Walking around a supermarket can be a dangerous business. As soon as
the innocent shopper steps through the door, more than 100 years of
marketing techniques - point of purchase, on-pack promotions and sampling
- spring into action. A supermarket isn’t just a shop. It’s a full-scale
battle of the brands, and each fmcg product is hoping that all the money
spent on brand building, both above and below-the-line, will spring into
action when the shopper’s eyes alight on ’their’ tin of beans, carton of
washing powder or cereal packet.
But in the environment of an online supermarket, controlling the shopper’s
purchase is not so easy. When brand presence is reduced to a name and
possibly a thumbnail picture - plus maybe a banner ad or two - and
consumers can buy the products in their saved shopping trolley week after
week without even thinking about them, how will manufacturers persuade
consumers to change brands or try new products?
The answer is more or less radical depending on who it is you’re speaking
to. But increasingly, those at the cutting edge of digital thinking are
describing a future in which select fmcg brands leave the supermarket
arena entirely and reinvent themselves as service providers, both online
”There is a definite trend for branded products to become commoditised,
losing their brand value,” says Christian Purser, consultant at Spearhead
Marketing. ”The way forward for fmcg brand owners is to trade up to
providing relevant services, both online and offline, but online is a good
place to start because of the relatively low costs. If fmcg brands can
transcend their product provenance by becoming online service providers,
they might develop the differentiation they have lost.”
You will have your own opinion as to whether brands like Pepsi and
Gillette will ever become entirely service-orientated, at least until we
all plug ourselves into our PCs and leave this bricks and mortar world for
But more and more brands are realising that the world of the internet is
one of pure information, and the only way to build a brand online is to
capitalise on the information your brand has - this works well with
healthcare and beauty products - or to adopt a relevant service which fits
in with brand values, as Pepsi has done with music, and Gillette with
Purser believes that the ultimate goal for fmcg companies is to become a
”meta-mediary”, a phrase coined by the Financial Times. ”A meta-mediary is
a company which provides everything that consumers could need in a given
category - whether that’s information, e-commerce, classified ads, clubs,
discussion groups, events, local listings, or even business-to-business
opportunities,” he explains.
”For example, a pet food manufacturer would provide experts to answer
queries, but it would also sell everything a pet needed as well as
And not all products would necessarily be its own brand, as it would be
looking to establish itself as the ultimate destination for pet owners.”
This marketplace of meta-mediaries is a narrow one - only one brand or
manufacturer from each sector can survive.
The giants of the fmcg world, Unilever and Procter & Gamble, grasped the
nettle early. In the US and Germany, P&G’s Pampers brand has developed an
online resource site for parents, the Pampers Parenting Institute
The site has some e-commerce elements, but its main role is to provide
information. A news feed brings daily information on all aspects of
childcare, while online experts answer queries from concerned parents. In
return for submitting details about the age of their child, parents can
receive an email newsletter with targeted advice. Similarly, Unilever’s
Dove brand has launched a female-orientated ”Dove Spa” site in the US
(www.dove.com), which offers personalised skincare and health advice after
the visitor completes a detailed form with information on their skin-type
and purchasing history as well as their age, address and other details
(see panel, p35). Dove Spa visitors can also play games such as the
”harmony board” and the ”sand garden”. ”This kind of personalised activity
is what the web is really there for, and we see it as the way forward,”
says Marc de Swaan Arons, director at Unilever’s interactive brand centre.
”However, it will not work for all brands.” Unilever is currently planning
a similar Dove site in the UK as part of a review of all online activity,
and has run similar content on British interactive TV trials.
But it is P&G which is moving closest to the kind of online business model
predicted by analysts, with reflect.com due to launch this month.
Reflect.com, a $50m joint venture between P&G and Institutional Venture
Partners, is a stand-alone company which will offer both personalised
beauty services and personalised products. It draws on the unique
capabilities the internet offers to talk directly to consumers, who will
be able to choose personalised, internet-only products from a range of
more than 50,000 possible combinations. P&G does not see reflect.com as a
brand extension, but as a new type of business model, according to
Frederic Colas, associate director for interactive marketing at P&G
Europe. ”Reflect.com represents the next phase in the evolution of fmcg
companies on the net - that is, an integration of content, community and
new brand development with commerce,” he explains.
