Finding the Sweet Spot Between Brand, Retailer and Shopper
I must confess, I am a little unnerved by the letters R-F-Q and to a lesser extent even R-F-P. When companies send me an RFQ I can only assume they missed the “Real In-store marketing solutions are more than the sum of their parts” memo. I also assume the sender may be a little commitment-phobic if he is willing to send the same request to so many different and often anonymous providers on the hope he can save a nickel on the dollar.
The fact is, there are oodles of manufacturing oriented P-O-P companies for which this highly impersonal and price-obsessed message should be directed. My company is typically not one of them. That’s not to say that my company lacks manufacturing muscle. We invest heavily in the machinery of our trade and have lots of impressive capabilities to show for it. After all, we have been building permanent displays for demanding blue chip clients for over 86 years now. It is also not to say that we are “high priced” whatever that really means. The reason my company may be a bad target for these mass solicitations is that we are one among a smaller segment within the broader P-O-P industry of top tier producers and as such offer our clients a more expansive and valuable service proposition. Top tier P-O-P producers also are more likely to be involved in long term, committed relationships with clients that value solutions oriented collaboration more than low priced transactions. Top tier companies are consistently offered a place at the table to consult on strategy before executing tactics. Choosing among them is done less often with a calculator and more often by assessing the wisdom and ROI of their past solutions.
Are these important distinctions? I like to say that AMD Industries is a marketing first and carpentry second organization. This simply means we concern ourselves with our client’s brand marketing and merchandising strategies long before we settle on executional designs. Frankly that is important only if our client says it is important. If the brand marketing group believes, as we do, that the retail space has become the pre-eminent pre-purchase consumer touch point for both brand building and promotional messages then these distinctions are critical. If marketing at retail is not really integrated into a client’s overall brand marketing strategy I can’t convince them that a more sophisticated approach is necessary.
Depending on their viewpoint clients are either shopping for P-O-P providers that can produce the cheapest solutions or they are searching for providers who can consistently hit the creative sweet spot that solves for the brand, the retailer and the shopper*.
These days we are informed regularly that brand stakeholders are focusing greater attention and resources on the retail space as a medium every bit as relevant as traditional media. Lots of productive work is underway to deliver the kind of quantitative metrics for in-store media that will help our agency friends place retail in context with traditional media for their client’s marketing communications plans.
As a result, truly top tier P-O-P producers have positioned themselves and reorganized their resources along more of an agency model to help their clients optimize the potential of their marketing at retail programs. The final execution will still be about delivering a well engineered and finely crafted display solution but this output will be influenced by a series of considerations — brand positioning, target marketing, shopper segmentation, and retail discoveries that most P-O-P companies never contend with. Top tier producers are also focusing more on the artsy side of the equation — how big creative ideas can connect brands with shoppers in store just as surely as 30 second TV spots or print executions have always connected with their target audiences. Squishy stuff maybe, but few have argued against artfulness in advertising.
Let me illustrate what I am talking about with a few real examples from our work.
How do you execute against a specific marketing objective?
We were recently approached by the market leader in an ethnic food category. The product had been generally treated as more of a low priced commodity than any kind of highly recognized brand but still managed greater sales volume in a category marked by many strong regional players due to a strong national direct sales distribution system. Like many other ethnic foods, acculturated users consumed the product regularly and considered it a staple item for a broad range of meal solutions. Our challenge was convincing the general market to purchase the product more frequently as this was determined to be the most likely way to build share. Share growth among acculturated users would remain largely a function of population growth. Shopper research that we were privy to suggested the general market typically purchased this product only four times a year and often to mark special occasions exclusively. If these folks could be moved to buy the brand just one or two more times a year, explosive sales growth would occur.
Our response started with lots of spade work. Not only did we visit a couple of the company’s principal manufacturing facilities to learn exactly how the product was made, we saw the specific ways it moved through the supply chain. We also organized into teams to walk the stores in each of the company’s regions to understand how much variability existed in planograms and what unique challenges existing in one region versus another. Working closely with the brand marketing team and collaborating openly with their advertising agency we created a merchandising system that accomplished several important objectives. We cleaned up the aisle.
Our solution neatly faced a broad assortment of sku’s where previously the product had been stacked haphazardly. Flavor and nutritional varieties become more visible and more shoppable. We simplified the buying decision through a coherent color-coded system for category management of our brand as well as the competitors in any given market. And most importantly through a combination of appetite appeal graphics and take-away recipe cards we promoted a wide range of meal solutions that would encourage shoppers to make these items a more integral part of their regular meal planning.
