NEW YORK: Brand owners such as Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and The Campbell Soup Company are using eye tracking technology to improve their understanding of consumer purchase decisions.

Procter & Gamble, the FMCG giant, experimented with this innovative approach when repositioning its Herbal Essences haircare range, in recognition of the fact gaps exist between real and reported behaviour.

"What consumers say and what they react to is a very different thing than what they spontaneously react to," Christian Simms, associate director, consumer market knowledge for Pantene and Herbal Essences, told Packaging World.

"We're interested in what they can tell us without saying it to us."

Focus groups and other traditional tools still play an important role, but are occasionally misleading should findings be taken at face value.

"If you ask people in research to read the whole pack, you get a false sense of what they've looked at," said Simms.

"If only 28% of people see that our package says volumising and conditioner, and 14% see something else, eye-tracking gives us a complete sense of who's seeing what."

Possible applications for this technique include introducing brand extensions and updating packaging, which require a high degree of certainty.

"If you get it wrong, then your whole sales drop," Simms said.

"You cannot close the sale unless somebody has seen the package first on the shelf. With eye tracking, you can determine if you are stopping consumers with your product."

Johnson & Johnson has leveraged similar tactics to beneficial effect, said Pamela Waldron, global director, Oral Care, from J&J's global strategic insights group.

"The potential loss of sales to a business by diluting their equity and getting lost on shelf is enormous, and it's not a risk one wants to take in this day and age," Waldron added.

"We use eye tracking frequently to assess new label design for major brands. We would not implement a graphic label design change without understanding its impact on visibility and imagery."

Alongside improving its own portfolio, J&J has acquired substantial information concerning how rivals succeed.

"Having done multiple tests on a brand, you develop a wealth of cumulative learning that truly helps in the design process," said Waldron.

"In the course of eye tracking, we have also uncovered weaknesses versus competitors that we didn't know existed."

Elsewhere, Campbell's Soup announced the results of a two-year study early in 2010, combining ethnography with measuring eye movement, skin temperature, sweat levels and heartbeat rates.

Following trials with 1,500 people, it adapted the labels on many variants, adding bigger bowls emitting steam and removing the accompanying spoon.

This initiative led to further modifications in the way goods were laid out in-store, meaning customers can locate the desired offering quickly.

"Consumers spend about 60 seconds in front of that shelf, and that didn't change much whether it took them 20 or 50 seconds to find the product," said Andrew Brennan, general manager of Campbell's US soup arm.

"The advantage for us is that if we can help the consumer find the product faster, they spend the rest of the time browsing to see what else we have."

Brennan also argued it is essential to gain a genuine appreciation of shopper preferences before acting on the data gathered.

"Make sure you know what you're doing when you make significant changes, and that's about listening to the consumer and also the customer," he said.

"There shouldn't be any change made that you don't know will help."

Data sourced from Packaging World/Promo Magazine; additional content by Warc staff