30-second summary:

  • StarKist, a 100-year-old company, was facing uncertainty in the market. It began launching new products in 2000 when it introduced the pouch category, but growth stagnated for another 15 years
  • Traditional forms of market research like consumer surveys and focus groups didn’t get to the heart of what drove consumers to purchase StarKist’s products
  • StarKist implemented social listening platform Netbase Quid to leverage social listening and better understand what consumers wanted
  • By combining social listening intelligence with traditional sources, StarKist made product enhancements like reducing pouch size and unit price, introducing bolder flavors, and highlighting features consumers were interested in such as calorie count and protein content
  • The changes resonated with consumers, growing StarKist’s pouch category by 75 percent and nearly doubling household penetration. Pouches now comprise over 40 percent of StarKist’s sales.

Headquartered in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, StarKist, is a leading brand of tuna in the US. The company was founded over a century ago.

Over the past five years, StarKist has leveraged consumer and market intelligence to reinvigorate their brand. By proactively tapping into consumer sentiment, StarKist turned real-time consumer sentiment into a successful product innovation and marketing strategy.

We spoke with Andy Mecs, the Vice President of Marketing and Innovation at StarKist, to learn more about how StarKist uses conversational analytics to inform product development and marketing strategy.

Mecs’ team is responsible for all consumer facing marketing initiatives, category management, market research, and ecommerce. Mecs also oversees research & development, quality assurance, and corporate affairs.

The challenge of commoditization

Five years ago, StarKist faced uncertainty in the market. Their product was highly commoditized, there was high uncertainty in their profits, and earnings fluctuated with raw fish costs. “We were in a stagnating, declining category,” says Mecs. “We had to redefine ourselves and find a new identity.”

To de-commoditize the tuna category, StarKist began launching different types of products, most notably the pouch. StarKist Tuna in a Pouch was a breakthrough product introduced in 2000, but the category initially struggled to grow.

“Despite launching the pouches, we didn’t see significant growth for many years. In the past five years, we’ve been much more successful in achieving that growth,” says mecs.

Exploring consumers’ subconscious motivation

Traditional brand, product, and category research such as focus groups and eye tracking studies didn’t get to the heart of what motivated consumers. To determine the best path forward, StarKist need to better understand the underlying motivations behind consumer interest and intent.

Mecs’ team began working with conversational analytics platform Netbase Quid in 2018. The technology helped them dig into the subconscious needs of the consumer by tapping into online conversations relevant to StarKist.

“Over a one-year period, we scraped about 800,000 conversations pertaining to seafood and protein,” says Mecs. “We were able to quantify different product attributes and claims that were important to consumers. For example, we found that Weight Watchers was the number one healthy lifestyle brand that consumers were talking about and we saw some natural synergies there.”

Social listening helped identify a wide variety of issues that StarKist could promote on their packaging and in their marketing materials (e.g. consumers prefer wild caught tuna over farm raised tuna). By scraping social conversations, StarKist found synergies with consumer lifestyle preferences like keto and paleo diets.

“We’re able to harness what the consumer cares about even though they might not be saying this in a focus group or a survey. They’re posting about it to social media, online and in other places, so we now have a much better understanding of what’s important to them,” says Mecs.

The power of tracking consumer sentiment

Mecs knew he needed a way to better understand consumer sentiment and began tapping into his network to find a solution. He learned about NetBase Quid by speaking with peers and colleagues and was ultimately introduced to the platform by 113 Industries, an AI-driven consumer behavior research company.

As StarKist’s decision maker for implementing new technologies and approaches, Mecs spearheaded the onboarding of NetBase Quid to help the company better understand consumer sentiment via social listening. StarKist CEO Andrew Choe was also heavily interested and involved with leveraging social listening technology.

StarKist uses Netbase Quid to monitor social media, ratings and reviews websites, and more, accessing the information via dashboards that visualize the data. This enabled Mecs’ team to turn that data into actionable strategies.

Conversational analytics data from NetBase Quid/StarKist

Social listening helped StarKist refine their pouches, aligning the product to appeal to what consumers were saying they wanted. Specifically:

  • It reduced the pouch size from 4.5 ounces to 2.6 ounces
  • The new pouch highlighted desirable product qualities (e.g. they were about 100 calories and 15 grams of protein)
  • StarKist enabled a “magic strike” price, selling the smaller pouches for $1 each or $10 for 10 which ensured they were getting displays in stores.

“Once we made these changes, consumers began buying multiple units,” says Mecs. “They started buying two pouches of one flavor and two pouches of another flavor the same way they might purchase yogurt or a similar product.”

StarKist sees incredible results

StarKist’s grew their pouch category by over 75 percent within a five-year period and flavors offered by over 500 percent. This was during a time when the can segment was declining by 15 percent.

The pouch segment now comprises over 40 percent of StarKist’s sales and has almost doubled household penetration. StarKist also grew their share of the pouch category from about 40 percent to about 47 percent.

Conversational analytics data from NetBase Quid/StarKist

“We were extremely successful thanks to using traditional marketing research methods combined with the great insights that we were able to gather utilizing Netbase Quid,” says Mecs.

Mecs notes only one thing he’d have done differently—employ conversational analytics earlier than he did.

“The one thing I’d recommend to people in my situation do is be open minded,” says Mecs. “Try different types of tools and different types of research. More often than not, you end up uncovering something new and sometimes you discover a problem that you don’t even know you had.”

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Jacqueline Dooley