Putting Products to the Test: Insights from Consumer Product Testing Laboratories

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  1. Introduction

This volume on “Putting Products to the Test” brings together a series of 5 papers on the use of qualitative consumer research, mainly based on projective and enabling techniques, and its relationship to product development and advertising. This issue has rapidly moved to the centre of the practice of new product development in the consumer goods industry. In the last decade, one of the most significant changes in the industry has been the recognition that success in the marketplace depends absolutely on an understanding of consumer behaviour and motivation. This understanding is now seen as the necessary base to the more traditional role of market research in providing information about the marketplace, brand performance, pricing, and distribution. With increasing frequency, major client companies are now seeking to develop a joint understanding of consumers with the agency and the research supplier, rather than commissioning the research to ‘get the answer’ to a tightly defined marketing problem. This new research is often open-ended and exploratory, seeking to identify problems and opportunities which are often as yet unidentified by the client. The first paper by Hawkins tells of an experiment in combining consumer research and product design in the category of audio tape. It examines why research should be important in product development and how the use of research can move from consumer understanding to being an integral part of the design process.

  1. Importance of Consumer Product Testing

Efficacy testing can involve comparing a new product to existing ones in the market or a “gold standard” product to determine if the new product offers an improvement. This type of testing can provide critical information about whether a product will be successful in the market.

Products that have undergone rigorous testing inspire trust and confidence in consumers because of the precautions taken to ensure the product is safe and performs as expected. A product that fails to perform as expected can dismay the consumer and result in loss of market share for the manufacturer.

In order to gather a thorough understanding of product safety and effectiveness, it is necessary to integrate information from a variety of sources using different methods to provide a “weight of the evidence” determination. This approach allows informed decision making and higher confidence in the conclusions reached.

Consumer product testing is a multiphase process that can take days to a few months to complete, depending on the nature of the product. The testing can involve human subjects or laboratory animals, but also employs in vitro methods as the science of toxicology and risk assessment continue to evolve.

Consumer product testing is a scientific investigation that employs various disciplines to determine the safety and efficacy of a particular product. It has been employed by industry for approximately one hundred years to evaluate products before they are brought to market or after consumer complaints suggest the products are not performing effectively.

  1. Types of Consumer Product Testing

“Classical” in-home use tests are a popular format of consumer product testing. Respondents are located in different geographical areas, depending on the research objectives and/or the target market for the product. They can be conducted as single product tests or comparative tests, the latter which will involve some degree of competition with one or more alternative products. An example of the latter is a concept product test, where the product is not yet developed and is described by a concept, which is then compared with currently available products. The respondents are given the product to keep, and are instructed to use or eat it as they normally would, and are then interviewed at a later date usually through mail or phone.

Consumer product testing comes in a variety of formats. Each serves a different function, but all seek information about how customers will respond to a product in the marketplace. Some types of tests involve little more than consumer opinion; most, however, involve rigorous, controlled testing under prescribed conditions. In extensive testing, the environment may be manipulated to simulate product use as closely as possible. More controlled environments are typically simpler tests, while field testing involves offering the product to consumers and observing their behavior. All of these formats of test can be applied to any type of product, but they are particularly crucial for new product categories where the marketer is unsure just what experiences and attributes will attract customers.

  1. Benefits of Consumer Product Testing

Consumer product testing offers a wide array of benefits to manufacturers and retailers. The most obvious benefits are that tests help to minimize the risk of product recalls and protection for the consumer, and help to avoid the costs associated with the launch of a new product that fails. In 2005, there were 206 food product recalls in the UK; Tesco recorded that each incident cost on average £1.62 million. With the average cost of one day being in the region of £800,000, it does not take many product failures to see the benefits of testing. Although cost prevention is a positive result of testing product reliability, the main advantage is to gain a search for quality. This allows for a better understanding of production and the chance to enhance the product. Tests can give an indication of the life expectancy of a product and identify weak areas, allowing failures to be rectified. By investing time and money with an aim to improve a product and prolong its life on the market, product test results can have a big impact on a company’s decision making.