APPEALING TO SPECIFIC SHOPPERS
The more optimistic among us marketing at retail guys can imagine a day when marketing campaigns are truly integrated across all consumer touch-points. We don’t believe that just because the retail medium poses unique challenges that our client’s brand message should be disconnected from the FMOT.
When we walk new clients through our display showroom one commonality of our work becomes quickly apparent. With few exceptions our displays are designed to create an emotional connection with the specific shoppers they target. Every great brand has a great brand story. We are convinced the great stories that appeal to the hearts and minds of buyers and are masterfully rendered in traditional media, should bubble up to the retail sales floor where shoppers meet the brand with wallet in hand. If the prevailing imagery expressed in dominate graphic areas like the headers and side panels is targeted properly the effect is similar to print executions in that we can attract a very specific kind of shopper that should correspond well with our client’s target audience. The graphics are only one way to capture a specific brand essence. In recent work we have done with our client Williamson-Dickie Manufacturing Company, the largest work wear manufacturer in the world based in Ft. worth Texas, we strived to capture the heart and soul of very specific customer types and appeal to them with an aspirational message. Careful attention to detail in material selection and very specific architectural components created an authentic industrial atmosphere that the shopper could immediately relate to. Getting this just right required a lot of additional effort as we visited construction worksites, interviewed customers and even visited a steel mill for creative inspiration. Thanks to “Dickies” for understanding the potential of our medium. The new Fixture program is decidedly not cheap but is well worth any additional cost in how authentically it will connect with customers and will differentiate the brand.
There are other ways that we may be unique in our methods. Who Has an “Ideation Room”? It is almost iconic, the image of a group of people locked away in some small room until they can brainstorm the perfect this or the ideal that. We have designed what we call our “ideation room” which is perfectly suited for small team creative collaborations. One entire wall, floor to ceiling is a dry erase marker board. Flanking walls left and right provide room length corkboard pin-up space. It is a great place for a cross-functional meeting of the minds or where a couple guys can play dueling sketches. For us it is a commitment to doing our work in a more thoughtful and creatively charged way. We are really looking for some break out thinking and are convinced this usually comes from a more socially constructive place.
THE COMPANY WE KEEP
Like any other company that does what we do, we have lots of traditional roles and titles for the people who design engineer, produce and sell displays. But I bet we have a couple of unique roles with correspondingly unique titles that we have brought on in recent years to address our particular viewpoint on marketing at retail. Our Director of Product and Process Integrity serves as a direct response to the rising complexity of the programs we design for our clients and for the greater concern we all have for possible mistakes that could be made along the way. This guy is a real troubleshooter that looks out for our business interests and those of our valued clients. We also have a Director of Innovation to bird-dog emerging trends, develop proprietary techniques and technologies and generally ensure that we remain on the leading edge of this industry. Though all of our people are generally tuned into what’s latest and greatest, we find that having someone exclusively focused on innovation assures us that little will slip through the cracks. We all walk a little taller knowing that today we know just a little more than yesterday.
We are planning on opening our new Retail experience laboratory during the first half of next year. Existing plans call for carving out several thousand square feet of space in our headquarters facility in which we will replicate scale versions of the floor plans and fixturing that live in retailers that our key to our clients. This space will allow us to evaluate our brand executions in context, pursue solutions that more realistically balance brand and retail merchandising priorities and even conduct more realistic survey research or focus group research with important buying groups. We expect this space to become very popular with or clients also as they use it to present solutions for their key customers.
We are in development of an exciting digital signage oriented marketing at Retail program that represents the ultimate in brand marketing at retail. We will be presenting this program to top U.S. CPG brands in the coming months and will attempt to match them with retail sponsors. Essentially the program is about engaging shoppers in a relevant opt-in way right at the shelf-edge. It will provide significant branding opportunities for both brand marketers and retailers who seek to differentiate their stores in a more reliable way than EDLP.
If we avoid the temptation to underestimate the power of the retail medium and apply ourselves toward a broader understanding of both the art and science of in-store marketing, the next several years will be exciting times for brand marketers and the top tier P-O-P producers who call them clients.
Matt Baker (email@example.com) is director, business development, at AMD Industries in Chicago.