For some things, Columbus is still the best test market

Columbus has been historically known as a test market. That’s for sure. But what isn’t as sure is whether the city is still a powerhouse for test marketing because it doesn’t represent U.S. demographics as much as it did in the past.

For example, the 2010 U.S. Census found that Hispanics comprised 16 percent of the total population, but only 5.6 percent of Columbus’ population.

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Shashi Matta

Despite these differences, Shashi Matta, clinical associate professor of marketing at The Ohio State University Fisher College of Business, says Columbus still has a strong history in test marketing because large retail and food companies — both industries that rely on test marketing — are headquartered in the area. Proximity helps keep expenses down.

You also can find experienced market research agencies and partners in Central Ohio.

“Given its rich history of being a test market, given the strong presence of retail and food in the region, it still continues to be a good test market,” he says.

That’s not to say, Columbus still isn’t very representative, beyond race.

WalletHub recently looked at the 379 largest U.S. metropolitan statistical areas to see which most resembled the U.S. When considering sociodemographics and statistics in housing, economics and education, Columbus came in fourth.

Up close and personal

Even in today’s technology age, test marketing still plays an important part in product development.

“It’s an expensive proposition,” Matta says. “Test marketing is not all that simple, but it’s still less expensive than making a costly mistake after you launch the product nationwide.”

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Melody Leidheiser

Melody Leidheiser, manager of OSU’s Sensory Evaluation Program, sees market testing as more viable than ever when you can get people to physically test a product. That’s especially true for food testing because people have such a personal relationship with it.

“I’m not in favor, myself, of internet studies that are done without any interaction with the product,” she says.

Several times a week, delicious aromas float through OSU’s Parker Food Science building as Leidheiser’s team tests products for food companies throughout Ohio and nationwide.

Each test typically brings in about 100 testers from its 5,000-person database, whether students or people from the surrounding community. Leidheiser says the tests can be segmented, whether that’s only bringing in women or a certain level of income.

The Sensory Evaluation Program also has partnered with other universities across the country to get the right representation. However, she says if you want to get a West Coast reaction, you don’t have to run a test in California. You can run it in Columbus with transplants and get nearly the same results.

“Whatever you grow up with, it’s still embedded in you,” Leidheiser says.

When it comes to food testing, the basics haven’t changed. Does it look good? Does it smell good? Do I like it when I taste it?

Leidheiser says those three things are always the precursor for the information you can get on your product.

“Lots of people think that because there’s more information, that it should be better information. Not necessarily. It’s how you gather it,” she says. “Truthfully, it’s all about the recruit and the person you bring in that’s actually evaluating it, and then structuring the ballot to represent the information.”

Evaluating data

If you’re going to test a product, you need a whole picture outlook as well as an actionable item to test for, Leidheiser says.

If the sauce cannot be changed, there’s no point testing for that. If you want to change suppliers to cut costs, that’s something that can be specifically examined.

Ohio State wants to structure the test to be meaningful and completely unbiased.

“Everything that comes out of here is exactly the way we see it,” she says. “What happens after that, we don’t know.

“That’s why it’s great working here and not working for a company,” Leidheiser says. “There’s nothing worse than going into a meeting knowing you have bad news and everybody in the room is higher up than you.”

OSU’s testing program also is less expensive than outside marketing firms. She says the testers are paid less — and seem to expect this because it’s a university — and overhead is low.

Other advantages with Ohio State’s program are space for long-term customers to store cooking equipment, being exposed to the most updated techniques for asking questions and the ability to do a completely unbranded test.

“I used to work at Wendy’s and do their consumer tests at their corporate headquarters,” Leidheiser says. “You know when you’re coming in there, who it’s for, obviously, and you have an opinion about that.”

 

How to reach: The Ohio State University Sensory Evaluation Center, (614) 688-4793; Fisher College of Business