  1. Consumer Product Testing Process

To some people, the process of consumer testing is shrouded in mystery. Sometimes, products are accused of not being tested on the consumer. Most of the time, however, they have been tested quite thoroughly. This usually occurs once R&D has developed a prototype that they feel is closest to reaching the desired attributes. Next, R&D will send the product down to the testing team. It should be noted that the product can be tested at any stage of development. Maybe a product is already on the market and the company would like to know how to make it better compared to the current competition. In this case, they would test whatever is currently on the market that competes with their product.

  1. Key Factors in Consumer Product Testing

What are the key factors in consumer product testing? This captures a recurring question regarding this mode of research and testing and thus anyone that desires to evaluate it. As alluded to at the beginning of this exercise, there is a view that this is a data-driven approach with a scientific quality to it. Inasmuch as much of what goes on is research oriented, it would be inaccurate to label this as part of the natural sciences endeavor. That would elicit visions of laboratories, beakers, Bunsen burners, and white coats. Though that may be accurate for some product tests, e.g. a new food additive, it is certainly not reflective of the marketplace tests. These can involve a simple one-item trial from a field-worker to assess the best way to word a new product claim. The notion that CPD and product testing are indelibly linked is another area of misconceivedness. Advertisements are commonly tested using the Copy Testing service which actually falls into the ad-hoc research phase of the MARKETING MIX. The use of triad or dyad, forced exposure, and open-ended methods of questioning can also be termed a form of research on the effectiveness of a promotional strategy. So there is no straightforward answer to the above question. However, some factors can be mentioned that are more often than not applicable to product research and testing. Ultimately, it is about maintaining the consideration that products do not exist in isolation, but are inextricably linked to the theories and constructs from which they were derived. And it is these constructs or ideas that are being assessed for their relevance and acceptance in today’s day and age. Such knowledge concerning the theoretical links to the product can be considered an internal marketing strength and is tested against competitors’ products and their positioning. The types of test may vary but it is the possession of theories and the measures that are implemented from them that differentiate the tests between two products. This contrasts with research destined for product development where the goal is to form new ideas for new products, essentially going in the reverse direction to CPD. Knowledge of differing product research also affects whether CPD will opt for sage a product from rest and retrieval testing. This requires a product to have changed its marketplace environment and it may need testing to ensure it has not lost ground on its previous position.

  1. Common Tests Conducted in Product Testing Laboratories

Another common test is to determine the levels of any dangerous chemicals or materials that could be found in a product. These can pose an extreme hazard to consumer safety if present in high enough concentrations. If any dangerous substances are found, further tests may be carried out to determine how much of the substance could potentially transfer to the consumer during normal usage of the product. This can be carried out using a variety of different extraction techniques and simulated product usage.

There is a range of chemical tests that a product may be subjected to. One of the most common is to determine the formal composition of a sample. This can then be compared to the composition of the product that should be found in the marketplace. If the compositions do not match (even for a very slight degree), it is an indication that the product is a fake or a grey market product. Determining the composition can be achieved using a variety of analytical techniques such as chromatography (HPLC, GC), mass spectrometry, infrared spectroscopy, and many others.

  1. Understanding Test Results

However, the results are not always clear-cut, and it is sometimes difficult to draw conclusions from them. Complex tests with many variables can produce large quantities of data which can be difficult to assimilate into a clear course of action. In such situations, it is often useful to process the data by conducting a test evaluation, where the test results are compared to known product specifications and a pass/fail judgment made on each specification. This can be a good method of identifying weak areas and can be used to determine the effect of the specification on the overall product performance. In any case with a failed test, it is important to investigate and clearly define the reasons for failure and fully understand the implications on the product and its consumers.

