In our clients' shoes - Mat Lintern on MMR's Sensory Branding Challenge

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May 08, 2017

by Mat Lintern


It was fascinating to watch (with a privileged judges hat on) MMR’s recent sensory branding event play out. 

To help connect us better to the NPD challenges faced by our clients, we decided to split our entire European business into 9 cross-functional teams and asked them to practice what we preach! They were tasked to develop, from scratch, a coherent idea for a healthier food or drink proposition and support this with early-stage pack and product prototypes. Worst of all (for them), the teams had to pitch their idea to two MMR MDs and three of our clients. This was daunting enough on its own, but to add to the challenge, we only gave them 2 weeks and no slacking-off on the day job!

A number of things jumped out from my observation of the process;

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- When a team has a deadline looming over them great ideas can be generated and honed really quickly. It forces a ‘just do it’ approach, quick-fire decision making and the effective use of rapid research techniques. Whilst all the teams felt they could have rounded their ideas out more, great things were achieved under extreme time pressure…..the kernel of the ideas shone through

- Coming up with decent ideas isn’t that hard, but maintaining focus on a unifying purpose, meaning and target is super tough! The teams consistently found it was easy to ‘soften’ their ideas to broaden out appeal, but in so doing often lost the 5% that made the idea standout in the first place. ‘Niche’ isn’t a popular word, but our teams found that ‘bland’ and ‘loose’ were much worse in the face of the judges!

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- Achieving coherence across key touchpoints (brand, product and packaging) isn’t easy. With time and resource pressure forcing different people to be tasked with leading development of each element, it was REALLY easy for the strands to grow apart, with the ‘departments’ naturally focusing on making something ‘good’, but forgetting what ties everything together. Without question, the winning ideas were those where a clear story, purpose and, ideally a distinctive sensory-signature flowed through the whole proposition. This wasn’t easy and the winning teams REALLY had to work hard to achieve this

- Creativity can, and did, come from surprising places. We recruit our research teams to be creative, so that was no surprise, but it was reassuring to see so many of our data, sensory and fieldwork staff completely immersed in the challenge, and often right at the vanguard of creating and shaping new ideas; ensuring we unlock this creativity going forward has to be a core business aim! We also saw first-hand the potential for rapid research conducted with the right consumers to help challenge our execution and creatively shape offers that were better matched to consumer needs

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- Accountability and empowerment within a team makes a massive difference. Without doubt the best performing teams set out clear aims right at the start, and then empowered their people, regardless of level or experience, to deliver against these. Hierarchy didn’t get in the way of creativity, efficiency or common-sense. We learned that bright people can really step-up, but also the power of playing to your strengths and appreciating the different mix of skills your counterparts can bring to a new task

- Communication really matters. Not just in the way an idea’s pitched to the judges (or retailers), but in the way time pressured teams communicate to ensure they work effectively together. The teams who took the time to organize their communication strategy from the outset, and left time at the back-end to hone their pitches, shone through. We quite clearly found, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” ( George Bernard Shaw)

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- As researchers we really didn’t have enough knowledge of what key aspects of the mix would add to the price of a new product; coming up with amazing product and packaging ideas was the easy part – getting them to work commercially (and in transit) is much more of a challenge than we’d appreciated before. This really taught us the importance of understanding what’s absolutely core to a proposition, what elements provide the all-important emotional and functional connection and consonance and, importantly, the need to compromise in some areas, but to defend the things that really matter like a Jack Russell holding onto a bone!

Overall we learned that sensory branding is hard and generating consonance a real challenge. But also that it can be fun, hugely rewarding and that it’s possible to achieve a lot very quickly when a focused and dedicated team all point in a consistent direction. It taught us loads about the challenges our clients face, and how research can and should help with these, but above all, it as taught us the importance of working as an effective team.

More takeouts from the Sensory Branding Challenge


It was great to be a part of and was genuinely really insightful what 10 groups of FMCG professionals could do in such a short space of time and with limited resources

Jake Schneider

Pladis