Sunday, March 22, 2009

In the Name of Research

So there it was, a tiny little Craigslist posting: "Women Taste Testers Wanted to Evaluate Asian Food Products; $100 for 2 hours of your time." Further reading revealed that an Asian natural foods company conveniently located five minutes from my office was doing some product market research. How could I not heed the call? I mean really - feed me potstickers and send me home with 100 clams? Sign me up!

I responded to the ad and was sent a preliminary survey to determine if I fit their research demographic. It asked all the standards one would expect: household income, my level of responsibility for grocery purchases, where I shopped, if I had purchased things like pre-packaged egg rolls, noodle bowls, or Asian snacks in recent months... blah blah blah. It also asked if I was employed by a marketing or PR company. I answered no..... because I'm not. It didn't ask if I worked IN marketing or PR.... so I didn't lie! (See, I'm in marketing, so I know my way around a survey!)

Sure enough, I fit the profile, and found myself seated in a conference room two days later with "The Housewives of Marin County." Literally, a more stereotypical cross-section of the women of Marin couldn't have been had: the nine of us assembled for that particular session were all white, white, white - the only diversity in that room consisted of a blond, a redhead and a brunette (at least our hosts were all Asian - that lent a bit of cred to the food.... right?). There were a couple well-appointed/Botoxed/society types, some Birkinstock-clad hippies, and several casually elegant stay-at-home moms... and me - the only person in the room that actually appeared to have a job (I was the only one there in business attire, since I went on my lunch hour). I wondered what would possibly motivate them to be there, it certainly wasn't for the money. But, perhaps like me, they thought it would simply be an interesting and unique experience. Or something to get them out of the house.

But looking around the room, it dawned on me: these were the women - me included - that represented the buying choices/preferences for millions. Huh. No wonder pre-packaged options of Asian foods in your neighborhood grocery store rarely resemble anything traditionally Asian. I also thought it interesting because surely the women of Marin County have more international palettes than, say, those of Winnemucca, right? I could be wrong.

At any rate: we got down to business. For that many women in one room, it was eerily quiet - after a few attempts of wisecracking on my part that were returned with blank stares, I just gave up... these ladies were on a mission. 10 samples of various foodstuffs started coming our way. First up: a noodle/chicken/vegetable dish. Since we were in an office complex, the samples were being nuked in a back room somewhere - no freshly-made dim sum for us! I dove right in, ready to be opinionated about texture, flavor and overall appeal. And boy was I! I inevitably spent more time completing my feedback forms that anyone else. The sauce is too sweet… The snow peas are perfectly cooked… The noodles are pasty… The chicken is rubbery… The colors and medley of vegetables are vibrant and attractive… you get the idea.

We next sampled a couple seaweed snacks. Now I like seaweed as much as the next gal - especially when it's stuffed with rice and wrapped around a big hunk of raw fish - but the snacks that we tried that day were just plain weird. Snack 1 was baked tissue-paper thin squares of seaweed that were wonderfully flavored, but such an odd size that I couldn't really get them in my mouth gracefully. They would inevitably wind up sticking to my lips, cheeks, chin - whatever was in the way. I finally devised a tearing method to rip them into bite-sized pieces. Snack 2 had the appearance of a seaweed salad, but it was cooked. Again, great flavor, but hard to eat. Little flakes of seaweed all over the place!

And on it went: hot sauce samples (yowza - one was REALLY hot), chunks of chicken breast or pork with various sauces, more noodles..... and the lone oddity: potato chips. Ruffled potato chips. Nothing special, different or Asian about them. Just potato chips, that given the dearth of flavorful and spicy chips on the market today, were horribly bland. I don't even think they had salt on them. Was it some sort of weird test? I will never know.

At any rate, ten samples and 90 minutes later, I was done. The two kindly and soft-spoken Korean woman conducting the session thanked me and the others profusely for our time, and then had us sign for our crisp $100 bills. Now all of a sudden these women had something to talk about! Pretty instantly, the room was abuzz with chatter and I could sense everyone had the same thing on their mind: shopping! And not of the grocery variety.

All in all, it was a pretty interesting experience, as I suspected it would be. Would I do it again? For the sake of marketers everywhere, sure. But the hundred bucks doesn't hurt either! :)

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