Are Concept Tests Killing Real Innovation?

The decision about which truly innovative product ideas or concepts to fund in the majority of businesses often comes down to the consumer, not the company. Essentially, the consumer is made to be the ultimate decision-maker of innovations via concept tests. Companies enlist consumers to be the sole judge and jury of their ideas.

It is taken for granted that marketeers and management boards are the ultimate idea selectors and decision-makers in product innovation. However, it is common practice in FMCGs that a negative consumer test should stop innovation projects.

Isn’t this a paradox? Executives decide, but a negative consumer test stops the project. It begs the question of whether the company is really in charge?

So, how could we use consumer concept tests differently to improve decision-making and foster greater innovation opportunities?

What if you changed your approach to testing?

How about using consumer concept tests primarily as a source of feedback and inspiration, but never to determine a go/no-go decision.

We know this is radical thinking. Bear with us..


Here are 4 ways we envisage that the humble concept test could be reimagined for the greater good of innovation;

1. Eliminate concept test results from the decision system for category challenging (often termed, disruptive) products. It is human nature to not like change, and take the path of least resistance. This means that consumers feel more comfortable choosing near-in ideas. And as a result, category challenging ideas don’t really get fair air time as they are dismissed too quickly in most cases. If we were to eliminate concept test results from the decision system, it would also mean eliminating them from the stage-gate process. Testing remains important, but its results shouldn’t really drive the decision. Consumer test results are probably not only an integral part of most company’s innovation process and resources, but also their culture. It is therefore important to eliminate test results from any documents, protocols or systems used within the business, as well as from people’s minds – which is the trickier part. You have to be up for the challenge of re-educating people.


2. Define different test protocols and decision processes for different degrees of newness. For “me-too’s” and line extensions, tests should be substantially different than those for category challenging products. The test should above all render feedback, not a decision in this case. The feedback should be about assessing how the “me-too” or line extension is different and unique to what is already available (competitive products or current range), and importantly, whether that difference is value-added in some way. You may even want to consider eliminating action standards in some cases.


3. Boost your consumer knowledge by melting consumer understanding into the core innovation process and enhance your research tool-kit. Don’t default to traditional techniques that solely aid the discovery of conscious needs – they are not relevant to accomplish higher realms of innovation. The new research methods have to produce deep understanding of the sub-conscious, such as gamified co-creation, and be able to discover those needs that are not yet mainstream. One of the techniques we use at The Strategy Distillery is to expose consumers to very early ideas (or idealings as we call them) that the business has zero commitment to. When we deconstruct these ideas down into their component parts and gamify the exercises we do with consumers, it forms the perfect springboard to delve into more deep-seated latent needs and pain points. These idealings aren’t ever going to be “the one”. That is not the purpose of them. But they will certainly illuminate the right path with more relevant and specific insight and understanding than ethno’s, diaries, communities or accompanied shops ever will.


4. Test the team. The decision for a highly novel idea should also be based on the evaluation of the innovation team that “applies” for funding. Entrepreneurs believe in their ideas, and even when everybody else says they are crazy, they still go ahead. They don’t ask for permission to innovate and they don’t do consumer concept tests. To draw another parallel, in the world of venture capital, they focus on evaluating the teams’ expertise, passion and conviction to succeed first and foremost. Why can’t this mindset be embraced amongst intrapreneurs within companies wanting to innovate?


In conclusion, the consumer has the potential to play an ever more important role during the concept creation process. However, consumer-centric innovation should not be confused with consumers owning or voting on an innovation. Consumers should spark creativity and boost the decision power of the innovation team through deeper understanding. Test results should solely serve as guidance and feedback, and in an ideal world, we believe they should be eliminated from decision systems. Imagine a future where decision powers reside within the company, and in particular the innovation team that has proven its expertise. Not solely on whether top 2 box scores meet action standards or not.