Chasing the Tastemakers

The Valley is a prime place to test new products. What’s in it for the “average mom” whose opinions on pomegranate smoothies can make or break a new brand?


Published: Scottsdale Times, March, 2007


Although she doesn’t know it, the woman standing in front of the juice cooler at the Safeway market on Hayden and Chaparral roads in Scottsdale is about to make a decision that could change the course of a multi-million dollar product launch, alter the investment portfolio of the nation’s leading private equity firm, and – most importantly – make or break the career of the man standing just about four feet directly behind her.

“This is the kind of thing I like to watch,” whispers Rick Zimmerman, as the woman – a matronly-looking gal in maybe her late forties, wearing an abbreviated beehive hairdo and a loud floral-patterned sun dress – bends down to read the label on the container of Tropicana Homestyle orange juice then straightens up again to render her decision on which carton to toss in her shopping cart.

Zimmerman scopes out her every movement like an on-the-make horndog with a thing for portly redheads, looking, with his balding noggin and hefty frame, like Seinfeld’s George Costanza about to pounce on an unsuspecting object of some misguided infatuation.

Finally, the woman selects a carton of Tropicana Pure Premium, No Pulp, and Zimmerman is crestfallen. “I don’t think she even saw us, because we’re on the top shelf,” he says. “The best place to be is the eye-level shelf. And Tropicana has that all locked up in this store.”

As the senior V.P. of marketing and innovation for Sunny Delight Beverages, Zimmerman has a lot riding on the fruit juice decisions of the everyday housewife. For 24 years, Zimmerman worked in brand management for the consumer goods giant Proctor & Gamble, overseeing the international marketing of everything from Pringles to Head & Shoulders to Fisher Nuts, eventually taking charge of the Sunny Delight brand. When the Boston-based private equity investor J. W. Childs spun off Sunny D from P&G in 2004, Zimmerman became, in effect, one of six principals in what’s now a fledgling start-up company. “We each have sizeable financial investments in this,” he notes.

On this particular Thursday, the Cincinnati businessman is visiting the Valley to launch the test-marketing rollout of FruitSimple, Sunny Delight’s new line of smoothie drinks.

Like many manufacturers before it, Sunny Delight has chosen the Phoenix area as the optimal location to test the new product before going national with the brand, which it expects to do in 2008. Walking down Safeway’s expansive frozen food aisle, Zimmerman is quick to point out the products of many other big companies who’ve come to regard Phoenix as one of the best places to test consumer goods.

“A&W ice cream – you don’t see them anywhere else,” says Zimmerman, whose job has taken him through supermarkets all over the U.S. and Europe. “Dryers, Bryers, Lucerne, Safeway Select. Just look at the variety! There’s stuff here that you will not see anywhere else in the world. Now, let’s go check out the spaghetti sauce.”

Since the 80’s, makers of new consumer products have favored Phoenix as a testing ground for a variety of reasons: a good melting-pot population made up of transplants from all over the country, a strong mix of retail outlets, and media exposure relatively isolated from other big cities. For Zimmerman’s company, it also helps that Arizonans know fruit. “People here know what a strawberry is supposed to taste like,” he says admiringly.

Because of this, Valley shoppers are regularly given a first shot at products not yet available to the rest of the country – and their purchasing behaviors are closely watched and analyzed in marketing boardrooms. Often, participants are as unaware of their influence as the woman browsing the Safeway juice cooler.

But others have learned to work the standing to their advantage, regularly carting home free sample product and sitting in on weekly focus group studies in exchange for a quick $75 to $300 check.

“We’re always looking for what we call ‘passionate providers,’” Zimmerman says. “Not fanatics, or people who follow all the trends. But the mainstream moms, who care about buying good products for their family. And that’s the kind of people we find in Phoenix.”


“Professional Respondents”


Darlene Pagliarello can rattle off the phone numbers of every top marketing survey company in town.

“WestGroup is a good one,” says the harried single mother of three, answering the door of her northeast Phoenix home with a 3-year-old nephew and teenaged son in tow. “I usually talk to Lisa, but she don’t work there no more. Arizona Market Research, Focus Marketing, Plaza Research. I call them all every few days, to see if they’re doing a survey I can get in on.”

Most market research companies employ sophisticated systems to weed out people like Darlene, dubbed “professional respondents” by leaders in the field.

“We normally screen out people who try to do these on a regular basis,” says Glenn Iwata, executive V.P. of WestGroup Research, the Valley’s oldest market research firm. “Because they know the system, they know how to play the system, and they’re no longer an unbiased source. They’re the kind of people who’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, I have a dog’ – when they really don’t – just to qualify for a dog food survey, and maybe make 100 bucks.”

Each of the companies limits the amount of times you can take part in a survey, usually requiring four to six months between participation, and Iwata says his company routinely turns down calls from unsolicited volunteers, preferring to work off its own database compiled from available demographics and purchasing records.