Mike Cleary, P&G’s vice-president of marketing for Europe, the Middle East
& Africa, backs up his colleague. ”We need to stop thinking of the
internet as if it was simply another broadcast medium,” he says. ”Instead
of asking how you advertise on the internet, we should ask what special
benefit or added value you can provide to consumers, as a result of it
being unique. It is becoming clearer that we need to make some radical
changes in the way we organise and run our business and develop our
business strategies; we have to change the paradigms we have for consumer
This is the thinking which underpins the company’s plans for developing a
UK version of reflect.com, targeted at teenagers. The site will aim to
create an online community for teenagers and, like reflect.com, will not
be P&G-branded. Instead, it will provide an arena for brands across
different sectors, like healthcare and snack foods. P&G hopes that the
site, which will contain magazine articles, horoscopes and problem pages,
will launch before Christmas. Sites like this are central to P&G’s
marketing policy for the next century. ”The consumer expects and we must
deliver some added value, an experience that is specifically tailored to
their personal needs or desires,” explains Cleary. ”We will never be
successful in the digital environment unless we dramatically expand our
definition of what constitutes a brand, to redefine the whole notion of
branding, so that it includes not only the performance benefit of the
product, but also the full experience associated with it.”
Other fmcg manufacturers are more doubtful about the benefits of a
complete brand overhaul. In the UK, brands are tending to take on
sponsorships or partnerships with information providers, rather than
becoming a provider themselves. ”The internet is a self-selecting media
environment - people who go online are more likely to turn to famous
brands they trust, like Sky, for entertainment and information,” says
Jason Goodman, managing director of BMP interAction, the digital agency
for Pepsi and Gillette.
”It would be difficult for Gillette to set up a soccer site of its own,
but we’re happy to sponsor Sky’s Soccer Saturday. Gillette is not a
publisher, it is a manufacturer, and just as a publisher is going to
manufacture paper, a manufacturer would do better to team up with a
Building promotional tie-ins with performers like the Spice Girls and
Robbie Williams, and with its sponsorship of the Pepsi Chart, Pepsi has
harnessed its long-term relationship with music to power its web
It has built up relationships with online music providers and publishers,
like dotmusic and music365. The Pepsi site (www.pepsi.co.uk) is entitled
”home to all the music on the web”, and carries a constantly updated mix
of music news, reviews and articles, as well as a search facility for
ticket and venue information and - importantly - a chat facility. ”I
really do think that there’s a market for web communities,” says Goodman.
”But Pepsi is an infomediary, not a publisher; it is able to provide a
bridge between the information and the consumer.”
Andrew Marsden, marketing director at Britvic Soft Drinks, Pepsi’s UK
distributor, says his online goal is to ”give consumers something they
can’t get elsewhere”. He believes it is early days for the web at present,
at least in the UK, and predicts that Pepsi’s online presence will grow in
the future. The company has already moved into providing ”experiences”
such as the Pepsi Max extreme sports event, and the online environment
will provide a good breeding ground for this kind of activity.
The concept of a web community implies an exchange of data, and this is
one of the attractions it offers to fmcg brands, in a constant battle with
retailers to come up with the most detailed information on consumers’
buying habits. Pepsi recently emailed 45,000 consumers with a promotional
game, and was able to do so in the knowledge that all of these people had
requested information in the past. ”It’s all about grabbing the customer
relationship back from the retailers,” says Spearhead Marketing’s Purser.
Goodman agrees: ”The retailers have their loyalty cards, but fmcg brands
are able to create their own loyalty schemes through their web sites,” he
says. This kind of thinking is an answer to the question posed earlier:
how to encourage new product trials, when you can’t actually confront
consumers as they make their purchasing decision. Emailing customers
directly, with information on how they can receive free samples, is one
way around the problem.
Of course, the online retailers are also busy gathering consumer data.
But the major manufacturers have got this covered - Unilever, for example,
has signed an agreement in the US with online supermarket NetGrocer. The
terms of the deal enable the company to run promotions on various brands
on the NetGrocer site - mainly banner ads and price deals - and also to
share the data collected by the site.
However, Unilever has no plans at present for a similar link-up in the UK.
”The UK online retail situation is not yet as developed as it is in the
US,” says de Swaan Arons. ”When it is, we might look at UK
Whether we will see a future in which we turn to fmcg brands for health
care information and concert tickets rather than products is a moot
However, brands and analysts are united in their vision of the future as
one in which creating an experience is key, and whether the internet is
speeding up that process or is causing it, the web is certainly the first
step in the right direction.
CASE STUDY - VOLVIC’S ADDED-VALUE PROMOTIONS
Volvic is one of the new breed of fmcg brands which sees itself as an
information provider as well as a product, and it is using the internet to
disseminate that information.
