Columbus, Ohio: 'Test City, USA'

Columbus, Ohio is considered a test city for marketing new products across the country. Marketing expert Neeli Bendapudi explains what makes a good test city, and what it's like to be the first to try new foods and products.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

The old marketing adage asks: Will it play in Peoria? But for years, Test City, USA has been right here in Columbus, Ohio. Central Ohioans got to try the latest innovations in fast food and groundbreaking new products like Cube TV, which you may not remember. These days, Columbus ranks a little lower on the test market scale. Albany, New York, now tops the list. New York City, oh, you sophisticates, is now ranking at the bottom.

We've invited Neeli Bendapudi to join us - she's professor of marketing at the Ohio State University - to tell us what makes a good test market. We want to hear, what products have been tested where you live? The phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Neeli Bandapudi is with us here at WOSU. Thanks very much for coming in.

Professor NEELI BANDAPUDI (Marketing, Ohio State University): Thank you, Neal. It's a pleasure to be here.

CONAN: So for those of us not schooled in marketing, what are test markets for?

Prof. BANDAPUDI: Well, test markets are really to help you weed out products that you think will not be successful on a large scale. As you know, introducing a new product is a formidable task, lots of money, lots of time goes into it. And therefore, before you make that big plunge, the big investment to go national, companies want to see whether the products play. And it's just not always just an go, no-go decision. It's also to see whether some tweaks could be made to the product or to the messaging.

CONAN: Should we call it new and improved, or improved and new?

Prof. BANDAPUDI: That's correct. Indeed.

CONAN: And so this is like focus grouping on a huge scale.

Prof. BANDAPUDI: Well, there's one big difference. In a focus group, you are discussing the concept, the idea. Do you like it? In a test market, you have the advantage of actually having it in the store and having real consumers spend their dollars to say yes or no. There's actually an in between, the simulated test market where you could go in and virtually buy or not buy. But this is you go in to the store and buy the product as you normally would.

CONAN: Real dollars for real products.

Prof. BANDAPUDI: Real dollars, real products.

CONAN: And so this gives you information. You can see how it compares with sales. If you're selling soap detergent, you can see how it compares to Tide or All or any of those other products, are you gaining market share, that sort of thing.

Prof. BANDAPUDI: Absolutely. So you might say these are the growth goals we have for this product. Is this - does this look promising? Will it get us there? Or as you said, will it cannibalize our own sales? Will it draw new customers? Lots of reasons why you want to go into a test market.

CONAN: And what made Columbus such a good one?

Prof. BANDAPUDI: Well, for a long time, when you think about what makes for a good test market, you really want to see if it's representative of the population, you know, the customer base that you eventually want to get to.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. BANDAPUDI: So Columbus, Middle America, it was the idea that it truly was representative of the broader trends of the nation. And, of course, it's not just that. You want to make sure that it's a location where it's not dominated by one employer or one cause, because you want to get a variety of opinions there. Maybe it's the demographics of the people that you're trying to reach and also a variety of shopping outlets and a variety of media outlets, so you can see how it would actually play.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Because advertising - there's no point in just putting it in the store. You got to let people know it's there.

Prof. BANDAPUDI: Indeed. Without that, you know, you might not be very successful. But here's an interesting thing about market testing, though, in advertising and the promotions that go on: You cannot have way too much of it. It needs to be as realistic to your eventual goals as possible. So let's say, I think, I'm test marketing a product, and therefore I pour in a ton of marketing dollars. Well, the sales might look very good, but eventually when I take it national, that's not going to be very representative.

CONAN: So therefore, one of the things you'd actually like is a market where the advertising rates are not prohibitive. You don't want to test market New York City. That's expensive airtime.

Prof. BANDAPUDI: Well, well, well, as you said it, New York, use sophisticates, right? It's not just the cost. You also want to say, are those tastes similar? Will they generalize? Are they replicable? So the big thing is, for a long time, it used to be how representative is the city of the national trends, but I would say, more importantly, how representative is it of the particular customer segment you want to target.

CONAN: Because some products are not aiming for everybody. They're going for a niche, a portion of the population.

Prof. BENDAPUDI: That's exactly right.

CONAN: And what - why is Columbus now falling in the rankings?

Prof. BENDAPUDI: Well, I think that a variety of reasons. We have - maybe part of the cost that you talked about. It's also which type of product is tested here. Columbus still seem - tends to be very highly ranked in food, testing different fast food concepts, it's always been very popular - because of the taste being more generalizable and (unintelligible).

CONAN: So if there's a crunchy burrito, you're going to get it first.

Prof. BENDAPUDI: You are going to get it first.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BENDAPUDI: So whatever new idea there is, it's probably being tested here. And then, of course, just the fact that you may find so many products being test marketed that there's reason to go out into other markets.

CONAN: Well, let's get callers in from some of those other markets and find out what other products have been tested there. What's been tested where you live? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Jim is on the line from Grand Haven in Michigan.

