Comm Check

A new product concept is not the product itself. It's merely an abstract representation of product technology and end-benefits. Sooner or later that idea, fuzzy thought or generalized notion must be communicated to prospective consumers for their evaluation. Typically that communication is expressed in a strategically focused product positioning statement. Trouble is, if your product positioning is talking "apples" and your target prospect is hearing "oranges," any evaluation of that particular product concept is headed for disaster. You could abandon what could have been the best idea in the lot. Worse yet, you could commercialize an unwanted apple -- not the coveted orange the consumer thought you were promising.

Because communication is an art it's easy for a product positioning to create the wrong -- or, more likely, less than optimal -- perceptions. Particularly if the concept involves abstract benefits... new-to-the-world technology... or ideas driven by intuitive/emotive forms of logic. Experience suggests out of eight concepts, one absolutely fails to communicate the intended message and/or strategic content and another two will be significantly less than optimum. Murphy's Law being what it is, one of the three miscommunications would have been the "big idea."

The tool, in its simplest configuration, troubleshoots communication efforts of candidates prior to concept testing to determine if the intended selling proposition registered, was understood and accomplished key strategic objectives. Communications that missed the strategic mark are revised and advanced to the next step in the NPD effort. The effort is qualitative. Quick. Inexpensive. And can avoid costly downstream mistakes.

If necessary the procedure can begin at the beginning, developing the communications necessary to capture and convey the concept envisioned by the NPD team. The effort uses whatever means are necessary to express, in consumer terminology and graphics, the strategic elements of the product benefit, supporting technology, tangible features & attributes, performance characteristics, pragmatic proof-of-performance and abstract benefits. Typically the communication represents a fully developed product positioning and the medium may take the form of poster, image or storyboards. In some cases even the package itself may serve as the format conveying the product positioning. Animation, videotape or CD presentations may be appropriate, but in no instance does the communication employ tactical -- or executional -- variables.

In instances where the communication must be developed, members of the concept team are briefed by NPD managers who topline product technology, tangible features & attributes, performance characteristics, pragmatic proof-of-performance, abstract benefits. Plus profiles and need matrices of the target prospect.

In other situations the concept components have already been consolidated by managers into a finished positioning statement that has been communicated in a posterboard, frame-by-frame story board or videotape. Working with these positioning materials, Two-On-One interviews probe concept communication efforts to confirm target prospects "got it" at all four levels: registration of plain text message...comprehension of strategic content... internalization of personally relevant benefits/utility...rationalization of purchase decision (economic or coherence with personal value system). No attempt to evaluate the concept's impact on purchase intent is made; the effort would be both premature and statistically unreliable.

Necessary revisions are recommended to NPD managers and, with their approval, final versions of the concept are advanced to the next phase of the project.

The tool has been used to optimize concepts for a variety of food and beverage concepts including a yogurt substitute, frozen cookie dough, table wine and premium beer. Hi-tech applications include PCs and printers. Comm Checks for Allergan Lens Care product concepts were conducted with both Optometrists and end-users; ultimately a revised miscommunication later emerged from quantitative testing as the "big-idea" -- a save brand managers scored as a "fumble recovery."

As for potential applications, it's easier to identify the situations where it won't work than where it will work because applications include virtually any product concept predicated on a strategic product positioning -- rational or intuitive. That excludes only brands bereft of strategy and driven largely by tactical efforts to entertain, heighten awareness, build sample reels for Creative Directors or establish a strategically deprived brand image.

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