Still, the pros know how to get around such policies. “Some of them don’t like to be called,” says Pagliarello. “But I do a little fibbing sometimes. I’ll say, ‘Somebody just called and left a message that there was a survey going on.’ And they’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah. We do have one you might be able to get in on.’ They usually ask similar questions, too. So you get to feel them out, figure out what they’re looking for.”

Compensation varies per survey: a soy sauce test may net only forty dollars, but a survey on a higher mark-up item may bring considerably more. A woman who claims to be friends with a head recruiter at Schlesinger Associates, a national recruiter of focus group participants with an office in Phoenix, says her husband participated in a 5-night survey on automobiles. “At the end of the last session,” she wrote in an Internet forum, “they gave him an envelope with $3,000 in it. They also feed you while you’re there.”

For the participant whose opinions and personality tends to dominate the focus group, the rewards can be even sweeter. Many firms, including Proctor & Gamble, now use focus groups like American Idol competitions, zeroing in on the one participant who best personifies their target demographic and then following her around for several days, paying reality show dough to observe her product interactions at home and springing for the bill at the grocery store.

“That’s how we got our product’s name, in fact,” says Zimmerman. “We were originally going to call it Fruitful. But then this woman from the focus group named Amanda, who had three kids and said she had little time to read labels in the grocery store, kept talking about ‘keep it simple.’ We went, ‘Whoa! There’s our name!’ And she became our icon.”


Will Pass Gas for Cash


Back in the day, just becoming part of the great American marketing machine and being able to tell fellow shoppers, ‘I helped name that product!’ was incentive enough.

“At the inception of market research, back in the Forties and Fifties, it was rare to be asked to take a survey,” says Simon Chadwick, former CEO of the venerable NOP Research in the U.K. and now partner at Cambiar LLC in Phoenix. “And people would volunteer their time very willingly, because they were flattered to be asked.”

Now, says Chadwick, too many people have been caught up in the “tuna net” of direct marketing, and consider calls to participate in research studies an annoyance – or, worse yet, a con job.

“There’s been a lot of what we call ‘sugging’ – ‘Selling Under the Guise’ of research,” he says, “which has really tainted what we do.”

The FTC and FCC’s “Do Not Call” law to curb unsolicited telemarketing helped filter the bad guys out, Chadwick says, since verified research companies are exempt from the registry. “Now if the phone rings, you know it’s a legitimate research company.”

Still, more and more of the “real people” companies like Zimmerman’s are counting on to help provide feedback on their brands are suffering from what the research industry is calling “opinion fatigue.” At a recent Chicago summit of 30 top market research executives, Chadwick delivered a speech noting that 50 percent of all survey responses now come from less than 5 percent of the population. Consumers under 25 – a key demographic to many companies – have become hardest to reach, as a third of them now only have cell phones.

“We’ve got to make the process more interesting, involving and engaging to them,” Chadwick says. “Because these days, time is at a premium.”

New methods involve using Web 2.0 strategies to give consumers more choices and more control over how they take a survey. “The nice thing about online research is you can take half of the survey now, save it and come back and do the rest later,” Chadwick says. “Convenience matters. It’s all about what works best for you.”

Still, the traditional methods remain the most widely used. Sunny Delight’s game plan is to keep stocking Valley supermarkets with its new smoothies for four months and then enlist a local research company to place calls until they find people who’ve tried the product – a time-consuming process Zimmerman says can require upwards of 1,000 calls to find the six to eight people they’ll then invite to sit in a focus group.

Even then, it can be tough to talk busy people into gathering in a mid-town conference room with a one-way mirror and discussing things like blended mangos and pomegranates for an hour and a half.

“If it’s a subject they’re personally interested in,” says Chadwick, “people generally have no trouble whatsoever giving their opinions, and actually enjoy seeing the results of their opinions coming to fruition.”

Unfortunately, the more exciting surveys – picking a new flavor of Coke, perhaps, or discovering the most revolutionary product since the proverbial sliced bread – are few and far between.

“We don’t get a lot of the ‘sexy’ products,” says WestGroup’s Iwata, whose facility on East Camelback utilizes three rooms for focus groups. “We did a test for Beano – it helps you with gas,” he laughs. “One time we did a test for an incontinence product. Do you know what it’s like to sit in a roomful of people with incontinence?”

Something to think about next time you stroll a Valley grocery or drug store, at least. Somewhere in the city, someone you know may have squirmed uncomfortably in a mirrored room so that you can be gas-free.

“You name a product with any level of success, and there’s been some test marketing and focus groups done on it,” Iwata says. “You have to these days. You can’t afford not to.”

— end —




image 1Sunny Delight v.p. Rick Zimmerman surveys the competition in a Scottsdale Safeway

image 1Zimmerman promotes FruitSimple on 3TV's morning program, "Your Life A to Z."

image 1Here, Zimmerman appears to break into song while extolling the virtues of FruitSimple to "Your Life" host Lisa Haffner.



Photo by Scottsdale Times