Conclusions derived from the testing exercise can be the most valuable result of all. Even if the thing has failed the test, this provides a focus for further investigation. Very often, products have been of marginal performance and have failed certain tests, but have been passed as a result of a decision that the company can ‘let the product through this time’. In such cases, the product can be significantly improved in identified areas of weakness and post-test consumer appraisal of the product can be monitored against the original test results. This can involve further laboratory-based testing or simple questionnaires; results can prove the value of the developed tests in predicting consumer satisfaction. Where tests have indicated a sound product, the data can provide valuable supportive evidence in advertising claims. All test results are a measure of the quality of the product and can be a tool for uplifting the product to higher standards.

  1. Role of Consumer Product Testing in Quality Assurance

The term quality assurance encompasses all activities and a set of standards to guarantee that the product-making process and the resulting product meet the standards of quality. Meanwhile, the term quality can be interpreted as a measure of the ability of a product or service to meet the needs and expectations of consumers. A high-quality product will give great satisfaction to consumers. It is also worth mentioning that the price of a product is relative to its quality. On the other hand, a lower quality product will disappoint consumers, and if it is of very low quality, it will be equivalent to wasting money. This happens because the term quality is relative to the location where a product or service is released. A high-quality product usually meets its specifications, and the company has considered consumer expectations when making decisions about the product. On the other hand, a lower quality product is a result of ignoring specifications and consumer expectations. Quality assurance for consumer products is no different from other products and services. The only difference lies in the way it is done, which is adapted to the product conditions and the target of quality.

The overall cause for quality assurance is to ensure that product endurance, performance, appearance, and other elements predictably satisfy consumers. Knowing how important product satisfaction is to the consumer, the supplier now focuses on many ways to ensure that their product can give maximum satisfaction to the consumer. One way the supplier will ensure that all raw materials and elements have met their specifications is by employing a certified quality control team. The most important aspect is that the supplier must identify and understand the needs and expectations of consumers towards their product. According to quality assurance theory, an attribute that doesn’t meet the specification is a defect, and any defect must be prevented. In consumer products, defect preventive action can be taken by testing the product before it reaches the hands of the consumer and comparing it to the specifications to ensure that the product meets expectations.

  1. Consumer Product Testing Regulations and Standards

Regulations and standards are developed with the aim of safeguarding consumers’ safety and interests to prevent them from harm, injury, or exploitation. This is achieved by specific requirements that reduce identified hazards and risks associated with products and through attempts to educate consumers as to the risks and benefits of different products. A form of cost-benefit analysis is often employed to compare the likely costs to industry in meeting a standard with the expected benefits to consumers. This may involve wearing apparel to see how flammable it is. When the proposed regulation has some market implications, data will be collected to quantify these predicted consequences to inform a final decision on the standard.

Consumer product regulations and standards specify the technical, safety, or labeling requirements that must be met by a product before it can be offered for sale. This may include a ban on the product, specific safety criteria that products must meet, requirements for product testing, or the need to affix a label to the product. It is usual for regulations to be enforced through the surveillance of products on the market and to stipulate legal consequences for businesses that do not comply with the regulations.

Regulations and standards for consumer product testing are developed by many different organizations at the international, regional, and national level. The responsibility for developing regulations for consumer products is predominantly the responsibility of the consumer affairs, trading standards, and health and safety ministries of governments. However, these organizations may collaborate with industry, consumer groups, or international partners in the development of regulations.

  1. Challenges in Consumer Product Testing

Problem two is that testing results can directly affect the competitive market or political situation into which it was unwise or impossible to intervene. Having infiltrated a culture dominated by post hoc litigation, testing scientists are finding themselves tied to potentially disruptive findings leading to the previously rare scientist’s duty of facing court testimony. Consider the case of a prior CPSC attempted warning rule for infant nightwear not meeting flammability standards where the proposal met persuasive counter litigation by the industry. Although CPSC won the battle the litigation forced reconsideration and weak product standards in light of new test data showing serious potential benefits. This prompted another industry lawsuit leading to a recent (1997) CPSC ultimate failure in defending this regulation before a US federal appellate court. An earlier successful court defense of a 1994 OSHA standard reducing workers permissible exposure levels to cotton dust which causes byssinosis was followed by an industry lobbyist supported congressional repeal. This type of situation calls into question whether safer products would exist today had the test information never been sought.

