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Supply Lines: Give Customers the Pet Product They Want

Posted: Jan. 30, 2013, 6:55 p.m. EST

Using consumer feedback for product insight and development can not only help create goods that fly off the shelves, it can also build lasting customer relationships.
By Hilary Daninhirsch

A lot of thought goes into product manufacturing, and what might seem like a minor decision can have major ramifications down the road.

To take the guesswork out of giving customers what they want, savvy pet product manufacturers conduct formal marketing studies, either on their own or with the help of a professional.

“Knowing how successful a product is going to be before it hits the shelves is critical,” said John Cullen, principal at Bulldog Marketing and Sales Inc., a New York City-based pet consulting and marketing firm. “Failure is extremely expensive and can leave a manufacturer’s reputation and relationship with a retailer damaged. Conducting a survey is much less expensive and can provide a wealth of consumer insight.”

Just what types of information should a manufacturer ask for? Virtually any aspect of a product can be subject to consumer testing, including packaging, colors, brand name choices, logo designs and product concepts.

Use customer feedback to help create a successful pet product.
Use customer feedback to help create a successful pet product.
“Consumers want to be heard and are usually more than willing to share their opinions, so it is really important to know what information you are seeking and have a plan for how you will use the insights gained,” said Tina VonderHaar, president and CEO of the St. Louis-based Brighton Agency.

Researching preferences such as product features, color and design, as well as the likelihood to purchase a product, is par for the course for PetSafe in Knoxville, Tenn.

“We also gather information on how often consumers will use the product, and the specific circumstances in which the products would be used by a pet owner so that we can understand the types of environments and applications that we need to design the product to perform within,” said Robin Hawn Rhea, senior brand manager for the company.

Even corporate culture can be a topic worth exploring. For example, Salisbury, Massachusetts-based Kurgo reported that, based on recent research, the majority of folks would be more likely to buy a product if they knew that a percentage of the purchase price would be donated to charity.

The actual mechanics of discovering consumer preferences can entail everything from surveys to focus groups to polls. In addition, the advent of social media has created a window of opportunity for manufacturers to really tune in to their customers’ needs and wants.

“Our clients have had the most success with focus groups,” VonderHaar said. “These allow for verbal cues as well as probing discussions, which are less likely in surveys or polls.”

However, there are some drawbacks to focus groups, including cost to execute and time needed to meet directly with the consumers, she added.

The Impetus Agency in Reno, Nev., does not favor focus groups for similar reasons, including the relatively small size of a group that can be surveyed at one time. Rather, it has turned to social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs and forums.

“Asking questions on Facebook and offering incentives such as a prize is a good way to get input,” said Tierra Bonaldi, Impetus’ partner and pet product marketer. “Asking questions in pet groups on LinkedIn is another great method. There are some good free tracking services such as Google Alerts you should definitely be using and, if you can afford it, much more extensive ones such as Sysomos [a social media monitoring tool].”

Depending on the product, online surveys can provide quality feedback, reported Bulldog Marketing’s John Cullen.
“I would recommend a concept test survey conducted online if the product doesn’t require touch and feel,” Cullen said, adding that if it does, he’d use a focus group particularly for products in earlier stages of development.

Kurgo uses SurveyMonkey to conduct online surveys, especially with new products.

“This form of survey is emailed out to our newsletter contacts and/or posted to different social media outlets such as Facebook,” said Danee Fleckenstein, the company’s marketing specialist. “We also include a general product survey in every product package. This is postmarked and can be filled out by the customer and returned via mail or completed online.”

One area that should not be overlooked is polling customer service departments.

“Having in-depth conversations and documenting customer interaction will help manufacturers see where improvements can be made, where new products can emerge and where customer loyalty can be built,” Brighton’s VonderHaar advised.

In addition to online surveys and focus groups, PetSafe conducts in-home product tests, both with existing customers and general pet owners, Rhea noted.

To maximize potential customer outreach, companies can employ a variety of techniques. Case in point: World’s Best Cat Litter, a division of Kent Nutrition Group in Muscatine, Iowa, uses a combination of focus groups, online surveys, in-store surveys and in-home testing to obtain consumer feedback. It also relies on social media to gather important information.

“We reach out to our database of consumers through social media on a regular basis, welcoming their opinion on a variety of topics,” said Jean Broders, brand manager for the division. “We like the two-way communication that can take place in social media mediums.”

Regardless of the outreach method, verifying the accuracy of the results is a critical component of surveying.

One thing that can help is conducting the studies in multiple locations, Broders said.

“Each focus group has consisted of 30 to 50 people in each region, so we get a good representation of consumers in different geographic locations,” she said, adding that it is crucial to use third-party professionals to get true customer feedback.

The need to obtain an accurate representation of your customer or target customer is equally essential, VonderHaar emphasized.

“It is important to go into a consumer research initiative with a specific hypothesis and try to prove it right or wrong,” she said. “The goal should be to find a specific answer as well as to listen for common themes that run through from consumer to consumer. These steps will help verify the accuracy of the results.”

Petcurean Pet Nutrition, located in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada, has conducted online surveys with a sample size adequate to give it statistically significant results, with margins of error clearly stated. It’s also done ad hoc surveys online to gather feedback about a specific topic.

“To control for error, we try to ensure that the sample size is large, and we solicit feedback on our survey design from individuals with research expertise to control for leading or unclear questions,” said Jaimie Turkington, marketing manager, noting that sometimes they have to read between the lines in interpreting responses.

In contrast, with social media responses the results are authentic because companies can tell who is answering through analytics and profiles, The Impetus Agency’s Bonaldi said.

No matter which research method is employed, surveying is just one piece of the puzzle and must be balanced with overall manufacturing goals, VonderHaar said.

“Nevertheless, customers very much like to feel as though they contributed to the success of the brands that they love,” she said. “When manufacturers show that they are interested in the needs and wants of the consumers, they are able to elevate the relationship of their products with their consumers.”


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