Concept Testing: How to test a concept without killing it

  • SumoMe


  • Product rather than customer orientation.
  • Using an inside researcher, or moderator inexperienced in concept development. You need a person who is a marketer as well as a researcher.
  • Testing, rather than developing.
  • Testing things that can’t, or shouldn’t be tested, like some products which must be experienced but can’t be produced in prototype, or ideas which are so vague that they cannot yet be communicated meaningfully.
  • Not doing concept development until it is too late to do anything about it. Particularly true in the pharmaceutical industry where many products are tested after the clinical trials are committed to. Here, concepts should be developed prior to and during clinical trials. (Example for my pharma readers: The FDA wants you to test against placebo. But the doctors want you to test against the competition! So, if the concept statement describes a placebo-controlled study and the physicians reject it, you’re in big trouble if the studies are already done. You can’t go back to the drawing boards and spend another billion dollars and another 10 years. Many drugs have slow adoption because of this.)
  • Not giving the concept enough of a chance.
  • Taking votes for the purpose of projecting whether the concept will be successful (there are other legitimate reasons for votes). You can project from groups, but you must do it on the strength of the opinions, the logic of the statements, and the other factors previously mentioned.
  • Taking what people say at face value. You need to probe beyond the initial verbalizations, which are mostly rationalizations. Be careful of reactions like “This will be a big seller among X’s, but I wouldn’t buy it.” Or, “I’d buy it, but no one else would.” Newer ask “Why did you [buy, choose, etc.]?” You will just get justifications for deeper emotional reasons that need to be probed more indirectly.


The following examples illustrate these Secrets.

Note: A lot of these examples are not recent because I can’t talk about current products for obvious reasons. Let me assure you that these secrets — key principles — are just as true now as they ever were.

Medical devices – Secret #1 (An idea is not a product)

Most new medical devices contradict the established way of doing things rather dramatically. In any such situation, it is very important to understand the sources of pride and other benefits of doing things the old way.

The IBM Jr. and the IBM Convertible – Secret #1

The original IBM Personal computer was one of the greatest business successes of all time. But their introduction of the PC Jr. and the Convertible were amazingly short of what consumers wanted. These monumental setbacks would probably have been avoided, and possibly turned into a success, with better concept development work. Don’t think that a series of smashing successes guarantees anything for your next product.

The joggers stopwatch – Secret #1

The first digital jogger’s stopwatch was a great idea – except that you could not switch from the stopwatch mode to see the real time, without wiping out the elapsed time on the stopwatch function. So, a jogger could not tell what time it actually was, only how long he/she had been running. The execution of the concept is as important as its abstract description. Also, it often pays to concept test your competitors’ products. You can often find a fatal flaw in an otherwise good concept, which is easily correctable.

Buccal tablets – Secrets #2 & 10 (superiority not enough and include influencers)

These are tablets which are placed between the upper gum and the cheek, in the “buccal cavity.” The tablet slowly releases its drug over a period of hours directly into the small blood vessels in the gum. It is one of many “new drug delivery systems,” designed to bypass the stomach, where many drugs are destroyed. The need for this type of system is unquestioned, especially for the very large and fragile molecules of the newer bioengineered drugs. The first drug to use that system was believed by physicians to be unacceptable to patients, even though the few patients who were on it, loved it. There were several flaws in how the product was demonstrated, which the company was not aware of. Make sure that there aren’t unsold influencers, who can kill the product. Also, how the product will be demonstrated is an integral part of the product and should be carefully considered.

The Lisa – Secret #2

When Apple Computer’s Lisa was introduced, I conducted telephone groups of computer store owners (not for Apple). The participants were very positive toward the Lisa and thought that it would be a smashing success. However, they were unable to support their response with a reason that made sense and could not justify its price. I concluded that their “positive reaction” was nothing more than a “Gee Wiz” reaction expressing amazement over the technological achievements of the device. They clearly would not be able to sell it to their customers on that basis. It was clear that the machine would be a failure, but that a much cheaper version would be a success. The Lisa (which failed) was subsequently turned into the Macintosh, a tremendous success. The enthusiastic unsupportable acceptance of the concept should not be interpreted as a positive outcome in the case of major purchases.

Multiple payee check – Secret #2

A bank check with multiple payees. It contradicted peoples’ fundamental practices of check writing. While convenience is a very powerful benefit and wins more often than not (the Instamatic camera, frozen meals, etc.), it doesn’t win when it is in direct opposition to inherent preferences.

Diagnostic tests – Secret #3 (Product perception is everything)

I have worked with several diagnostic tests which excited physicians for reasons other than the uses for which it was designed. What could be more straightforward than a test that will confirm whether someone has a disease? But sometimes the tests were not perceived as necessary for making the evaluation. Instead, the tests were perceived as helping to decide whether to use more expensive tests and treatments, how aggressively to pursue treatment and which drugs to use. The lesson here is that as much attention should be paid to the perceived uses of the product as to its original intended use.

Enuretic device – Secret #3

A device which was to be worn by bed-wetters. It was perceived as having a potential for electric shock. There were other aspects of the product which were also perceived as offensive, punitive and degrading. Pediatricians were so offended by the product that it was clear that no amount of persuasion could have sold it. Initial perceptions can (rightly or wrongly) make it impossible for people to listen to any subsequent persuasion.

Unit dose ophthalmic – Secret #4 (You Need a Laboratory)

To simulate actual use, we requested physicians to wear their standard surgical gloves for the product test. They could not open the package. If you can’t test under actual conditions, try to simulate them as closely as possible.

