Product sampling as a medium
a new promotional approach for established premium brands?
Elaine Hunt and Colin Jupe
Premium grocery brands are under pressure from own-label, budget
brands and, recently, hybrid approaches such as Tesco's. Their promotional
options have traditionally been advertising, predominantly on
and in-store promotions. But bo
Premium grocery brands may be hard to define, but are easy to
recognise. They enjoy very wide availability, instant brand recognition,
a long history of successful marketing, consistently high quality
and, in many cases, innovative development. But the dominant position
of such brands has been considerably eroded over the past decade.
The share of own- label is now of the order of 50 per cent and,
more recently, the growth of discounters has boosted the sale
of budget brands. This has led some multiples to produce versions
of budget brands under their own label, e.g. Tesco Value.
Stephan Buck of Taylor Nelson AGB, with others, has shown that
these pressures are having a significant impact on the market
share of even some of the best known premium brands. However,
he reports a strong link between TV advertising (regarding both
the product categories which make the greatest use of it and the
people who watch it) and loyalty to premium brands.
So resolute commitment by premium brand manufacturers to maintain
their advertising budgets might hold off the many challenges their
brands now face.
Unfortunately that policy may prove difficult over the next few
years. Exhibit 1 suggests that the fmcg manufacturers accept the
importance of advertising. Their expenditure increased by over
60 per cent in real terms between 1982 and 1988. Even in 1992,
in the depths of recession, it remained almost 50 per cent above
the 1982 level. Moreover, fmcg share of total advertising, which
remained fairly stable through the 1980s, increased significantly
between 1988 and 1992. Since the great majority of fmcg advertising
is on television, where coverage is relatively stable, over the
past four years the fmcg companies have been in the happy position
of getting more OTS for their money.
In a slump, the price of TV advertising falls steeply, which in
general favours fmcg, particularly grocery, where demand is not
greatly influenced by seasonal factors. As the economy moves out
of a recession, however, the price of television advertising tends
to rise as steeply as it formerly fell.
Thus at the very time when premium brands appear to be coming
under most pressure, the cost of maintaining their vital advertising
exposure seems set to increase sharply. In the past, such increases
in TV costs encouraged premium brands to step up below-the-line
activity, especially price promotion. But we have already seen
that over the past four years the position of brand manufacturers
retailers has weakened. So the real cost
of price promotions has increased: more importantly, the competitive
advantage they offer at point-of-sale is being threatened.
This leaves manufacturers with a dilemma. Both of the marketing
interfaces with the consumer, the advertising media and the retail
outlets, are likely to become more expensive to use, or more difficult
to control. But the need for premium brands to maintain consumer
loyalty grows ever more pressing with the increase in competition.
Is there any other means by which manufacturers can establish
links with consumers?
The idea of product sampling is not new. In one form or another
it is probably as old as marketing itself. But sampling has usually
been used sparingly by manufacturers, mainly as a way of introducing
new products. When asked about their comparatively low usage of
sampling, manufacturers tend to point to the initial expense of
'donated' product and special packaging. This reluctance has been
compounded by past difficulties in targeting recipients, which
led to potential waste. The effectiveness of product sampling
has increased through improvements in data collection and processing,
pre-screening and targeting of recipients, and improvements in
field control operations. To what extent does in-home sampling
compare with media advertising and retail promotion as a means
of generating consumer loyalty? Some interesting light is shed
by recent qualitative and quantitative research in this area,
amongst both client users of the medium and amongst consumers.
User attitudes to sampling seem to be changing quite rapidly.
A 1992 survey showed sharply contrasting attitudes, often held
by the same people. On the one hand, there were doubts about the
ability of the smaller door-to-door companies to carry out anything
more than the most basic distribution efficiently. On the other,
there was some belief that sampling was a cost effective way of
communicating with potential consumers. For sampling to play a
larger role in consumer marketing campaigns, the activity would
require satisfactory levels of quality control and to be properly
monitored in effectiveness terms.
Consumers' attitudes to sampling are quite interesting. Past research
has indicated a relatively low level of spontaneous awareness
amongst consumers about product sampling as compared with other
media activities. However, a more detailed 1993 study by ourselves
shows that housewives appreciate sampling and indeed find it a
more helpful communication in both new and existing products than
either television advertising or money-off promotions.
Exhibits 2 and 3 compare the perceived usefulness (in the case
of a new product) of the different promotional media, and the
degrees to which they say have ever acted on one of them.
These data of course concern sampling in its most useful role
- as part of the launch of a new product. But to what extent may
it influence purchase behaviour of established brands, for instance
those outside the consumer's established brand repertoire?
As Exhibit 4 shows, respondents claimed that receiving and trying
a free sample of a product (which they had `known about', but
had never found sufficiently attractive to purchase), had broken
the cycle of product loyalty, and had led them to include and/or
substitute a brand in their purchase repertoire. Neither advertising
nor price promotion were acknowledged to have the same impact
on existing purchase patterns.
The unexpected and enjoyable aspect of sampling, freely acknowledged
by respondents, seems to build a bridge between recipient and
donor in a way not shared with other forms of manufacturer/consumer
communication. This ability to foster goodwill amongst recipients
is an important by-product of sampling, although one of which
manufacturers have made little use.
The 'gift' of a sample smooths the way for cooperation, and creates a desire for reciprocity between manufacturer and recipient. Also,
nearly 90 per cent of respondents said that they would be prepared
to answer some questions when the samples were delivered. In this
way it becomes possible for manufacturers to improve their customer
databases and forge closer links with them at the same time.
A number of conclusions may be drawn from this research. Not all
types of product or campaign are equally well-suited to the use
of sampling techniques, but the scope for existing fmcg brands
appears much wider than is usually recognised. Similarly, whilst
no one would suggest that sampling could completely replace other
marketing methods, such as TV advertising or price promotions,
there are considerable possibilities for combinations of these
various techniques. This seems to be an important consideration
for fmcg manufacturers at a time when the intermediaries they
deal with for advertising and promotions, the TV contractors and
retailers, are likely to be imposing increasing pressure on margins.
In particular, sampling is a way of forging a direct link between
producer and consumers when competing with own-label.
For the future, the distribution companies have to demonstrate
their efficiency, using methods which can be ,
like other media. Equally, user-companies have to learn how best
to use sampling, to integrate it within their marketing strategies,
and to measure its effectiveness. Nevertheless the great improvements
in the use of databases, allied to the unparalleled pressures
under which the manufacturers of premium brands are now operating,
suggest that the opportunities for product sampling are considerable.
The 1993 consumer research studies above comprised:
1. Six group discussions with BC1C2 shoppers, appropriately structured
2. A quantitative study of 205 respondents, similarly structured.
Both were conducted by The Human Factor for MRM Distributions
plc. The particulars of these studies, whose investigations extend
considerably beyond the 'headline' findings cited in the narrative,
are obtainable from the authors.