Understanding Consumer Behavior and Preferences

Deep understanding of consumer behavior and preferences is the foundation of any successful consumer goods business. That is why companies like Procter & Gamble and Unilever invest significant resources behind quantitative consumer research but also on one-on-one and small group discussions with consumers to fully grasp consumer habits, practices, and preferences when it comes to particular product categories. Seemingly mundane chores like washing and bathing, personal care or cleaning, drive choices consumers make about which products to buy.

When a large multinational consumer products company ventures into new emerging markets, it carries with it a large body of knowledge about consumer behavior and preferences. So it was with this knowledge that I was sent from Procter & Gamble’s headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio to launch the company in Pakistan in the early 1990s. In a startup environment such as we faced, it is not advisable or possible to conduct all the research a company may have done over the years in its home country.

So we started with what we knew from the large body of research done in the U.S. We had chosen Head & Shoulders shampoo and Olay skin cream as the first brands to be launched in this market. We started conducting focus group discussions with 8-10 consumers at a time, trying to get reactions to the various marketing messages with which he wanted to launch these brands in Pakistan.

Olay is a relatively upscale brand that is positioned as a cream or lotion that easily absorbs into your skin, leaving no visible oily residue. “Olay cream is so light, you will hardly know it is there,” was the positioning and benefit statement with which the brand was to be launched.

We had a hard time explaining this benefit to the women participating in our focus groups in Pakistan. Local consumers’ expectation from this skin cream was that it would provide a visual cosmetic benefit, in addition to a moisturizing effect. “If I can’t even see it on my skin, what would I be spending my money for?” and “How would I explain to my husband where the money is going?” were some of the comments we heard.

We struggled to find a positioning for the brand that would resonate with consumers and still stay close to the premise on which this brand stood everywhere else in the world. We launched the brand in 1991, hoping consumers would ultimately buy into the positioning. The brand did not succeed, and we were forced to withdraw it from the market a couple of years later, amid soft sales.

Head & Shoulders, on the other hand, was known among Pakistani consumers as an efficacious anti-dandruff shampoo. Procter & Gamble had not launched the brand in Pakistan yet, but it had been available in the market through traders who were bringing it from the Middle East in limited quantities.

Even with this brand, we ran into an issue of consumer acceptance and belief system. Head & Shoulders had been built as a global powerhouse brand based on the need to avoid embarrassment in social situations that would come from visible dandruff on one’s shoulders. To our surprise, consumers in Pakistan did not seem to think having some visible dandruff was a big deal. “Everyone has some dandruff, especially in the winter.” For them, this brand was for people with acute dandruff issues. That was not a promise on which a large shampoo business could be built. We wanted instead to target consumers with “dandruff concerns” who would use the shampoo every day to keep from having dandruff.

We kept digging deeper and deeper, until we found situations where visible dandruff would truly be an embarrassment, such as a woman meeting her prospective in-laws for the first time, and a young man being commended by his boss for great performance and being informed of an upcoming promotion. To Pakistani consumers, these were very sensitive situations when having visible dandruff would be truly embarrassing.

Thus Head & Shoulders shampoo was launched in Pakistan with two commercials titled “Wedding” and “Promotion.” Twenty-five years later, Head & Shoulders remains a leading shampoo brand in Pakistan today, and one of the strongest in the portfolio of P&G in Pakistan – business success built on true consumer insight and understanding.

S. Qaisar Shareef

August 14, 2017