Taste Tests for the 21st Century Entrepreneur: The Myths

Taste tests aren’t like they used to be. But have they evolved enough?

Over the past few months I’ve met countless food entrepreneurs who have some of the most incredible, daring and, in some cases, transformational ideas. Eighty percent of them will fail. But none of these folks I’ve met think so.

Four out of the five of the aforelinked reasons for failure can be traced to a deceptively simple idea — these companies fail to understand their consumer.

The pressures of a solo-preneur or a small startup to deliver revenue — especially pre-venture — are immense. In the food industry, most of the entrepreneurial discussions I’ve heard focus on where to produce, how to package and how to get customers (retailers) to buy in to it. For someone with an idea and a recipe, negotiating tolling and learning packaging regulations is overwhelming, and the consumer gets lost in the chaos. But they will always eventually provide feedback via purchasing decisions, after expending considerable time and money. Why aren’t entrepreneurs incorporating consumer feedback earlier?

Myth 1: I tell my consumer what they want.

There is a lot of value in persistence and dogma — after all, it is a core part of why entrepreneurs succeed despite the odds. However, unchecked persistence can lead to naivety. This myth is especially propagated due to stories such as the Story of the Solo-Innovator, a type of Hero’s Journey where the individual succeeds alone despite all odds (Steve Jobs anyone? Didn’t he have an organization of tens of thousands helping him?). This is not reality. Innovation is a collaborative activity, and why wouldn’t you collaborate with the person who you are asking to buy your product? Having a singular vision is important. However, there is incredible value in giving yourself the opportunity to be wrong.

Myth 2: I’ve already identified the white space.

There’s an unmet need for great tasting shelf stable cricket-protein-infused low calorie non-dairy whipped cream substitute.

Understanding competition is critical, and a correlated activity is understanding where the competition isn’t. This white space can provide clues to unmet consumer needs. Sometimes white space also is there for a reason. Anyone remember purple ketchup? What about Gerber’s baby food for adults? Sometimes white space is there because nothing should belong there. Other times, it is because it is difficult to execute or the timing is not right.

The consumer can help you determine where you should or shouldn’t focus and the idea and product need to be combined and shared to them often. It should be a conversation with the consumer, not a lecture. Nobody likes being told what to do and consumers are no different!

Myth 3: I’ve done taste tests already.

My kids like it, and a few of their friends like it, therefore all kids will like it.

I recently met an entrepreneur, “Susan”, who was lamenting about her inability to gain objective feedback about her kids snack product. Susan had conducted a friends and family sampling event and asked the neighborhood kids to tell her what they thought. She said that the kids liked everything and she felt that they weren’t being honest. I was thrilled that she recognized this, and gave her some suggestions for next time.

Unlike Susan, who had a hunch something was wrong, many will not recognize that there was something wrong with her approach.

  1. the task wasn’t clear— when an authority figure gives you food, you taste it and say thank you. Why is this different?
  2. children’s biases were in control — children will tend to be more honest than adults, not less, but you have to approach the question wording and environment the right way (Mom and Dad are biasing, among others).
  3. Your consumer sample may be wrong. Choosing people that are easiest to reach for taste testing has a particular statistical term — it is called a convenience sample. They usually don’t represent the preferences of your consumer target.

Myth 4: Talking to consumers is too expensive

I talked to an agency and they wanted $60k for a taste test or $15k for a focus group.

Death by a thousand slides.

This myth is the fault of the consumer research field. To understand why, let’s talk economics (really?). Most consumer research organizations gain money by taking margin on their product. They grow their business by creating more expensive test protocols and loading the analysis up with fluff. It is not uncommon to see a $100k, 120 page powerpoint deck summarizing what is really a 2 or 3 key points, but oh boy it is complete with fancy graphics! What are you paying for? Entertainment-by-powerpoint or deep insights?

Large companies have accepted this (though many are ‘waking up’ and realizing that there’s better ways of doing research). This has left a gap in the market where entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial minded teams at large organizations are left without the best tools to conduct sound research.

Cutting corners on research is common and OK. Not having a clear picture of what those cuts mean for how you make business decisions is the problem. If we think a small sampling party (the tupperware party of the entrepreneur) delivers the same level of certainty as a regionally distributed blind test, we are fogging up our risk profile, which leads to falsely thinking we are making low risk business decisions.

The solution, upcoming in this series on modern sensory science, is to approach gaining consumer feedback about your product (taste tests and otherwise) in a way that addresses the primary business needs, doesn’t over design and delivers actionable results.

I founded MNC in order to help organizations of all sizes and stages approach consumer product research and especially taste tests with the best scientific design matched with the needs of the modern, connected organization and consumer. I have numerous scientific publications and presentations but am most proud of helping bring new thinking to marketing and R&D organizations. Prior to MNC, I lead the sensory team at both a $2B FMCG organization and a small boutique market research firm, and worked a short stint at the U.S. Army Natick Labs.

Founder of MNC; Sensory Scientist; Culinary Psychologist; Connects organizations to the hearts, minds & taste buds of their consumers. www.mnestc.com

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