Obituary: The Traditional Concept, c.1960 – 2014

The traditional Concept, which passed away earlier this year after a brief illness, will be fondly remembered by the many researchers who spent time with it. It was a reassuring presence in the research industry, its three part structure – Insight-Benefit-Reason To Believe – resonating as a solid, common sense way of developing and testing new products.

Unfailing enthusiasm for lost causes was one of the deceased’s virtues.

The birthplace of the traditional Concept is disputed, but by the 1960s and 1970s it was a prominent fixture on the research scene, though at that point it consisted only of Benefits and RTBs. Even so its enthusiasm for innovation gave it a dynamic air as it introduced products like 1973’s Superfry, “the cooking oil that sets like jelly”. “It sets!” announced the traditional Concept, “It does something no other oil can do.”

The traditional Concept fitted its time as well as flared trousers and luxuriant sideboards – though its dashing, breathless demeanour began to wear a little thin as the decades wore on. Even so, it was a surprise when – in the 1990s – the traditional Concept announced its partnership with Insight. From then on, Insight would be at the heart of the traditional Concept, and gave it a new lease of life. Its traditional virtues – all those benefits – would now be rooted in consumer insights – and this is how its large fanbase will remember the traditional Concept best.

Most of us will have happy memories of evenings – and often weekends – spent with the traditional Concept: playing its favourite game of “identify the unmet need”, carefully balancing the rational and emotional benefits of a new product, or working out how best to persuade thoughtful consumers that they wanted such a thing. All with plenty of enjoyable banter over word choice! But it wasn’t all fun and games. The Concept loved to get out and meet consumers, and was full of questions for them – even if it could be a little too fond of the sound of its own copy. The questions were mostly about liking and purchase intent, and the traditional Concept took the results extremely seriously.

All of its many friends would agree that the traditional Concept had a strong sense of purpose in life. Its lifelong enemy was the supposed high failure rates of new launches – something it took personally, and made it a mission to help defeat. Almost every marketer and researcher sympathised with these ideals, helping make the traditional Concept so popular.

But behind the scenes, not all was well with the traditional Concept. For a start, it was very hard to prove concept screening had any impact on failure rates. It could point to individual successes here and there, but there were whispers that it was simply not that efficient at doing its intended job.

More worrying than questions about its results was the increased speculation about its methods. The traditional Concept frowned on any kind of fundamental change, citing the importance of norms, but it must have found the growing chorus of criticism of its beloved Purchase Intent very painful to endure. Some of the Concept’s staunchest allies expressed doubts about the predictive value of Purchase Intent in brand tracking. Respected voices claimed that Purchase Intent explained very little and “we should be embarrassed” to use it. Others claimed that PI was right only 30% of the time – an unacceptable level of accuracy to base results on. The traditional Concept endured such insults stoically, but the stress must have hastened its demise.

In the end, according to friends who were with the traditional Concept in its final months, it died of irrelevance. As people understood more about how human decisions worked, they realised that the Concept was too rational and over-engineered. It put far too much emphasis on our deliberative “System 2” thinking – imagining a world where customers carefully weigh up reasons to believe in a new product and have a strong sense for needs they want filled.

What the traditional Concept failed to take into account was that people make decisions – including ones about new products – unconsciously and quickly, and are swayed far more by emotional impact and immediate impressions. Like everything else in the 21st Century it needed to be much more visual and way less verbal. In the end, its rigid, over-rational structure and often flat visuals meant the traditional Concept simply couldn’t adapt or predict success and passed away quietly in its sleep (and often ours). It may be mourned by some, but will it be missed?

The traditional concept is survived – for now, at least – by a large number of databases. Flowers, tributes, and enquiries as to its (far superior!) heir should be addressed to System1 Research.


At System1, we help the world’s largest advertisers make confident creative decisions that lead to transformational business results. Our ad testing tool (Test Your Ad) and our concept testing tool (Test Your Idea) quickly predict the short-term commercial potential of ads and ideas. Complementing TYA and TYI is Test Your Brand, our brand testing platform which measures the impact of ads and ideas on brand health.

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