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Consumer Perception Study vs. Clinical Trial Q&A by Dr. Swathi Varanasi

Dr. Swathi Varanasi, a Principal Investigator at Citruslabs, gives us a behind-the-scenes look into the research side of Citruslabs by explaining in more detail the main differences and benefits between consumer perception studies and clinical trials. With a background in integrative pharmacy, she knows exactly what brands are looking for when it comes to product claims and research.

Q: What’s behind the name, consumer perception study? What does this really mean?

Dr. Swathi: A consumer perception study–unlike some things in science–is well-named. It's exactly what it sounds like. So it's perceiving how the consumer feels or how they experience the product.

Q: How do you collect data in consumer perception studies?

Dr. Swathi: In consumer perception studies we use non-validated questionnaires that yield subjective data. That's still very valuable information because it helps both the brand and the consumer really understand how people are using the product and what sorts of benefits they’re feeling. So non-validated really just means creating a questionnaire based on the main questions that the brand has for a consumer. This information can be used to iterate on an existing product or boost sales for that product through research-backed marketing claims. The difference between non-validated and validated is that validated questionnaires are oftentimes used in clinical trials. We’ll get more into that later.

Q: How are consumer perception studies generally designed?

Dr. Swathi: For consumer perception studies, there's generally only one study group. In one study group typically, it’s open-label, meaning every study participant knows exactly what brand and product they’re testing. They're all testing it at the same time for the same study duration. In perception studies, there isn't any sort of statistical analysis. It's more about evaluating the answers to the non-validated questionnaires.

Q: Do you think these studies have value for brands?

Dr. Swathi: I still think consumer perception studies are incredible. They're great for brands to figure out if a product is being perceived as having certain benefits by their consumers. Brands can make marketing claims that are actually based on data and consumer perception studies are more powerful than consumer reviews alone because of the way the data is collected by a third party.

Perception studies are a good way to get your claims, but you should be transparent about it. You shouldn't say that you conducted a clinical study, while in reality you actually conducted a perception study.

Q: Great, let’s switch gears and talk about clinical trials. How are these generally designed?

Dr. Swathi: One of the main differences between consumer perception studies and clinical trials is that there can be a lot of different study designs. So for clinical trials, there could be one or two groups. There could be something called a crossover study where you test the product against a placebo or another product that does something similar already on the market. Both groups of study participants can try both products at different times. So clinical trials in terms of study design can be more complex and can have more than simply one group.

Q: Tell us a little bit more about how placebos are used in clinical trials for wellness products.

Dr. Swathi: So a placebo looks very similar, ideally exactly the same as the test product, but there is no active ingredient. This can be easily created for skincare and supplement products. With this approach, we’re really able to test what the intervention product is doing versus the placebo, or rather, no active ingredient. Brands who choose a placebo element to their study design are typically pretty confident in the effectiveness of their product. I believe consumers often find it more impressive when brands share their final results on their website that their product was tested against a placebo, especially in the wellness industry.

Q: Do clinical trials also use questionnaires? How would you describe those?

Dr. Swathi: As I mentioned with consumer perception studies, researchers use non-validated questionnaires. However, for clinical trials, we use validated questionnaires. These have been put through rigorous testing. Validated questionnaires have been used in a lot of other studies with certain patient populations and they've demonstrated that they can provide objective data. So they’re validated to use for obtaining more information about certain symptoms or conditions.

Q: What are some other ways that you can collect data for clinical trials?

Dr. Swathi: Clinical trials can also use biomarkers which is really interesting. So biomarker really is just a fancy term for quantitative measures that we get from measurement tools like a Fitbit or an Oura ring. So we can track anything from sleep to exercise, heart rate variability, weight changes, and more. There are also studies that we've done at Citruslabs that involve fecal samples or stool samples. There are many different ways to evaluate how skin changes over a study with the integration of a dermatologist or another healthcare provider. So these providers can be a part of the evaluation of different validated questionnaires and or biomarkers.

Q: In which case would you use a clinical trial over a consumer perception study?

Dr. Swathi: In contrast to a perception study that's really evaluating the perceived benefits by the consumer, clinical trials are really looking at the safety and efficacy, or the effectiveness, of the product. With that data, we can make more quantitative research claims that are backed by statistical analysis. These claims are what we deem as statistically significant so we're able to report that and make sure that all of it is compliant with FDA and FTC regulations.

Thank you to Dr. Swathi for sharing her insights into the complex, but beneficial world of product claims, especially as it relates to wellness products. For more information about consumer perception studies, clinical trials, or how you can get research to back up your own product claims, reach out to our team here.


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