November 26, 2018

Understanding CPG Market Research

Market research may seem like a concept that few brands understand, but make no mistake, CPG market research is key to a brands success.

We don’t need to tell you that market research forms the backbone of all great packaging design, or at least it should.

CPG market research is the central element to your brand’s packaging; it’s the secret sauce that determines what the packaging will look like, who it’s designed for, and how users interact with it. The ability to perform exhaustive, effective market research is a key benefit to working with a design agency. While any business can work with a manufacturer to get basic prototypes developed, it’s the research that really makes the difference in how users respond and how effective the packaging is.

Understandably, our clients are always curious about the process! Broadly, CPG market research falls into one of four categories:

  1. Exploratory
  2. Primary
  3. Secondary
  4. Evaluative

Below, we’ll run through each of these styles to give you a better idea of what goes into the typical market research process.

1. Exploratory Research

The most general type of CPG market research is called exploratory, or generative. This is research at its most basic, answering broad questions about the brand’s goals and target market:

  • Who is the packaging for?
  • What are the brand’s goals?
  • What problem is the product solving?

Compared to the more exhaustive types listed below, it’s hard to even call this “research.” In truth, these are basic questions that every brand should have answers for before they begin their packaging design process. Nevertheless, the questions need answers—and these answers form a foundation for all future research efforts.

Exploratory research is done by assessing the brand’s persona, established marketing goals, and existing product lines. It can also involve more in-depth assessments, such as customer interviews and one-on-one discussions. This research is done early in the design process to provide insights and data that will be refined in later research stages.

2. Primary Research

Here’s where things get good. Primary research involves going directly to the source— the customer—and soliciting their feedback. This data is the best way to formulate marketing strategies and to get confirmation about whether your ideas will work. Primary research is usually done through direct communication with customers:

  •  One-on-one interviews with guided questions
  • Conversational interviews with an informal, laid-back style
  • Ethnographic interviews, focusing on watching customers interact with products as they usually do
  • Focus groups directed by a moderator who asks specific questions to elicit data
  • Diary reviews, where consumers track their activities over time and report data
  • Contextual inquiries, where customers are asked selected questions and then observed

Naturally, primary research is the preferred method of data collection. Nothing beats hearing the customer’s perspective for his/her own mouth, and there’s no better way to learn which strategies will motivate them to purchase.

3. Secondary Research

Secondary research involves researching secondary sources such as:

  • Online articles
  • Magazines, books, and periodicals
  • Company databases
  • Government or university research portals

This type of research can be more difficult to conduct due to the sheer number of resources available. It can be hard to limit the scope of your research, and many of the sources you find will be outdated or outright inaccurate. As such, companies need to take extra care in this process to vet their sources and gather data from only the best possible sources.

Despite its drawbacks, secondary research has its uses. It’s a great way to validate the data gathered from your primary research, and it can be a great way to find statistics, studies, and industry research that support your design choices. Most of this data can’t be found through the other research options listed here. As such, secondary research isn’t inferior to primary research by any means; it’s a complementary method that provides much-needed context to design decisions.

4. Evaluative Research

Finally, we have evaluative research. This method involves letting customers evaluate a prototype throughout each iteration of the design process. As the design progresses, each option will be evaluated to determine whether it aligns with the goals identified in the above research. Usability studies are a great example.

This method can be broken down further into two subsets research data: Summative and formative.

Formative data involve a customer’s perceptions of each idea in a design prototype — for example, the material used in your packaging or the way it sits on the shelf. Formative data is collected across each iteration to ensure that each design decision contributes to the product’s overall goals.

Summative data takes a broader look at the design and determines whether the product achieves its overall goals. It’s outcome-oriented, with customers assessing the entirety of the design, how it makes them feel, and whether the design accomplishes its goals.

Creating a Strategy of Comprehensive CPG Market Research

Taken together, these four research styles form the basis of CPG market research. The specifics vary across companies of course, and no two brands will require the same research. Smaller companies with less established designs, for example, tend to focus more on primary research and the individual opinions of their core market. On the other hand, bigger brands often base their decisions more on secondary research, broad industry trends, and the opinions of carefully-chosen focus groups.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. What matters is that companies work with agencies that have the experience required to perform research effectively and put those insights into action.


by Kevin Smith
SmashBrand helps brands create, optimize, and launch successful products, services, and customer experiences. Our data-driven process is the key to accelerating sales and minimizing risks.

We use a strategic combination of market research, design, and consumer testing to solve complex brand problems more effectively, create differentiation, and forge more meaningful connections with customers.

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