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Is Cannabis Ready for Sensory Testing?

Anyone who recently has visited Colorado, California or the District of Columbia knows that cannabis dispensaries are a dynamic part of the retail landscape. This also is occurring in states where regulations permit only medicinal, or CBD-infused products.

Of course regulatory issues represent the biggest challenge at the moment. In the US, where cannabis is being legalized on a state-by-state basis, brands must be rigorous with their on-pack communications. There are state and FDA laws, child-resistant provisions, as well as THC and CBD ingredient disclosures. Labeling laws are the biggest hurdles—particularly since they are different in every state and are periodically updated.

That said, new brands are springing up everywhere. And CBD-infused products that contain no THC ingredients are easy to find throughout the US. The variations seem to be limitless. Think about it: cannabis is now found in confections, beverages, edibles, skin-care products, pharmaceuticals and sprays.

You also see celebrities including Snoop Dogg, Martha Stewart and Whoopi Goldberg establishing brands. This is a no brainer. They are leveraging their celebrity and fan base. It will get trickier when we begin to see cannabis-infused products from established consumer names, like Coca-Cola, Heineken or Nestlé.

For the time being, these larger companies are in a holding pattern to see what the future regulatory landscape looks like and how cannabis brands play out with consumers. But legacy brands are long-time believers and subscribers of consumer product testing. They know the advantages to be gained by engaging their audience before hitting the shelf.

This helps them gain insights on consumer tastes and preferences, which are vital to creating a positive consumer “experience.” Testing also allows brands to make changes to taste profiles and packaging in order to mitigate the risks that drive today’s super-competitive landscape.

Cannabis brands have to answer the same questions as any consumer product. These include several fundamental and critical questions, such as: 

*Are we delivering a product with strong consumer appeal?

*Are we able to truly differentiate this product from competition?

*Are we able to provide users with a reason to believe this product it will meet or exceed the item’s functional and/or emotional benefits?

There are a host of additional questions that are no less important.

*Who is our target audience?

*What features are they looking for in this type of product? Which of these are most important (drivers of liking) and which should we avoid?

*How much do they like our product compared to other offerings? Which do they prefer and why?

*What is their preferred flavor profile and how do we achieve it?

*How important is flavor compared to the look, feel, packaging and claims?

*How and when will they use the product, what are the usage occasions that we should focus on? What products is it competing with for these occasions?

Sensory Testing

If your company is wrestling with any or all of these questions, you need look no further than sensory testing.

Curion Insights uses its expertise in product research—specifically “sensory” consumer and market testing in a wealth of product categories—to take a holistic view of consumer experience. We test products and packaging through each of the senses: sight, smell, sound, touch and taste. These need to come together to engage the consumer and validate the promise of the brand.

As with any other successful product, new cannabis brands also need sensory and consumer research to optimize a new product’s appeal. For CBD-infused products that contain no active (recreational) ingredients such as THC, product testing is much the same as it is for any consumer category.

A CBD product’s sensory attributes need to be appropriate to its specific character. For example, we may be asking whether a CBD-infused gummy tastes different from a regular one. Or do consumers perceive that the product gives off a particular smell because of its association with cannabis? (And if so, are these good or bad things? After all, when you test mouthwash, it needs to have just the right amount of burn or people don’t believe it works.)

Curion also can gather and test sensory, consumer and marketing claims—such as “lemony fresh aroma,” “relieves muscle aches” or “all natural.” This helps brand owners better understand how these factors may influence consumer appeal.

In addition, research also includes a variety of non-product specific features—from graphics, colors and messaging to child-resistant labeling and plant traceability. Moreover, anything subject to regulatory labeling is critical to cannabis brands.

There also are other requirements for testing products that may have an intoxicating effect. Consumer testing has been a longstanding practice for beer, wine and spirits brands as well as for cigarettes.

When there is the possibility of intoxication, we use standard protocols that include: waiting periods, eating before and after and drinking plenty of liquids. Having a sensory testing partner with a deep understanding of both effective product testing—as well as regulatory mandates—will be increasingly vital as more new products enter the arena.

Curion also offers consumer insights research. Along with sensory testing, consumer insights data offer a wealth of information that can influence key decisions about: product readiness for launch, the consumer purchase decision process, market and demographic opportunity, packaging appeal, and how the brand performs against competition.

Cannabis may be an emerging category, but the competition for consumers is going to be fierce—especially when more big brands get into the game. Product testing not only mitigates failure, it taps the emotional and sensory brain of the consumer to create a compelling experience that helps a product stand out in a crowded marketplace.

About Curion Insights

Curion is a leader in sensory and consumer product research and serves Fortune 500 and other blue-chip customers in the food and beverage, personal care, fine fragrance, and home and fabric care industries.

In 2018 alone, the company hosted 97,000 test consumers in its facilities in California, Chicago, Dallas, and New Jersey. The result of a merger between Q Research Solutions and Tragon Corp., Curion brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the consumer and sensory science industry. The company pioneered many of the sensory methodologies considered industry standards today, including Quantitative Descriptive Analysis (QDA®) and Partnership Solutions (PS).

About Sean Bisceglia

Mr. Bisceglia served as an Operating Partner at Sterling Partners for two years before joining Curion Insights as CEO. Bisceglia’s business success began 25 years ago when he founded TFA, a technology-focused ad agency that achieved significant success. TFA was sold to Leo Burnett in 1998. Bisceglia then partnered with William Blair to acquire CPRI, where he doubled revenues in less than two years. In 2007, he founded TalentDrive, one of the first technology-enabled staffing businesses.