There are several obstacles in conducting consumer product testing and several paradoxes and tensions besetting the industry. The first problem is that, as noted in the previous chapter, lay people see scientists as a partial source of pure information in a world of spin and deception. Yet the more earnestly scientists attempt to test and to inform, the more liable they are to be accused of bias by actors on the side of individual markets or partisan causes. For if scientists question the safety and effectiveness of a product, instituting a consumer comparative test with an untreated control group, this act itself can be portrayed by industry and anti-regulatory partisans as an unfair and biased attempt to discredit the product and thereby influence policies adverse to the industry. A two-year attempt by the FDA National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR) to test the potential toxicity of genetically engineered tomatoes illustrates the point. Although the study was never completed and the partial results were conflicts requiring further testing, various consumer, environmental and public interest groups claimed the NCTR was acting beyond its authorized role and was attempting to discredit the product. Conversely, had NCTR not been bothered by the industry’s earlier attempts at un-peer-reviewed spin control of the data during the tomatoes development, the research would have suggested the potential toxicology of the product was not even worth assessing.

  1. Emerging Trends in Consumer Product Testing

Understanding that new products are the lifeblood of companies, the emerging trend of ‘innovation’ product testing has evolved, and is aimed at creating a bridge between manufacturers and their customers through understanding the wants and needs of consumers in target market areas. By conducting investigational research in a realistic competitive environment, manufacturers are able to test concepts or actual products and measure their trial and repeat purchase potential. This type of testing provides vital feedback information and enables changes to be made on issues that can avoid costly failures in the full launch of a new product. Stephenson claims that taking a fail fast, fail cheap approach is an essential means of minimizing risk in the new product development process. Consumer learning studies can also use products as a medium to test alternative methods for changing consumer behavior.

Today, products vie for consumer preference, and it is understood that performance is not always the attribute which drives the purchase decision. Schwartz stated that the quality of a product is not an absolute, its value to the purchaser is specific. This concept is parallel to Fishbein’s expectancy-value model. Measures of perceived quality are based upon the consumer’s beliefs or expectations. A product failing to meet given specifications is considered to be of low quality, while one that exceeds standards is of high quality. Unfortunately, adherence to general quality specifications has led to many ‘me-too’ products – products which have been developed on the basis of an existing item’s success, and aim to cash in by taking sales from the said item. In today’s fast-paced market, new product success on the whole is declining. High-profile failures such as ‘clear cola’ exemplify the 35-45% failure rate of new consumer packaged goods.

Emerging trends in consumer product testing – The role of the consumer product testing laboratory is closely associated with the development of the marketing concept; production-oriented era products were sold solely on the basis of function. With the shift in focus from producing to marketing, and the heightened sophistication of products which has been fostered through technology – has come the need for greater understanding of the consumer, and the way in which they drive market force. Hence, the original concepts of simple product comparison – putting brands head-to-head, checking functional and safety aspects of the product or verifying advertising claims – have shifted.

  1. Case Studies: Successful Product Testing Stories

Vyotech Nutritionals conducted a successful ergogenic aid supplement test using a placebo and double-blind procedure. The test was to compare their new supplement to the leading brand and determine if it increased weight lifting performance in bench press and leg press. The sample population were all regular weightlifters. Using randomly assigned groups, baseline measurements taken for the sample population, and a defined treatment, the research method was extremely accurate and well controlled. The study showed no significant difference between the new product and the leading brand. Waiting a period in which nearly every brand of supplements changed their packaging, Vyotech designed another test as it was realized that the general consumer is falsely identifying supplements by the packaging and not the product. This test was a complete waste as the supplement was compared to an identical-looking placebo. Forgetting what the results may be, it violated the defined treatment and produced no real comparison. The study was repeated with success after when the defined treatment was correctly exercised.