The mineral water brand, which shares a stable with Evian at Premier
Waters, has an all-singing, all-dancing web site (www.volvic.co.uk) of the
kind which is often derided as ”just because you can”. A whirling
helicopter takes visitors on a tour of volcanoes, where they can find
information on Volvic promotions, as well as - bizarrely - volcanoes
Volvic’s online presence is co-ordinated by Staniforth PR, with web design
through Subnet New Media. Visitors have to register their email addresses,
as well as detailed information about what water brands they buy, and
where they buy them from.
However, there is another side to the Volvic site, and one which might be
developed in the future, as Volvic is currently reviewing its online
activity in the UK. The company is anxious to promote itself as an
all-year drink, and particularly an office drink, recently narrowing its
target market to focus on 25 to 45-year-old active urban ABC1s. Its web
site, therefore, hosts a stress test, designed to help busy urbanites
decide whether they are stressed or just imagining it.
The company has also commissioned a report into dehydration in office
environments, which can be downloaded from the UK site, launched in
This gives information on how much water it is necessary to drink to stay
healthy, as well as the latest research into how much people actually do
drink. Volvic promoted the site with a sampling campaign, in which
commuters in stations in Leeds, Edinburgh and London received 50cl bottles
of Volvic during a nine-day period. Page impressions on the site rose from
300 in its first week to an average of 30,000 per week, with a total of
268,226 since the launch.
As it stands, the Volvic site is a hybrid of an information and service
portal and a more traditional interactive site.
”We might develop the idea of experience marketing further on our web
site,” says Volvic senior manager Anne Berger-Gournay. ”This summer, we
ran park softball events, and carried information about these on the web
site - and that is something we could develop in the future.”
CASE STUDY - Gillette’s branded Soccer Saturday
The home page on Gillette’s web site (www. gillette.com) is intended to be
a source of corporate information rather than a sales or marketing tool.
However, the site links to theessentials.com, an online retailer sponsored
by Gillette, which sells a range of brands from healthcare to travel, but
only to customers in the US.
In the UK, Gillette’s web strategy revolves around its sponsorship of
Sky’s football programme Soccer Saturday. The Sky Sports site (www.
skysports.co.uk) hosts a Gillette-branded Soccer Saturday page which
offers results as they come in every Saturday, as well as a message zone,
a pundit panel, and a game zone.
The site can be kept open as a window alongside whatever else the user is
doing, so they can keep an eye out for the latest scores. The Soccer
Saturday site has received six million impressions since its launch in
October last year.
”This is Gillette taking its brand to where the users are,” says Anne
Marie Chamberlain, senior brand manager, male blades and razors and female
shaving. ”It is an opportunity to entertain and inform. We isolated Soccer
Saturday as perfect for our target audience, and our online activity links
well with the TV sponsorship. We are talking to young males in their own
The message zone, where users can leave comments on players, teams and
each other, is an important part of the site for Gillette, which places a
high emphasis on building a community. Whenever messages are placed, users
have to register their details.
Plans for the future include utilising digital television to enable
viewers to send emails to Soccer Saturday guests during the show, and
”When you watch football, you always shout things at the players on
screen,” says Jason Goodman, joint managing director at BMP interAction,
Gillette’s agency. ”Gillette is enabling that communication to be
CASE STUDY - DOVE TAKES IT PERSONALLY IN THE US
Unilever has taken to personalising the customer relationship with its web
site for Dove soap (www.dovespa. com). Once people have registered with
the site - and released a good deal of information about their shopping
habits - it creates a personalised experience for each visitor, choosing
from a range of stress-relieving games and activities, and specific
information depending on their skin type. The ”spa” greets returning
visitors with a cheery ”Welcome to your spa, Charlotte” - or whatever your
name might be.
Unlike Procter & Gamble’s soon-to-launch reflect.com, which will sell
personalised beauty products, there are no e-commerce options on the Dove
site, which is produced through Modem Media.Poppe Tyson. ”We see ourselves
as extending the brand by offering a service. There is no need for sales
as well,” says Ebba Linden, account director at Modem.
The site is currently US-based, and although there is nothing to prevent
UK women from registering, there is certainly a US feel to it, with the
registration form asking for your state and zip code.
Dove is among the brands that Unilever hopes to cross-market on the
internet, following agreements with AOL and Microsoft. Other brands named
in the agreement include Lipton tea and Ragu spaghetti sauce.
”Database management with Microsoft will help us to determine how to
cross-market between two food products such as Ragu and Breyers ice cream,
or even a food product and a personal care product such as Dove or
Mentadent with Lipton tea,” explains Marc de Swaan Arons, director of
Unilever’s interactive brand centre in New York.
”Our web strategy is driven solely by the needs of our consumers, not by
the need to be digital. Our Dove site collects information in order that
we can present customers with a tailored site and eventually produce
products which they want and need.”