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Posted on April 5, 2017

Marketers like to put things into buckets. Are you a digital agency or are you really primarily a social agency? Does this come out of the trade budget or the advertising budget? Is this an above the line spend or below the line? As agencies and vendors work to expand their capabilities, it takes an awful lot of work to convince a decision-maker that you really ARE now an expert in a new discipline because once your company is in an industry bucket, it’s very difficult to get out.

It’s even more challenging to get a marketing tactic into a different budget. The most recent success story that comes to mind is how PR leaped into the social media bucket, after a concerted effort at the industry level lead by giants like Edelman, who quickly realized if they allowed those whipper-snappers at these new, so-called “digital media agencies” to stake claim to social media, PR could be left fighting for event marketing dollars, something they realized in the late 90’s and early 2000’s wasn’t an area they were positioned to dominate.

As a long-time advocate of product sampling, I’ve always taken issue with this tactic being lumped into the consumer promotion category. By the very definition of promotion, sampling doesn’t fit into the historical criteria that designates something as a promotion:

Consumer promotion is a marketing strategy that provides a limited, time-sensitive offer to drive purchase causing immediate and measurable short term sales spikes.

Common promotions are coupons, sweepstakes, contests, TPRs (temporary price reductions), BOGOs and the like. The coupon expires, the contest ends, the sale is for a limited time only while supplies last. So, let’s talk about sampling. True, there are a limited number produced, and therefore the supply will run out, but that’s where the similarities to other promotions end. The fundamental goals of product sampling are not the same as other forms of promotion, and therefore should not be expected to perform or be measured the same way.

Best practices for the majority of product sampling executions should be:

  1. To eliminate barriers to trial – put the sample as close to the point of use/need as possible
  2. To distribute to NEW USERS versus current users
  3. To target the primary shopper
  4. To reach your general target as efficiently as possible

No other consumer promotion tactics need to work as hard as sampling in order to be successful. Give a current user a coupon or a sale price and they will be happy to stock up, which helps your sales spike success story. But they would have bought your product next week without the coupon, so really how successful was it? The common ding against promotions in general is that they train consumers to wait for incentives and to deal-shop. Bed Bath & Beyond has acknowledged (http://www.businessinsider.com/bed-bath-and-beyond-coupons-backfiring-20-percent-discount-sale-2015-11) that they’ve created a huge problem with their constant flow of 20% off coupons, as they conditioned their consumers to only shop when they have one. As they shift strategy to distribute fewer, their customers are noticing and shopping less often. Whereas with sampling, the brand is in much more control of the who, how and when. Consumers rarely expect samples unless they’ve again been conditioned by weak marketing, like expecting the free cheese cubes at the deli counter every weekend, and these freebies become less special or impactful. When consumers get an unexpected sample, assuming the timing and targeting are right, they are pleasantly surprised, as research shows that only 30% of consumer say they received a free sample in the past year.

Another “anti-promotion” attribute of sampling is that it doesn’t create the same sense of urgency like other promotions, as consumers need time to find the opportunity to use the sample and then finish whatever brand they currently have before purchasing the sampled brand. This can happen quickly for categories like food, but for laundry detergent, where the consumer may have just stocked up on a Costco-sized gallon of Tide, it could be months before they are shopping the category again. In addition, even large sample quantities are typically distributed nationally, with purchases spread across many retailers per market over many weeks/months, so expecting a sales spike two weeks after a sampling program like you would after an FSI is a recipe for disappointment.

When you buy a car, while the price reduction or catchy advertising campaign might catch your eye, the strongest indicator of whether you will buy comes after you’ve taken it for a spin on the test-drive. Dealers know that if they can just get people in their showroom and put a butt in the seat, they have a significantly higher chance of closing the sale. Sampling is a proven, long-term, equity building tactic that is the most effective tool in the marketing mix to convince a consumer to buy your product. Maybe it’s time we add another bucket called Product Experience, because experiential marketing is also lumped into promotion and has similar challenges when being held to the same standards as other forms of promotion. If the PR industry can do it, I think the growing number of companies in the sampling and experiential space have the ability, and the upside, to shift the paradigm.



Sherry Orel

Sherry Orel is the CEO of Brand Connections, an independent global media and marketing company that specializes in Making Marketing Easier for Marketers™, providing tailored solutions that link critical marketing disciplines to help marketers connect the dots to deliver a better business outcome. She has 25 years experience in working with Fortune 500 brands to develop strategic, multi-channel solutions, integrating disciplines from out-of-home, digital, mobile, social, promotion, sponsorship, experiential, CRM and retail activation.

Posted in Marketing