The secret to some of last year’s most successful CPG innovations

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VP, Client Experience

Some of the largest CPG brands in the world are turning to a new philosophy when it comes to consumer research. It’s agile. It’s iterative. And it is helping them innovate more effectively.

It’s the study of meaning.

Why? Some say there is one universal truth – the only constant is change. Take culture. It is in a constant state of flux. And as culture changes, so do the buying and consumption patterns of our consumers.

So, if you want to predict consumption, one must be able to predict what is happening in culture.

And if you want to understand what is happening in culture, you have to look at the dominant meanings that consumers are using to understand the world (and where your product fits in it).

This is one of the most common problems MotivBase is asked to solve because our AI Anthropological approach allows us to map meanings as they are manipulated by consumers over time. It’s really the only way to accurately predict if a cultural shift is occurring.

And we are seeing more and more large retailers and CPG companies embrace it.

Why? Because the world is complex. Sure, if you went back twenty years, most major CPGs could and would look to past behavior to predict future behavior. Consumer habits were more easily tracked, charted and acted upon. But the world changed. Today:

  • The Internet made information more accessible.
  • The smartphone made it instantaneous.
  • New nimble CPGs made the market more fragmented.

As a result, a tremendous amount of pressure has been placed on the consumer.

Because more information and more choice doesn’t just require more thought and more time. It requires more justification for why a choice is made.

The need to better justify one’s choice has led to the meanings associated with a purchase becoming deeper, and more emotional than ever before. In fact, in most instances the emotional underpinning that is driving a purchase is subconscious.

The reason for believing in a purchase is so deep, the consumer could never articulate what is drawing their hand towards that box of cereal, that carton of milk or that bar of soap.

This poses a big problem for research, innovation and R&D teams at CPGs. Because they can’t use their standard or traditional tool box to study, understand, or plot the needs of the consumer. Because:

  • You can’t ask a consumer where culture is heading.
  • You can’t ask a consumer to describe something about themselves they don’t understand.
  • You can’t look at one, two or three hundred consumers and assume this is relevant to the masses.

So what do you do?

You study meaning and you do it at big-data-scale.

Predicting the relevance and growth of a trend

Before we begin. Let’s talk about what a trend is and what a trend isn’t.

  • An ingredient is not a trend.
  • A diet is not a trend.
  • A product category that starts to grow is not a trend.

If someone is telling you that “mango” is the big thing this year, your immediate question needs to be “why”?

Too many organizations want a simple answer to a complex question. Too many suppliers are oversimplifying what is happening in the marketplace. Those simple answers, will not yield the desired results. For a more detailed explanation, check out this article by our CEO.

For your innovation to thrive you need to understand:

  • Why are consumers moving towards a certain ingredient?
  • What are the consumer-led associations that are making one diet more relevant than another?
  • What checklist is an old product all of sudden satisfying that is making it culturally viable again?

For this, you need to study meaning.

When MotivBase engages with over 130 clients, we are almost always brought in to identify emerging trends. But, trend identification is just the tip of the iceberg. In order to truly help an innovation or R&D team prioritize opportunities and build an effective pipeline, we need to understand the size of the population that will be interested in or engage with an idea, and what the growth trajectory is to pinpoint the exact right time to bring something to market.

  • Launch something too early, and it will not yield the return the organization requires.
  • Launch something too late, and you will lose out to your competition.

Let’s look at a short use case.

Understanding consumer expectations for mineral supplements in the context of mood.

Over the last 12 months one of our large CPG clients has worked with MotivBase across their innovation process.

The goal?

To identify early signals and validate the legitimacy of trends. This assures the foresight and innovation teams are moving in the right direction.

Our AI Anthropologist helped the client to strip away their industry lens, and take a more pure and consumer-led approach to understanding the unmet needs of the consumer. And because our system can map, and quantify shifts in meaning, the client was able to better understand, quantify and prioritize the “why” behind changes in consumer expectations and behavior.

This “why” is critical.

Because while there were a number of social media analytics companies and research firms that specialize in pattern recognition that were seeing strange fluctuation (around a topic like magnesium), they could not actually pinpoint or share cultural “why” this was happening.

That is where we stepped in.

By leveraging our AI Anthropologist, we were able to quickly see that there was a whole culture of consumers looking to enhance mood via increasing the intake of mineral supplements.

Within this macroculture were 3 dominant microcultures.

  1. Improve Sleep.
  2. Improve and Boost Energy.
  3. Supplement for loss of nutrients during dieting.

Magnesium presented itself in all 3 microcultures.

For sleep, consumers were looking to some mineral supplements (like magnesium) and natural supplements (like psyllium) to aid in slow digestion. Improving digestion improves the ability to digest fatty foods, and prevents heartburn and stomach discomfort that can prevent proper sleep.

For boosting energy, consumers were looking to magnesium to help them boost energy as one part of a healthy lifestyle. Magnesium was being used in conjunction with consumers looking to increase energy levels with high intensity exercise, a more diligent approach to managing water intake, and avoiding dehydration and countering electrolyte imbalances.

But while these microcultures validated what our client knew, there was something more important holding magnesium back.

While many consumers were looking to supplements to help replace nutrients that were being denied during a diet or fast, magnesium posed an issue. Namely, ‘fasters’ believed magnesium was problematic because magnesium supplements can increase appetite, making fasting even more difficult.

The culture of fasting diets is having an impact on the culture of magnesium supplementation.

You can not identify or discover this type of cultural collision by analyzing mentions. Because it is not enough to simply study and unlock social data. You need to apply an anthropological lens that allows us to understand secondary, and tertiary meanings that are the root cause for the cultural shift.

As you can imagine, this insight provides both opportunities for product innovation, as well as communication opportunities to teach consumers who are looking to complement a fasting diet, but the most important discovery was that one could not simply bet on magnesium because there is a lot of chatter.

This is the difference between studying meaning, and studying conversation.

It is the nuance, that truly goes beyond what people are saying, to decode the why.

How AI Anthropology can help your business grow

MotivBase combines our always-on cultural trend prediction software solution, with two additional solutions. The first is an early-warning detection tool designed to look at emerging trends before they hit the mainstream.

The second is an anthropological tool designed to take consumer review data, and then isolate and quantify the size of jobs-to-be-done.

This allows us to select the right tool for the right use case, or to perform a comprehensive 360 degree examination of a category and follow the breadcrumbs being revealed by the consumer and start with early trends, compare them to mainstream meanings that are shaping the culture and dig into the nuanced, and tangible actions the consumer is taking to solve for their unmet needs.


The beauty of studying meaning, is that we can also look at where both meaning and cultures collide. The net result is the ability to look at:

  1. Social Cultures (like the culture of racial injustice)
  2. Cultures Around Trends (like a new diet)
  3. Category Culture (like yogurt)

And our tool is built to allow you to look at them individually, or to identify the intersection of these different cultures. For an example of that, please see this sample report on the intersection of the social justice movement and how it is reshaping the food industry.

The goal is to provide an organization with the ability to inform:

  1. Corporate strategy
  2. Category Strategy
  3. Validate Innovation Pipelines
  4. Validate Communication Objectives
  5. Better understand your consumers in general.

To find out more about how we apply AI Anthropology to drive business growth and use the study of meaning to drive more meaningful innovation, please contact us here.

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