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Do 2 out of 3 really prefer it? A primer on count-based advertising claims

23-Sep-2013 - By Maggie Hennessy
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What better way to assert a product’s superiority than to actually demonstrate that consumers prefer it over the competition? 

Just make sure your claims can be backed up by proper design and statistics, according to Daniel Ennis, PhD and president of the Institute for Perception, a research consulting firm specializing in advertising claims support.

“Making successful advertising claims can be really valuable to companies,” Dr. Ennis told FoodNavigator-USA. “But an unsupported claim can destroy a whole product line.” Aside from hefty legal damages, the resulting reputational damage to the brand and company could topple any headway a product may make into the marketplace, he added.

What is a count-based claim?

Count-based sensory advertising claims come in two main forms: proportional (seven out of 10) and ratio (two to one) comparisons. Where companies often run into trouble is simple lack of awareness of what is required to make a defensible claim—which involves meeting a range of requirements, such as number and distribution of people, blind testing and statistical analysis of the raw data.

“Often what happens is people are conducting research for marketing or product development purposes, and they find something they like buried in a load of other information,” Dr. Ennis said. “Without thinking about the legal implications, they go ahead with the marketing campaign. Suddenly, the legal folks are asking, ‘What have you done?’ Then they bring in the experts, who say that the sensory testing done was not done with the intent of making this claim, rendering it invalid.”

If the indefensible claim has disparaged the competition in any way (“Our product tastes better than theirs!” “The competition’s fiber optic network is made up of tired, old wires!”), the disparaged company could—but doesn’t always—approach the Better Business Bureau’s investigative arm, the National Advertising Division (NAD), or seek legal damages on its own.

“Say you want to claim that two out of three consumers prefer your oven-baked sandwich over the competition. If you have nine people try it, and six people prefer yours, can you say two out of three prefer it? No, that’s not enough; because if you do statistical analysis, that claim wouldn’t be supported with six out of nine or even nine out of nine because nine people typically can't represent a diverse population,” he said.

“In order to be fair to the competition, you have to make sure you get a number in excess of 200 to say ‘two out of three’—somewhere between 210 or 215 out of 300. That’s the kind of stuff we’re dealing with in the general context of people making claims. They have to be reasonable and justifiable.”

Although in most cases, the onus is on the disparaged company to raise issue with false claims, the NAD is highly active in cases involving health-related claims, such as nutritional or protective benefits, that could potentially cause harm to the public, specifically children.

In the $150K ballpark…

Dr. Ennis estimates that the entire process of performing a proper, national sensory test will run companies an estimated $150,000, plus whatever expenses are required to defend the claim—because you can “get challenged even if you have good evidence,” Dr. Ennis said. “Attorneys charge a lot, even if you’re winning.”  

Thus, he noted that it’s essential to first determine the business benefit of making the claim. “I’d recommend that the decision makers in the business have an informed group meeting with all departments involved—marketing, legal, and internal and external sensory testing folks. Figure out exactly what you want to claim and how it will benefit the business. Get everybody on the same page and make sure they all know that this could be expensive.”

Not only does proper testing involve getting a minimum of 300-odd participants, but that sample should be somewhat representative of the population. For example, if consumers in one of eight cities selected for a taste test of light beer have a proven tendency to purchase one brand, that must be compensated for by obtaining quotas of beer purchases in other cities to balance it out.

Moreover, the focus of the test itself should be on obtaining a single piece of information (i.e., which cookie has creamier-tasting filling), rather than succumbing to the temptation to glean as much data as possible from participants, which can muddy the overall results.

“Avoid the marketing temptation to give them a big, long questionnaire asking all sorts of things about color or flavor,” Dr. Ennis said. “With claims tests, we usually recommend that the test focus on the claim, sometimes to the point of only asking one question. If you give them more, they get confused and it could cloud the data we’re really trying to get.”

Above all, Dr. Ennis noted, be prepared to defend the claim and put egos aside.

“On certain occasions, I’ve advised small companies not to proceed with claims,” he said. “Start-ups that have gotten investors and are making a product they believed would be better than everybody else’s at some particular thing, but they had a big competitor.

"Some companies are more willing to sue than others. But you have to ask yourself, ‘Do I really want to do this? Do I want to call out a Nestle or a Procter & Gamble?’ They will know the ropes; they’ve been there before. If you are going to get into this, you have to have the budget. If you get challenged, you better find $1 million somewhere. Otherwise, you can quickly run out of money.”

As part of the Institute for Perception’s quarterly webinar series, vice president John Ennis, PhD, taught a Sept. 19 webinar, entitled “Supporting Count-Based Sensory Advertising Claims”. The recording is available for purchase. The company is also hosting a course on advertising claims support April 7-9, 2014.

Related topics: Product claims, Regulation