JIM (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JIM: I live in Grand Haven and we seem to be kind of a hub for testing some food and drinks. I know - I remember, in particular, Vault, the soft drink that's kind of like Mountain Dew, was tested here. I think it's probably because we get a lot of tourists during the summer, coming up. We're the Coast Guard city of the USA.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

JIM: And we get a lot of tourism from the Chicago area, so we get a lot of companies coming out here to test their products and see what a cross-section of the Midwest would enjoy.

CONAN: Jim, I regret to say I've never been to Grand Haven, but I don't remember Vault.

JIM: Well, obviously, it hasn't stayed around very long. But I do remember seeing it in stores and I remember, very distinctly, walking down on the boardwalk and some people just handing out some Volt - say, here, try this.

CONAN: Well. Go ahead, Neeli.

Prof. BENDAPUDI: Now, that's - I do remember seeing Vault too. So it's - this is actually the reason why you test market. Think about the hundreds of thousands of products that are introduced each year, a very small minority actually survive and are around for us to talk about.

CONAN: Hmm. Okay. Jim, thanks very much for the call.

JIM: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to - will try Rock(ph). Rock's with us from Payson, Arizona.

ROCK (Caller): Hello. Hello, gentleman.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

ROCK: I happen to be one of those right on the firing line. I'm an artist. And years ago, I was licensing with a company out of Vermont - big licensing organization. And they - sorry about that. They actually we're going to license one of my images of a rooster on one of these collector plates.

CONAN: Sure.

Prof. BENDAPUDI: Hmm.

ROCK: And so that was tested in the Midwest. And, ironically, they came back to us about two weeks after they started the testing and - they had tested it in another areas - but they came back and they said, you know, you must have a lot of relatives back here in the Midwest. And I said, well, what do you mean? They said, because the plates tested out real well here in one area but it didn't in the rest of the areas. So that was kind of short lived testing.

CONAN: Oh, that's - so they didn't decide to distribute it?

ROCK: No. And it was a beautiful image. I got a few of my images in that. Trust me, they are highly collectible now, because there aren't very many of them out there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: So there's one little city in the Midwest that has these collectible items because there are not going to be any others.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROCK: Yeah. Yeah. That's about the way it worked out.

CONAN: Rock, thanks very much and better luck next time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROCK: Thanks a lot.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Well, that sounds like a marketing exemplar. He did well in one place, but not so good in the other. Hey, we can't go with it.

Prof. BENDAPUDI: Well, the interesting thing is that they dropped it because you suddenly could segment and say it's doing particularly well in this area, so maybe the rooster does well in the Midwest and some other figurine in somewhere else. So they - you could decide to focus, regionally, rather than nationally, when you have test like that.

CONAN: Let's go next to Jeff - excuse me - Michael. Michael with us from Des Moines.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi, Neal. We have a lot of Jell-O. I remember even one year, Des Moines was considered the Jell-O capital of the world. We even had family come up from Louisiana for Thanksgiving. And we go to the grocery store and they were looking in the aisles, they were just floored at the options and different flavors that we had available to us that they've never heard of.

CONAN: And I also recall uses for Jell-O that I've encountered in Iowa that I've not encountered anywhere else. For example, congealed salad.

MICHAEL: Oh, absolutely. With the fruits and everything else put inside of it?

CONAN: Just about everything else.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHAEL: Yes. And I have heard of Vault also, so I'm pretty sure Des Moines' a test nation…

CONAN: Well, it's probably that I'm not up on the latest Mountain Dew-type drinks, so that's entirely possible.

MICHAEL: I have a teenager. Maybe that's my thing.

CONAN: Okay...

Prof. BENDAPUDI: Well, you know what? Teenagers are great test markets, so they can tell you what the trends will be.

MICHAEL: It is an excellent category. I love listening to your show, never boring - so…

(Soundbite of dial tone)

CONAN: Well, apparently, boring there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We thank you very much for the call. Appreciate it. Let's see if we can go next to Portland, Oregon and this is Jeff(ph) on the line.

JEFF (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Jeff.

JEFF: In the mid '90s here in Portland, one of the major soft drink companies test marketed a beverage called OK. Beautiful package, you know, can and nice logo. But the poor drink tasted terrible.

Prof. BENDAPUDI: What kind of drink was it?

JEFF: It was kind of a - it was a carbonated cola-ish beverage, but it just didn't have a compellingly good taste.

CONAN: Hmm.

Prof. BENDAPUDI: And I wonder it's calling it…

JEFF: In fact, I was like, what in the world am I drinking, you know? Why am I drinking this, and set it aside.

Prof. BENDAPUDI: Hmm.

CONAN: Okay. I think Neeli was about to say it does not sound like a truly compelling name either.

JEFF: Well, it was cute, and again the can and the packaging was well designed. So…

CONAN: But doesn't it seem, you know, hey, try it, pick up a can of mediocre.

Prof. BENDAPUDI: That's right. We're not bad.

JEFF: Well, at the time it seems, you know, what can I say, I bought one. I bought it on a gamble, so hey…

CONAN: Hey - well, you tried it.

