My Marketing Thing

Blink and the trouble with market research

Coke and Pepsi cartoon

I always thought Coke and Pepsi tasted pretty much the same.  

When I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Blink – The Power of Thinking without Thinking‘ I realised just how close they once were – but are not anymore. All because of the roller coaster ride Coke took with market testing.

In my previous post about market testing your promotional concept, we looked at the different popular approaches people take to market test their business names or logo designs – without spending thousands on a market research


The Market Research Challenge

In ‘Blink’ we see The Coca-Cola Company spending rather a lot on a market research agency in the early 1980s.  Why?  Because that is what large companies tend to do.  But the early 1980s was particularly active for The Coco-Cola Company.  Pepsi was slowly but surely edging in on their market share.  Then Pepsi’s sales began increasing significantly when they launched the advertising campaign called ‘The Pepsi Challenge’.

The Coca-Cola Company launched into full-scale market research on the matter. Naturally, their testing was focused on comparing Coke to Pepsi. A sample group of dedicated Coke drinkers took a blind taste test sipping each brand.  The majority picked Pepsi as their preferred drink.

‘Eeek!’ said The Coca-Cola Company.

Additional tests were carried out and the same results occurred. Pepsi was associated with ’rounded’ and ‘smooth’, while Coke’s bite was now being described as ‘harsh’.  As a response, Coke released ‘New Coke’ – a sweeter cola, much like Pepsi.


The disaster

The New Coke sat on the shelves. The product launch was a failure, that much was certain. But The Coca-Cola Company couldn’t work out why.  All the testing indicated great success for The New Coke.

The problem with the market testing was that many people found Pepsi nice to sip but were not so partial to drinking a whole can. So – for all the expertise enlisted and money spent – the way testing process was carried out was fundamentally flawed.  Taste testing is fine.  How you taste test is another thing.


A note about focus group failings 

Malcolm Gladwell also cites the focus group failing of successful television shows  All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Focus Groups are people gathered by market research companies to talk openly and honestly about how they feel about a particular product(s) presented to them.  This is called ‘qualitative’ research.  Qualitative research is not designed to find out how many people feel a certain way, but to dig deeper – to discover ‘why’ and ‘how’.

The third episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (created by The West Wing‘s Aaron Sorkin) has in its first scene television network President, Jordan McDeere, pointing out how lousy focus groups are at determining success – listing SeinfeldHill Street Blues and (once again) All in The Family as focus group failures. Apparently all these show really did bomb in the focus group tests.


What’s the real problem?

Unfortunately these television show examples have led to high-level criticism of the focus group process.  But, like the Coke example, it is not necessarily the testing model that’s the problem.  Taste testing is fine, focus groups are fine.  It is how they are used that is the issue.

Focus groups should not be mistaken for quantitative research. Quantitative research (as in: ‘quantity’) is for finding out how many will like it.  Alternatively, qualitative research (as in ‘quality’), such as focus groups, are great for gleaning insights from your target market to guide your development.


Should market research determine whether you go ahead?

In ‘Blink’, Gladwell gives another beautiful example of a product that didn’t test well.  It was a new ergonomic office chair called Aeron, created by Bill Stumpf of Herman Miller Inc.. Using mesh instead of fabric meant that you could see through to the intricate workings of the design. The comfort level rated through the roof, but the people didn’t like the look of it it.

The company launched the Aeron chair anyway.

The Aeron attracted great interest from the design industry, won a major design award and the chair became a cult object.  It also began to appear in films and television commercials.  Sales boomed.  What was once perceived as ugly had, with the right exposure, become – as Malcolm described – beautiful.

Perhaps if Herman Miller Inc. had also tested with high level design professionals they would have known that particular group would be the avenue to lead the promotion of the chair.

It is these kinds of strategies that can come from market testing – that will make the research worthwhile.


Motto of the story:

When it comes to market testing, be VERY careful with:

  • the sample of people you select to test with
  • what you show them and/or give them (and how)
  • what questions you ask them
  • how you interpret the results

Have you done any marketing testing?  If so, how did you approach it?  What happened in the end?  Post us a comment and tell us about the experience.


This post was written by Megan Hills.  Megan is a writer, cartoonist and marketing barista. She also delights in stories about large multinational companies who do silly marketing things, despite their billion dollar budgets. Find out more about Megan.

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One Comment

  1. That's a very funny cartoon Megan!

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