A prepared dessert – Secret #4

After being tested in standard laboratory test kitchens with consumers, the dessert was tested in the real world for in-home use. We had the dessert delivered to peoples’ homes and asked them to serve it to the family as dessert for that evening’s meal. The housewives then participated in a telephone focus group immediately afterward. While they agreed that the dessert tasted wonderful and contained no preservatives, it broke down in consistency under household conditions, making it runny and watery. Mothers are not going to take the care and effort in serving desserts to a busy family that they do operating in test kitchens. Concepts which require demonstration should be demonstrated under actual usage conditions.

ATM’s (Automated teller machines) – Secrets #5 & 6 (Not a test: it’s gradual refinement)

Described previously. Illustrates need to not make it a pass/fail test, but a development process. Also to allow enough groups to develop the concept from negative to positive.

A new kind of antibiotic – Secret #7 & 8 (Atmosphere of safety and savvy researcher)

In this case we went to typical physicians. They liked the concept, but “damned it by faint praise” When pressed, they really saw little need for it. By creating the proper atmosphere in the group, we were able to encourage them to speculate on other uses of the drug. They mentioned their frustrations in treating infections in a particular organ system, which was not an anticipated first indication for the drug. It turned out that the drug was extremely effective for that infection. In subsequent groups, they said that they would use it for the infection in question. It turned out that it was this new use that drove much of the initial interest in the drug. The lesson here is that you must listen for and build on what is not said, and what is said in passing (or as a joke), as much as listening for the main content of the session.

A cold preparation – Secret #9 (Plan for successive refinement)

I once worked with a consumer cold preparation which had a different form than the usual tablet, lozenge or liquid. However, my client, a pharmaceutical firm, was not in the consumer end of the business. Because we planned enough groups, we were not only able to see that the concept was a winner, but that the marketing would need a highly specialized packaged goods approach, involving extensive positioning work, persuasion and unusual advertising, which was not their primary expertise. We recommended that they sell this outstanding product opportunity to an OTC pharmaceutical company, who would be better able to capitalize on it. A winning product can be a loser in the wrong company.

Holter Monitor – Secret #10 (Include influencers)

The Holter Monitor is a portable electrocardiogram machine which is worn for 24 hours, providing a continuous record. The resulting output can be analyzed to detect cardiac arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats). When we brought together the country’s leading cardiologists to first hear about the ideas in several telephone focus groups, they went wild (the “Aha response”). They told us exactly how to design the unit, what pitfalls to avoid and what clinical studies should be provided. The lesson here, again, is to go to people who will drive the acceptance, and even more importantly, to go to them early enough to be able to do the right homework — clinical studies in this case.

VCR’s – Secret #8 & 10 (Use an expert marketer and go to influencers)

I was asked if I could help circumvent the initial unsuccessful introduction of video recorders. This may seem unbelievable now. We conducted telephone focus groups of buyers and top salespeople from high-volume retailers to understand why this revolutionary technical breakthrough was meeting such resistance. The manufacturer was focusing more on the technology than the application. Talking to the salespeople directly provided us with a consumer perspective. These people were uninterested in our marvelous technology, but pointed out that we had to help them sell it to their customers, the consumer. TV programs are usually not a valuable asset to be preserved. VCR’s were originally positioned to allow people to record television shows and play them over and over. Not very exciting. In the words of one salesperson,“Who wants to save garbage?”

Most people in those days watched television and accepted whatever was on at the time. This “take what you get” constraint of TV turned out to be the opportunity. When I asked the buyers and salespeople, how they would sell a video tape recorder to me, they said that they would sell it as something which would allow me to watch whatever I wanted when I wanted to, then reuse the tape, not save it. The concept of viewing-time option was born, together with greater selectivity. Selectavision was the brilliant name conceived of later. Incidentally, the salespeople joked that it would help if X-rated movies were also available. As you know, it was these two forces that drove the tremendous acceptance of the VCR: viewing-time option and X-rated movies. The lessons to be learned here are: you must go to the people who are likely to know how to turn the idea into a successful product. Also, about the porn: many a true word is said in jest.

Generic drugs – Secret #10 (Influencers)

Some concepts are already on the market when they are reevaluated as concepts. In the early seventies, generic drugs had been around for awhile. However, focus groups of key state legislators, pharmacists and physicians revealed that it was an “idea whose time had come.” Physicians were still very much against the idea, but it was clear that circumstances were such that an overwhelming consumer demand would soon be created. The lesson here is that the prediction of the success of an idea also depends on timing. In your files, you may find many ideas whose time had just not come in yet.


The following is what should come out of most concept development projects:

  • Analysis of current usage patterns.
  • Who the real audience is.
  • Under what conditions people will buy, prescribe and/or use the product.
  • The psychological state people will have to be in to use the product.
  • A description of the product which turns people on (the refined concept statement is the framework of the sales material).
  • The “hot buttons” for the product.
  • The strategic positioning – its fundamental identity, how it will be described, what it purports to be.  I.e., what are you selling?, a bank card, teller replacement, 24 hour service, fast money access, etc.
  • What kinds of substantiation, information and other material will people need in order to try it and use it.
  • Who will try it first, next, and so on.
  • The type of trial.

New products and new product concepts are exciting, challenging and rewarding. If I can help you translate your new product visions from dreams to reality, let me know.