Prof. BENDAPUDI: Right. But you know what, this is an excellent point. Whether the packaging is cute, or the name is great, or the advertising is great, we can only get you to test the product. And if the product did sell - the core product isn't great, no amount of marketing or advertising, hopefully, is going to overcome that. Because ultimately, the product has too meet that taste test and be more than okay.

JEFF: I vaguely remember…

CONAN: Jeff, thanks very much for the call.

JEFF: …a slow - and old saw that said, the best way to kill a bad product is to market it well.

Prof. BENDAPUDI: I love it. I completely agree with that.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Our guest is Neeli Bendapudi, who's a professor of marketing at the Ohio State University. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Neeli, you live here in…

Prof. BENDAPUDI: I do and I love it.

CONAN: And - well, what have you tested?

Prof. BENDAPUDI: Well, I can tell you a product that I have not tested - but because it's been in the news quite a bit lately. This is dissolvable tobacco. Have you heard of this?

CONAN: I have not.

Prof. BENDAPUDI: There you go. So one of the products that R.J. Reynolds is testing in our marketplace over the last several months, is tobacco that looks like a mint. And the idea is that you don't want - you don't want to have second-hand smoke. You don't want to be chewing, spitting whatever.

CONAN: Dipping or anything.

Prof. BENDAPUDI: Absolutely. So this is a mint that supposedly dissolves and gives you the same amount of nicotine. And it's been somewhat controversial, as you can imagine.

CONAN: I can imagine, yes.

Prof. BENDAPUDI: But that's a product that is being tested - started in Columbus and now they have taken the test to a few other places as well.

CONAN: Have you tried it?

Prof. BENDAPUDI: No. I'm - no, thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: They might run in to a little resistance with that one.

Prof: That's right.

CONAN: Let's try Jean(ph). Jean with us from Anchorage.

JEAN (Caller): Hello, Professor, and thank you for taking my call. I actually -the conversation that I wanted to mention was Tang. I think it was General Foods came up years ago, maybe 10, 15 years - I'm a sociologist at the research company. And they wanted to study Alaskan natives' and American Indians' consumption of this product that - Tang, you know, that they - it's a solid then turns into a liquid.

CONAN: Invented for the space program, as I recall.

JEAN: Exactly. And where they wanted to test it was in rural Alaska. And I said, well, why don't you just go to the bingo halls that we have all over the state because in fact that's where people hang out. I think one of the things they learned was, it wasn't just American Indians and Alaskan natives, but it was more of a rural phenomenon that the people in fact, you know, needed the product to be dry, to get it to them and then…

CONAN: I see. It goes to lower transportation costs - first of all to get it to Alaska in the first place and then to ship it out into the rural markets.

JEAN: Exactly. I think that was learning there. But I also have worked with Professor Bendapudi and other projects up here in Anchorage, Alaska. I don't know if you remember me, professor.

Prof. BENDAPUDI: Oh, my goodness. I - yes, from a long time ago. We corresponded - email and we've talked - yes.

JEAN: Yes, we have. Thank you for remembering that. But…

Prof. BENDAPUDI: I do.

JEAN: …a great show, love to watch you - listen to you guys. You're my favorite.

CONAN: Well, greetings from Columbus.

JEAN: And I'm actually from Cleveland, Ohio, so I just wanted to (unintelligible).

Prof. BENDAPUDI: I know, I know. That's correct. And by the way, no one has to call me professor. For today, it can be Neal and Neeli. So you don't have to worry about the Bendapudi.

JEAN: Well, I love your work from Ohio State and we have watched you from afar. And Alaska is an interesting market. I think - I always refer to us as the next melting pot of America, partly because so many people have come from so many different places and end up in Alaska, particularly in Anchorage, the big city here.

And it is a great test market site because we come from as far as Michigan, Ohio, all along California, Texas, you know, the industries that we have here bring people from all over the world. So there are times, you know, where we have large groups of people. For instance, there's been some fish products that have been studied with the Asian populations. We're one of the top country in Asian populations. So again, people don't think of us as that, but in fact we are quite a melting pot here in Anchorage.

CONAN: Though a lot of people in Alaska say - well, Anchorage isn't representative of Alaska. It's Los Anchorage. It's the big city. Anyway, thanks very much for the call, Jean.

JEAN: Thank you, guys.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get one more caller in. And let's go to Battle Creek, Michigan, Amanda. And Amanda, it's got to be about cereal, right?

AMANDA (Caller): Oh, of course it is. I moved about three years ago to Battle Creek and find that the cereal stores are stocked with the boxes with yellow stripes that says new. And much to my annoyance, I live - my husband is one of those guys that is just - if it says new on it, he's got to buy it and try it. So…

(Soundbite of laughter)

AMANDA: We've tried plenty of their new cereals.

CONAN: How many different varieties of cornflakes can there be?

AMANDA: I'm sure that there's more every day. And the best part about Battle Creek is (unintelligible) you can smell it. So it's that close by.

CONAN: All right. Amanda, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

AMANDA: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: And our thanks to our guest, Neeli Bendapudi, the Neal and Neeli show as she put it. Appreciate your time today. She's a professor of marketing here at OSU.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.