Sampling a product versus experiencing the brand

LONDON - As the recession continues to bite, getting consumers to sample brands is top of the agenda, but is the focus on experiential overcomplicating the market ?

One of the first rules of marketing has always been that if people try, they are more likely to buy. The simplest way for marketers to put their product into consumers' hands has always been sampling, but a smiling representative in a branded T-shirt handing out free goodies to passers-by often doesn't cut it anymore. Consumers expect something better from brands, especially when cash is tight. But as sampling becomes more focused on brand experience, are marketers in danger of losing sight of what they need to achieve?

Gemma Newland, managing director of brand entertainment agency Stream, thinks not. 'Sampling in isolation is almost a waste of time, especially when it happens as people are leaving a Tube station,' she says. 'If you give people an experience, it creates word of mouth and offers brands opportunities to create some great PR.

Newland points to the 'Sets and the City' initiative, which Stream ran last summer to launch HŠagen-Dazs' Raspberries & Meringue variant, as an example. In the City of London, it created an environment for consumers to watch tennis from Wimbledon on big screens and be pampered while eating ice cream. 'Over 23,500 people visited the event over five days, plus we got some great coverage in London Lite and Metro,' says Newland.

 Beyond the freebie

The view that putting the experience into sampling is paramount is echoed by Ian Irving, sales and marketing director at Sledge. 'Giving consumers the chance to try before they buy is a powerful part of the marketing mix for any brand, but the key

is  to ensure that what you are doing is relevant, researched and evaluated,' he says. 'Consumers are very savvy to the tactics used by brands to drive purchase. If you think that simply thrusting a product into the hand of a passing punter will drive sales and future advocacy, you are very wrong.'

Sledge is currently running a 'face expert' road-show across UK shopping centres  for Nivea. Designed to boost sales of all 43 products in the Nivea Visage range, this invites consumers into a spa-like environment for an individual consultation with a skin expert, who then offers free samples tailored to the visitor's age and skin type.

Nivea Visage senior brand manager Nicole Goodwin says: 'We also do what is viewed as traditional mass-sampling in store, but this is about educating and helping consumers understand our whole range, so delivers that extra dimension of a personalised experience.' The cost per contact is higher, but, she adds, 'it's a more quality experience, so the wastage is lower'.

Turning sampling into a value-added experience for consumers can also ensure that the marketing budget works harder. 'A lot of the time, sampling is done very badly, so that it only delivers short-term results in terms of sales, rather than longer-term impact on consumers' behaviour,' says Cameron Day, global business development director at Iris Experience, which runs 'active trial' for companies including Unilever and Kellogg. 'We always ensure that as well as looking at issues around delivery, such as location, time and need, we include measures for brands to continue their dialogue with customers, so that the experience is not just a one-off hit.'

In these recessionary times, however, one of the major barriers to the experiential approach to sampling is the perception that such activity will be expensive.

'People talk about the demise of experiential because of the fixed costs and set-up expenses involved,' says Bruce Burnett, managing director of integrated brand experience agency i2i Marketing, which works with firms including Ginsters, Philips and Sara Lee. 'It's true that there are examples of major roadshows which seem to be more about style than substance, but if activities are properly targeted, engaging and motivating, they can be cost-effective and produce results.'

Earlier this year, i2i created an eight-week roadshow for Weight Watchers aimed at increasing awareness and sales of its range of hot and cold foods. Funding from three of Weight Watchers' major licensees - Greencore, Warburtons and Yoplait - provided the budget to deliver a bespoke sampling stand in stores, complete with menu board, meal ideas, trained brand ambassadors and a demonstration chef.

'Many consumers understand that our food range is all about keeping fat and calories to a minimum,' says Weight Watchers marketing manager Jennie Dettmer. 'What they aren't always aware of, though, is how good the range tastes. This is where the roadshow comes in.' Sales of sampled lines increased by an average 266% on the previous week in the selected stores; uplift was maintained at 30% for the following seven days.

However, such results do not mean that mass sampling is either dead or always inappropriate. Sharon Richey, managing director of BEcause, says it depends on what the brand is trying to achieve. 'We recently worked with Volvic Touch of Fruit,' she says. 'The brand is so well known that there was no need to drive awareness. It was about putting product into as many hands as possible at the lowest possible cost.'

Brands are also bypassing field marketing agencies as newspapers are beginning to turn to mass sampling as a way of driving up readership and revenues.

The leader in the field, London freesheet Metro, has a dedicated Brand to Hand division, offering a managed sampling package including concourse access to 15 UK mainline train stations between 7am and 10am, coverage in the paper, field staff, storage and distribution. 'We have access to high footfall, a high-quality audience and can handle up to 125,000 samples,' says sponsorship and promotions manager Alison Sugden. Cadbury used the service to promote Creme Egg Twisted at Halloween.

With standard industry costs per contact ranging from 30p to more than £50 once experiential elements are added, it is vital that any sampling activity delivers results. And for some marketers, the experiential approach has yet to fully prove its worth.

'I will always consider sampling at the planning stage of any campaign, particularly in the current economic climate,' says Steven Greaves, marketing manager at Tiger Beer, which recently used a experiential sampling to launch Desperados, a beer it distributes. 'But the experiential market needs to evolve to maintain its growth and achieve its full potential. This can be done by offering greater rigour in evaluation, measurement and proving the success of the activity, ensuring that experiential can be integrated into the rest of a brand's communication plans rather than being seen as something separate.'

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