Johnson and Johnson successfully tested a new lotion formula by using central location placement tests. This type of test is where subjects are asked to visit a facility in which the product is used or compared to others. This allows consumers to give their honest opinions as they are not influenced by store employees and are not required to use the product for a fixed period of time. In this study, the product was compared to the existing formula and a competitor. The response was overwhelming. The test was stopped prematurely as there was almost no competition. The subjects stated that the new formula was cool ‘in temperature’ and ‘in appearance’ and its ‘slip’ was better than the other lotions. An overwhelming percentage said that they would change to the new product if it were available.

Examples of successful product tests from various companies reinforce the effectiveness of a systematic approach. A product testing program that is set up logically and is well supported has a significantly increased chance for success. 3M, for example, set out to test a new plastic clip for a construction industry customer. The customer had previously bought metal clips that rusted, then stained his product. 3M tested all the plastic clip competitors the customer was considering. It appeared that the 3M product was equal in the tests, but the real breakthrough came when one of the competitors’ clips rusted during an internal re-test. This, in itself, was a successful test for a customer who did not want any staining in his product. The 3M clip was picked up and tested with the same result. Implied use testing is a very important step in this process because it was only at this point that 3M showed the customer that the only way rust was introduced was when it had been scraped on the product’s metal steer form in the manufacturing process. Immediately after the customer changed the steer to a plastic alternative, the clips were re-tested, and it was confirmed that there was no rusting.

  1. Future of Consumer Product Testing

With public awareness being a catalyst for the push to safer consumer products, a variety of consumer product testing findings may become more transparent and easily accessible to the public. This would serve to inform consumers about the safety and performance of products on the market and allow them to make more educated purchases. One notion stands certain, and it is that the future holds a very high value for consumer safety and the quality of products that line the shelves today.

Putting a more effective system in place, it would be beneficial for there to be more widely available standards for various consumer products and simulated usage tests for these products. This would allow for a more level playing field amongst manufacturers and would serve to further protect consumers by ensuring that all products are tested to a certain benchmark, as well as continuing to work out the faults and limits of current products. This can be seen as a step in the right direction, as the amount of self-regulated testing in consumer products is quite extensive.

Change is a word that translates to reflect one of the most common ideals and goals for the future. In the consumer product testing industry, change is necessary and crucial in order to adapt to the constant evolution and innovation of consumer products. As it stands, a variety of consumer products are either exempt from regulations or are not subject to adherence to safety and performance standards in their respective categories. This poses an issue as self-regulated product testing tends to favor the manufacturer, often forcing them to test their product to a lesser extent in order to save money.

  1. Conclusion

Consumer test results need to be precise and reliable. To do this, consumers should only use the latest technology and expert professionals. An example of this would be a radiolabel study done to ensure that the antacid product Gaviscon is the best solution to acid reflux. This has to be done with the latest technology because other tests that were done, e.g., comparing the Alka-Seltzer and Gaviscon radiolabel study, were inconclusive. This was because the technology available during the Alka-Seltzer test was not advanced enough to see if the product was a solution to the prognosis of acid reflux.

In conclusion, consumer testing is important because companies need to see how people view their products and if they are worth bringing to the market. There are many ways for a company to test their products, and the more ways they are tested, the better understanding the company will have of its products. If the company takes the time to test their products and make sure they are safe and effective, then the consumers can benefit greatly. This article shows how by testing products, you can see which is the best and most effective solution to a health/emergency situation. Overall, the importance of testing products is to ensure that consumers get the best possible product/solution that will improve their standard of living.

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