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Decision Centered Solutions for Clients

The Consumer & Customer Cognition Group within ARA's Cognitive Solutions Division (formerly Klein Associates Division) supported the world's largest packaged salad company with Cognitive Science during the recent E. coli outbreak.

When the FDA warned consumers in September that bagged organic spinach had been linked to several cases of E. coli infection, retailers in every region of the country began pulling the product off their shelves. Simultaneously, the nation's produce industry began preparing for the possibility of widespread repercussions on their business as consumers tried to decide what was safe to eat in the fresh food section of their grocery store.

What were consumers going to need to hear in order to feel safe in purchasing produce again? Retail packaged salad giant Fresh Express turned to ARA's Consumer & Customer Cognition (CCC) Group within the Cognitive Solutions Division (formerly Klein Associates Division) (KAD) for answers. The CCC Group had been working with Fresh Express over the past year as the produce giant sought to reignite the growth of its business by leveraging "decision centered" insights to create a strong relationship with its consumers. Indications from grocers within the first 24 hours of the spinach-related E. coli news suggested that consumers perceived the health threat to be serious and to have implications for produce beyond organic spinach. The implications appeared to extend to non-organic products including pre-packaged salads, the core of Fresh Express's business.

"Our work with Fresh Express has been to help them understand the consumer decision-making process -- and the recent E-coli incident highlighted a new and very different context in which purchase decisions were being made, " said Dr. Denise Archambault, a psychologist who heads KAD's Consumer and Customer Cognition Group. "People going to the grocery store were faced with more than just what to buy for dinner tonight. In reality, they were making a health decision for themselves and their families. Fresh Express needed to know how to best help their customers. What information would be most helpful on their web site? What would callers to their Consumer Response Center be asking? What should Fresh Express' customer representatives be saying to provide concerned callers with support and build confidence in the product category again? And what should Fresh Express be saying to the news media that would help consumers integrate important safety information while mitigating any excessive 'sensationalism' of news communications. Fresh Express wanted to ensure that they were giving consumers clear information -- not only to build back confidence in their own business, but in the farming industry as a whole."

Within 24 hours of the first news alerts about the E. coli outbreak, the CCC Group partnered on two key pieces of research with the client. In combination, the two research efforts allowed Fresh Express to keep track of the impact of the news on consumers' health concerns while crafting a communication strategy tailored specifically to help consumers deal effectively with any real threat and alleviate any unnecessary concern.

The first piece of research that was launched was a weekly, nationwide Internet survey to track awareness of the E. coli outbreak, level of consumer concern about the outbreak, and changes in produce purchasing behavior. "The on-going tracking survey we're running for Fresh Express serves to keep a pulse read on what's happening in consumers' minds -- how serious do people believe the threat is, do they believe that E. coli has been found on produce other than spinach, which products are they avoiding buying, and how long do they plan to avoid these products," said Dr. Archambault . "Pre-packaged salad is the mainstay of Fresh Express, in fact, they are the largest retailer of bagged salad in the United States.

"Although they do sell bagged spinach, it is a small part of the Fresh Express business. If consumers decided that the E. coli threat applied to other types of bagged produce, it could significantly affect their business as a whole.

"Members of several groups within KAD joined forces on the second, and most critical, piece of research. The research involved in-depth interviews to understand how consumer decisions about buying produce within the context of the E. coli outbreak would be affected in the short term -- and what factors could affect the longer term course of a consumer's progress from fear about their health back to confidence in safe, healthy produce. As part of this work, the team examined consumer expectations about the actions of key players during the ongoing news about the outbreak -- players such as farmers, grocery stores, the FDA, and companies like Fresh Express.

"The interviews focused on what consumers were thinking about the manufacturing process and what they reported they would need to see and hear from the key players to work their way back to confidence in the industry, confidence in the product category, and confidence in a brand," said Dave Malek, a Senior Scientist within KAD who worked as part of the technical team on this project to provide timely, actionable feedback to the Fresh Express client.

"The longer consumers decide to stay away from bagged spinach, or any pre-packaged salads, the more revenue our client loses each day," said Dr. Archambault . "The work the Consumer & Customer Cognition Group completed was designed to help our client understand the levers available to effectively help consumers back into the category -- and to insure that consumers see Fresh Express as a company that hears their concerns and responds appropriately -- like having a trusted friend in the industry."

"Fresh Express needed to know how consumers were making their purchase decisions during the context of the E. coli outbreak," said Dr. Archambault. "Our research mapped the context and decision process in a way that allowed our client to develop a more effective, consumer relationship building, revenue-relevant action plan during a time of crisis for the brand. Our work had a direct impact on the public statements that Fresh Express made following the outbreak. We combined state-of-the-art marketing research with cutting-edge cognitive science to bring them actionable insights that both we and our client believe will have a strong impact on this three-billion-dollar-a-year business."

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