignore signage, as they knew which aisles to head for. When browsing, participants went up and down the aisles of the store gathering the items they needed, also keeping an eye out for new items. This most often happened during a larger weekly shop. It was also more common in stores where healthy snacks are interspersed amongst regular snacks. One participant noted, “Unless I am visiting a grocery store with a single purchase in mind, I normally just go up and down all the aisles. However, if I’m trying to avoid the unhealthy snack options, I’ll just avoid the chip aisle and save myself from the temptation.” This demonstrated that the chip aisle would be a bad location for Potato Thins, as shoppers who were trying to be healthy avoided it altogether.
This activity also found that most stores do not have signage that indicates “natural” or “healthy” products but when they do, shoppers went to those sections when looking for healthy snacks.
Chip aisle or cracker aisle?
Only after sending participants on their snack safari did we introduce them to the Potato Thins product. We asked whether they thought it should be placed in the chip or cracker aisle and the majority of participants picked the cracker aisle. One participant said, “I could see them in the snack food area, close to the chips. However, I would likely miss purchasing them, as I tend to avoid going down that aisle as it’s too tempting and not healthy. So, I suppose that it would be better to merchandise them close to the crackers.” We also concluded that the bag may look out of place on the chip aisle due to its size. One participant said, “The size of the package is quite small, so if you wanted to serve these rather than regular chips you would have to purchase quite a number of packages.” A minority of participants thought that Potato Thins should be found in the chip aisle; others thought that they should be placed in either or in the snack aisle.
The study concluded that the cracker aisle was the best location for Potato Thins. This was not only because people actively avoided the chip aisle when looking for healthy snacks but also because the pouch packaging stood out among crackers and the small size didn’t feel as important when not being compared to giant chip bags.
1 Companies and Markets, Snack Foods – Global Strategic Business Report 2012.
2 Packaged Facts, Crackers: U.S. Market Trends.
3 Food Marketing Institute, Key Industry Facts (www.fmi.org/research-resources/supermarket-facts/median-total-store-size-square-feet).