Until quite recently sampling was a matter of getting as many ice creams or chocolate bars into as many mouths as possible, ideally at little cost. Volume is still important, but field marketers these days are devising more sophisticated presentation techniques to help build brands and to educate consumers about their benefits.
The approach will depend on the client's objectives. Where the need is to drive frequency of purchase, re-establish brand loyalty, or target a different demographic, the preference will be for efficient, quick and economical means of dispensing large numbers of samples. But for generating brand awareness companies are favouring roadshows, which can engage consumers on an emotional level and provide a depth of information far greater than can be achieved through mass advertising.
At one end of the scale is the promotion Headcount recently carried out for Lego at the NEC's Motor Show. Staff, chosen for their ability to interact with parents, handed out product bags and information leaflets. According to Headcount, the aim was to build the brand rather than push sales, and having a Formula One car built out of Lego gave the company local press coverage.
But when a cereal bar manufacturer launched a product aiming to reach as many consumers as possible, Headcount used a stand in an area of maximum density - Lakeside shopping centre - to give samples to a potential 68,000 shoppers daily.
Hugh Robertson, client services director at RPM, maintains the that best results are achieved when quantity is not the main issue. 'Lots of field marketing companies take the school dinner approach, dishing out large numbers of samples with little concern about what or who they are serving,' he argues.
RPM sees itself as an 'experience consultancy', providing a tangible feel for a brand personality that gives an extra dimension to the encounter.
'It's not the immediacy of the product but the experience around it that matters, and once we get people to buy into the brand they will stay with us longer term,' Robertson says. 'If you focus solely on volume considerations you risk not meeting your sales and communications objectives.'
One-to-one activity is about providing a depth of information that cannot be provided in any other way.
Consumer education is particularly important for technology products.
Stands marketing digital TV and the internet have become a common sight in and around shopping centres. The aim is to demystify the product as a prelude to signing up new users.
'Dotcom culture calls for a very involving strategy that enlightens ordinary people,' says Brona Connolly, head of field marketing at Eleven, which is currently promoting the BBC's beeb.com around the country (see box).
'You have to find ways of softening the interface and not simply assume that everyone is familiar with the internet. That is where we have to push harder with creative strategies, to make people curious to sample the brand.'
FMCG manufacturers also find that a little understanding goes a long way when it comes to food products, with roadshows that combine the sights, sounds and smells of cooking with information about recipes and health issues.
RPM recently ran a campaign for Old El Paso, offering tortillas filled with seasoned chicken and peppers to shoppers at major supermarkets. Here the goal was to combine volume sampling with brand building, according to Lisa Hamilton, brand manager for Old El Paso. 'We need to make sound financial decisions, so we have to get the right balance. But instead of blasting out the same message, we wanted to customise the experience for each person by having a chat with them,' she says.
Health is another aspect where one-to-one conversations may be needed to help get a message across. Leonardo ran a stand for Kellogg's All Bran at exhibitions last year, educating consumers in the over-45 age bracket in the cancer-inhibiting properties of fibre.
In practice, though, field marketers acknowledge that quality of interaction will not deliver results unless it is experienced by a wide range of consumers.
Face-to-face field marketing has certainly become a more sophisticated process, but the aim as ever is to extend the reach to as many consumers as possible.
David Foster, managing director at Rainsley says: 'The ideal is a big stand to get a visual message across, trained staff to talk and to answer questions, and a hit-squad team handing out samples or leaflets as quickly as their arms will allow.'
BEST PRACTICE TIPS
- Research venues thoroughly, choose one that will deliver your target audience and has relevance to the brand.
- Liaise with the venue to ensure it understands your requirements.
- Make sure the promotions team is properly motivated.
- Take full account of the environment: circumstances in exhibitions, shopping centres, streets and car parks may need to be dealt with in different ways.
- Look for achievable results in terms of realistic timings, targets, customer delivery and approach outcomes.
- Plan for all eventualities and get proper insurance cover for bad weather, equipment failure or cancellation.
In October, Eleven launched a roadshow advertising the BBC's web site beeb.com at major shopping centres. The campaign is integrated with above-the-line activity and combines quality one-to-one interaction with mass sampling of educational material.
Consumers are invited onto a double-decker bus to try out the internet.
Meanwhile, teams of sampling staff cover a wide adjacent area handing out a specially written Ladybird booklet on shopping online. By early December a total of 20,000 people are expected to have had a direct experience, and a further 360,000 will have been given written information.
The campaign is aimed at consumers who are likely to have access to a computer but have yet to take the plunge and shop online. 'The focus is educational and centres on giving people lessons, but we also want to reach as many people as we can by handing out booklets,' says beeb.com's marketing executive Katie Ferryman. She says the promotion has been successful in terms of the numbers coming back to the site and comments from users.