Performance Claims: When, Why and How to Use Them

Kevin Gallagher 850

Editor’s Note: Kevin Gallagher wishes for this be a discussion, not a monologue. Please forward to him any questions you have about performance claims testing, and share your successes—and stumbles—that you’ve had along the way.

Have you ever thought about what personal care formulators and their R&D management teams need to know about performance and claims testing? I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer depends on the kinds of products they are developing and the nature of the organization in which they work.

Maybe the best short answer to this question is that the more formulators and R&D management know, the better prepared they will be. Since preparation is often a good predictor of success, there’s a solid argument for better understanding.

No Small Step

This is a big subject, and an important one. The best way to cover so much ground is to start out one step at a time. Ask yourself some thought-provoking questions before you start thinking about performance testing.

There are, of course, different kinds of performance and claims testing, so it might be worth some time understanding something about these differences. The first question that must be asked is not a technical question but a business one: What kind of performance claims are aligned with your brand? If the performance claim does not add to the value of the brand, then it has little if any value—no matter how good it might be.

Despite the many technical issues that must be considered, the brand issue needs to come first for a number of reasons. The purpose of performance claim testing is to help the product achieve success; let’s take that as our first “principle.” The performance or claims results must contribute in some way to the business success of the product. While this can be done in many ways, the strongest claim contributes to the brand’s equity.

Once we accept the first principle, and acknowledge the importance of the equity of our brand to our business success—and our continued employment!—we can either reinforce the “promise of the brand” to the consumer or extend it in a way that remains well aligned with the brand identity and related to that of the consumer. This has profound implications for how we need to think about relevant performance claims.

It’s Just a Statement

Perhaps the simplest version of a “performance claim” is a simple statement of fact. These statements can include the presence of specific ingredients in the product. Sometimes these may also include “free” claims, where rather than stating that an ingredient is included, the statement indicates that a specific ingredient or ingredient class is not included.

While “free” claims are usually not scientific in their basis, they either relate to the brand promise or the consumer’s idea of their own identity. This may not be scientific, but it is very powerful because such claims resonate with the consumer.

Take for example a personal care product that makes a simple “claim” that is a statement of fact: it contains a certain ingredient. What exactly does that mean? If the claim is that the product “contains ingredient Z,” it may be the simplest claim to prove, but does it add any value? That depends on the consumer and several factors related to the ingredient, the consumer, and the brand. The only requirement needed to satisfy this claim is to make sure that ingredient Z is included.

Differentiating One Product from Another

It’s important to remember that with mandatory ingredient disclosure, ingredients can become an important source of differentiation for personal care products. If the product needs to be differentiated (and what product doesn’t?), from another on the shelf, (or in online listings), a “differentiating ingredient” Might suffice. What qualities would ingredient Z need to qualify?

Ingredient Z will need to satisfy a number of qualities, and it is worth some time to think through what they might be. The first quality is that the ingredient is known or can be made known to the consumer. If the consumer has no idea what this ingredient is, then it is unlikely that its presence will positively influence the consumer’s buying decision. If the ingredient is known to the consumer, then several other attributes become important. The first is that the consumer has a positive association with the ingredient.

For instance, if the ingredient was silk or a silk derivative, then consumers would associate it with a number of positive attributes: soft feel, luxury, etc. Then the question would become whether the consumer would believe that the presence of this ingredient would have a beneficial influence on the performance of the product. Next would come the question about whether these attributes are well aligned with the brand, and if it meets the “promise of the brand,” as viewed by consumers.

If the ingredient is not well-known, it will have to be introduced and the consumer educated about its positive attributes. The additional cost of educating consumers about a new ingredient is the reason that so many “new” ingredients in personal care are actually known from other industries. Consumers can then recognize and associate the ingredient with positive attributes.

Don’t Be New Coke*

Questions abound about whether the positive attributes appeal to the current consumers of the brand or to new users, but these become more and more the province of marketing research and less about the formulator’s role in understanding new product development and performance claims. We need to be sensitive to these issues or risk being part of a colossal mistake, like “New Coke” was in the 1980s. Just because a new formula performs better in blind taste tests does indicate its ability to succeed in the market.

This all assumes an important point that is worth mentioning: that the performance claim will be shared with the consumer. What occasions would this not happen, and what factors would influence the decision?

It’s likely that on many occasions, some kind of performance testing would be done and the results withheld from consumers, particularly if it involved comparison to another brand. This would require the manufacturer to go through the scrutiny and potential for legal challenge that comparative advertising demands, hurdles that many companies are unwilling to leap.

The Leaps and Bounds of Performance Claims

In the United States, for instance, the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Better Business Bureau (BBB) is often asked to act as arbiters and settle competing claims. Likewise, networks can have their own standards involving acceptable comparison claims. A consumer company may not want to subject the product and itself to this kind of challenge, but it still may want to know, for its own sense of confidence, whether the product can outperform the competition.

Even if the formulator seeks validation by having data that will be kept in-house regarding the ability of a new product to outperform the competition, it still strongly suggests discussion with the marketing department about the identity of the relevant competitor. The marketing folks may have already communicated these ideas in the brief for the new product when it went to R&D. In that case, a clear benchmark for performance is likely already in place.

Performance claims require a lot of contemplation before ever getting to R&D to develop a protocol or calling a testing laboratory. Is the claim something we intend to share with consumers? How will it help add value to the brand? Is a simple statement of fact sufficient? Or do we need more? Does the claim have the right consumer awareness and attributes that align with our brand?

Only after we’ve satisfied these questions and aligned with the brand’s needs can we go on to discuss more specific issues around performance claims. If a simple statement of fact is not enough, what kind of performance needs to be measured? That will lead to other questions we need answers; specifically, how is this performance measured and how do should the results be communicated?

More in Methods/Tools