To Test or Not to Test . . .

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...That is the question. While testing is expensive, skipping it can lead to disaster.

A decade ago, Nabisco hit a marketing homerun with Teddy Grahams. Following three years in development, the company released this line of snack crackers in 1988. Sales hit $100 million within nine months and continued to climb. Teddy Grahams became a classic marketing success because its image hit all of the hot buttons. It played to consumers' warm, fuzzy feelings about teddy bears, to parents' good feelings about feeding graham crackers to young children, and to children's love of cute, cuddly images printed on the package and the crackers themselves.

Unfortunately, Nabisco was not so fortunate when it extended Teddy Grahams into a new area. In 1989, Nabisco tried to grow the brand by introducing chocolate, cinnamon, and honey versions of Breakfast Bears Graham Cereal. The package touted the product as "the cereal in fun-to-eat tiny bear shapes. They're specially made so milk brings out their wholesome graham taste. And they stay crunchy in milk." But the taste wasn't good enough, according to test panels of consumers in early roll-out markets. Product developers went back to the kitchen and modified the formula so that kids would like it better. Then they rushed the new formula to market without testing.

The result was disaster. Although the cereal may have tasted better, it no longer stayed crunchy in milk. It left a gooey mess of graham mush on the bottom of cereal bowls. Supermarket managers soon were refusing to restock the cereal, and Nabisco executives decided it was too late to reformulate the product again. As a result, this promising idea went to Teddy Bear heaven.

The mistake of not checking a formula modification before launching a product is not as rare as one might think. Years ago, R.T. French launched a new line of potato flakes that promised lighter, fluffier mashed potatoes. By following the directions on the package, consumers created a watery mess that was more like potato soup than mashed potatoes. The only way to make light, fluffy mashed potatoes was to add about 50 percent more flakes than were called for in the instructions.

As the company president later explained to me, the formula in test batches required a different preparation than the version that was mass-produced in commercial quantities. The flakes in the final version were much lighter, which meant that more of them were required to produce the desired results. Unfortunately, no testing was done after the original, denser formula was changed. The advertising campaign was good, and consumers eagerly purchased the product. But by the time a new batch of packages with modified instructions could be made and shipped, the product was doomed.

Testing and retesting new products can cost a lot, and no marketer can afford to linger in the test phase while competition and opportunity sprint ahead. But if a change is made to a successful formula, don't skip the next test and risk disaster. No matter how safe the new idea may appear, the consumer is always in charge.

About the author Robert M. McMath is director of The New Products Showcase & Learning Center in Ithaca, New York, a collection of more than 60,000 once-new consumer products, most of which are no longer sold.

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