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Getting to NO
Listen closely when consumers reject your product
and you could hear opportunity knocking
.
by Barry Feig

Okay, the lights have just dimmed. You're gnawing on a carrot stick and tensely picking "faux" bacon bits from your potato salad while staring through an eerily lit one-way mirror at ten strange women, who may be hiding from the truth because tape recorders and video cameras are picking up every one of their sounds and nuances.

Twilight Zone?

Police line-up?

No. Focus Group!

And these ten specially chosen women don't like your product at all. Not at all. Neither did the earlier 1:00 group. And in the darkness of your back room encampment, you grope for a pen and start rewriting your resume.

But fear not, because consumer rejection is a vital part of the new product development process. Whether it's in a focus room or a one-on-one interview, rejection is to be encouraged. If you don't get rejections, you're simply not experimenting, working hard enough, or expanding the creative envelope. You're being held captive to your own judgment and preconceived ideas and you're going to pay at test market time. If you don't build on rejection you're also apt to throw away a good idea. Building on rejection is the optimum way to refine your product and, just as important, your consumer sales pitch.

I was part of the team that helped create the hugely successful Glad Lock Bags (the yellow and blue seal becomes green). The focus group scenario after the first two groups was exceedingly glum. In demonstration after demonstration, the consumer thought she was being taken for a dolt. This is not a good way to build a loyal market. Almost every woman unanimously and vituperatively rejected the product.

So we went back and licked our wounds. We remembered hearing one woman saying that she thought the product was ridiculous but she wished she could find a way to get her husband to wrap up foods. We came back with the following positioning:

"The bag that's so simple, even husbands and kids get it right every time." To consumers, the product was no longer ridiculous. It was truly meaningful. The new positioning which allowed consumers to rationalize the gimmick, struck an immediate chord with them. Just a minor change of positioning overcame the years of lead time enjoyed by Dow Brands' Ziploc.

The point is, if we didn't get rejected we would not have developed the strategy that worked so well.

American Express used focus groups to boil down 25o new product ideas to five and created a department and profit center in a span of two weeks, listening closely as consumers jettisoned one idea after another.

A strong "no" is much better than a weak "yes". Good restaurateurs will tell you the worst kind of customer is one who dines agreeably, leaves, and never returns. The progressive restaurateur builds from what the dissatisfied customer says (as well as the regular customer) and fixes what's wrong. You can get a pretty good feel for how a new product will do by the intensity of dislike, as well as for its top box research scores.

The president of Dormans Cheese Company, an East Coast manufacturer and distributor (now Dorman-Roth), sat in stunned disbelief as one group after another ripped his cheese, his company's advertising, and his company. No report could have communicated what he learned by sitting in back of the one-way mirror. But he learned. He repackaged and repositioned his product, renaming it Deli Singles. Even though he also increased his price, he doubled his sales.

Every rejection should lead to an insight, and therefore an improvement in your product or positioning. Remember, if you polarize people with your new product idea, at least you know you have a segment that will strongly want your product.

Negative insights (our euphemism for a bad idea) can be a hidden roadmap to a winning new product idea. Rejections are the signpost of new product directions, telling you how far you can stray off the main road and point toward the consumer.

Staying flexible and making adjustments is key. Negative feedback in focus groups is important as positive feedback (lukewarm acceptance is the worst). Ideas that are discarded by consumers show companies possible pitfalls, prevent marketing pratfals, and point out things to avoid. They give companies the raw materials of consumer viewpoints on which to structure a successful product or ad.

It's these insights into consumer reaction that allow marketing breakthroughs to be achieved. American Express's Gift Cheques, Union Carbide's Glad Lock Bags, Arm & Hammer's baking-soda-in-the-refrigerator concept came alive after being initially rejected by consumers. As marketers we live in ivory towers. Rejection -- no matter how much it hurts -- brings us down to earth.

Barry Feig, president of the New Products Workshop has helped launch products for the likes of PepsiCo, Colgate Palmolive, and American Express.

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Barry Feig: feig@barryfeig.com
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