Switching off the Auto-Pilot

September 1, 2007
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Switching Off the Auto-Pilot

Jennifer Acevedo,

Consumer insights work has always fascinated me. Maybe because it’s equal parts science and art, or perhaps because of its dissonant nature—consumers may tell researchers they feel or act one way when the reality is quite the opposite. (Yes, I’m at the gym five times a week…)
Recently, I came across a study by The Nielsen Company (www.nielsen.com) whose premise was intriguing. We’re all familiar with the many different approaches researchers use to glean insights from those who hold the success of their brand’s offerings in their hands. But this approach doesn’t involve two-way mirrors or focus groups; instead Nielsen’s study of shopper behavior looked at body language as shoppers cruised the grocery aisle.
“Shoppers don’t waste energy on everyday decisions,” says Manjima Khandelwal, senior vice president at Nielsen Customized Research. “To simplify their lives, shoppers are often in grab-and-go mode, reaching for the brands they usually buy without reading the label or checking the price.”
OK, so far I’m on-board. Are we as consumers busier than ever? Yep. Do I often find myself in the grocery store, eyeing the ever-lengthening line at check-out as I quickly grab my favorite items? Yep, again. So now that we understand this behavior, how do we impact it?
Nielsen looked at consumer shopping behavior across 30 food categories and found that consumers adopt one of four different “shopping modes” as they are making their way down the supermarket aisles: auto-pilot (that “grab-and-go” mode), variety-seeking (“I’m open to something different”), buzz and bargain hunting.
As I read through the descriptions of each of the modes, it seemed clear which presented the greatest opportunities for those of us who study the marketing implications of packaging. Shoppers in the “buzz-activated” mode are most likely to be influenced by new product introductions, catchy advertising and—wait for it—innovative packaging. Nielsen posits that this mode includes products such as energy and sports drinks, chocolate, ready-to-drink teas and yogurt drinks.
Shoppers in the variety-seeking mode also offer opportunity for the brand marketer. These are folks who are looking for a change of pace, often in the frozen food and cold cereal aisles, and Nielsen found their decisions to purchase products were greatly influenced by “informative and exciting packaging”.
“The key to reaching shoppers,” Khandelwal concludes, “lies in understanding that shoppers’ habitual mode can be disrupted by external stimuli such as advertising, buzz, new offers, price and promotions.”
So as you’re thinking about your brand’s packaging, don’t forget that it’s easy for shoppers to switch on the auto-pilot and make the same old choices. It’s our challenge to interrupt that cycle, and offer innovative choices that will win your brand its next loyal consumer.

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