So, what do you think?

The ever-increasing power of consumers has never been clearer than last week, when Kellogg’s Choco Krispies reverted to its original name of Coco Pops.

The cereal giant’s decision came after a million people voted, via the telephone and Internet, about the food’s title. A convincing 92 per cent opted for a return to the original name.

As manufacturers in general look to involve consumers in the decision-making process, focus groups are increasing together with extensive product analysis.

Brand Matters research director Kevin Vyse believes research at an early stage can save up to 50 per cent of the work when developing a new product, by creating a much clearer focus of what palette to use.

“Generally speaking, consumer insight is left too late,” claims Vyse. “The ideal scenario is to start working with consumers before you design it, so we have shifted the whole process by bringing the consumer into the development at the beginning.”

“Previously, consumers were seen as part of the method of screening out the designers’ own ideas and too often they forget about the guy who pours the cereal into his bowl.”

Vyse sites Golden Churn margarine as an example of this process in action. “The early work was to understand customers’ colour cues, what the name meant to them and what people felt about the product. We then said to the designer ‘this is the framework to work within’ from the feedback we received. It is about taking consumers with the process rather than inflicting it on them.”

He equates the whole process to TV programme Ready Steady Cook. “It’s like asking a top chef to create a meal out of any ingredients he chooses and then eating a delicious meal. But if you provide the specific ingredients you want and then ask him to make a dish the end result is likely to be more to your liking.”

Managing director of The Brand Development Business David Goudge says consumers are “remarkably powerful”, and making consultation with them is “utterly crucial”.

“It’s about building bridges between what consumers want and what manufacturers can make,” explains Goudge. “If people have empathy with a brand and something changes, they will realise. People aren’t daft.”

Like Brand Matters, TBDB conducts brainstorming sessions with customer groups before designers are involved. “There are normally four groups of eight and we establish what they think, how they behave and why they choose what they choose,” says Goudge.

But criteria for the group makeup depends on the individual product. “Everyone has different needs and attitudes so we need to get like-minded individuals together. Teenage groups should be kept to two- or three-year age ranges, but young adults can be grouped together over a ten-year age gap,” he adds.

Research for the UK market is sometimes carried out in the US, according to Goudge. “We need to get consumers to predict new trends, though they often don’t know what they want themselves. But in America people are five years ahead of everyone else on some things.”

Global Design Register partner Richard Watson agrees the public should be consulted at the pre-design stage, though he is sceptical of possible over-involvement.

“Manufacturers have to be in touch with what the public wants, but I’m not in favour of turning everything into a referendum,” he says. “What is popular isn’t necessarily good and vice versa. Manufacturers can manipulate the public to do what they want.”

Watson also labels Kellogg’s decision about Coco Pops “the weirdest thing of all time. Either you listen to the public or you don’t, but it would appear Kellogg’s has performed a U-turn.”

Kellogg’s marketing manager Guy Longworth denies the cereal giant has made a U-turn, and flatly states that sales had not decreased after the introduction of the Choco Krispies name. That decision had been the result of a 1998 ingredient change, which saw real chocolate replace cocoa. “Following consumer feedback from some customers who preferred the original name, Kellogg’s carried out a three-week voting campaign allowing customers to register their choice,” he says. Longworth will not comment on whether the same policy will be followed for future naming projects.

One design consultancy to use extensive research during rebranding is Holmes & Marchant, which has corporate clients including Unilever, Nestlé, ICI, Marks & Spencer and Bass.

Design director Gerry O’Dwyer says providing a selection of initial ideas for focus groups to debate is vital. “Researchers have to ask open-ended questions whereby consumers have a debate. If you ask whether they want red or blue, that’s the end of the debate,” he explains.

“But you can’t dictate to Joe Public. You have to help consumers make suggestions and encourage them to be creative by giving them materials from designers. The moment you start to assemble stimulus, you are already editing.”

“We are all innately conservative, so if researchers want to maximise the opportunity and not diminish or smother creativity, how do you legislate for the shock of the new? Through interpretation,” he says.

O’Dwyer adds that it is “critical” that decisions based on discussion give the opportunity to “develop the future, not cement the past. It gives you a sense of what consumers feel is interesting, exciting and directional. But giving consumers the ultimate right of veto creates a dangerous trend,” he warns.

“We do many focus groups, but never democratise the process of giving consumers the franchise. Decisions are based on the analysis of those findings,” he adds.

O’Dwyer also emphasises the role designers play during research. “They have to be rigorous and powerful in advocating their ideas to clients and consumers, as they are too easy for consumers to dismiss. Research should be used as a guide, and a checking process,” he says.

“Colour is the most important thing. The opportunity to research people’s attitude to colour is fascinating.”

It could now appear that Kellogg’s momentous decision will prove to be a one-off among corporate giants.

If so, consumers will continue to play a largely peripheral role in branding, with manufacturers and designers wielding the real power.

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