A testing time for marketers

The development of sophisticated targeting and tracking techniques has raised the profile of fast-marketing. While consumers often give ads the status of a mere claim, subsequent sampling exercises drive home the psychological message. Alan Mi

Sampling is hardly a new element of marketing. Ever since the Fifties, when 8 million lucky consumers received a full-sized pack of Omo on their doorsteps, companies have been using it to telling effect. Developments such as single taste or dose replica packs that mimic the brand’s design and the introduction of sophisticated targeting and tracking techniques have added to its attractiveness.

Supermarkets such as Asda have fallen in love with sampling. Because it engages all the senses, it is, almost by definition, more powerful than advertising. It also adds a sense of theatre and excitement to the humdrum chore of the weekly shop.

But if the claims of a new TBWA offshoot called Fast Marketing are to be believed, sampling could soon achieve an unaccustomed star status within many companies’ marketing strategies. Combined with the right “experiential” approach to ads, it can achieve stunning increases in market share, says managing director John Bunyard.

In the seven weeks following one Fast Marketing exercise, the brand’s sales jumped fourfold, he says. Another product recorded a sales rise of 113 per cent only five months after one Fast Marketing initiative. Even more surprising, sales of Mr Kipling Cake Bars rocketed 19-fold, settling down to a mere 600 per cent-plus increase after six weeks.

Such results are “astronomic”, says Manor Bakeries marketing director Colin Tether.

What’s the trick? On one level, it’s simply implementing what all marketers know but rarely get round to doing: when an ad campaign coincides with sampling activity, the effects are stronger than when the two are done separately.

At another level it’s a challenge to many existing advertising and marketing orthodoxies. Sure, advertising works, but probably not in the way you think it does. Without sampling, it’s a bit like a car without petrol – all very impressive but it won’t take you far.

The concept of fast marketing does two things. First, it concentrates unheard amounts of advertising weight into tiny periods. Weeks of TVRs can be stuffed into days, for example, so that no one watching commercial TV can avoid it.

Second, a saturation sampling campaign can be conducted immediately after this ad blitz to minimise the chances of awareness decay.

That way, says Bunyard, consumers are given the best chance to test the advertisements’ claims for themselves. Considering the astonishing claims that he’s making, it sounds stupendously anodyne. But there is more to it than meets the eye. Bunyard says there is evidence that advertising by itself can have a negative effect on consumers’ purchasing decisions.

He points to research conducted by Andy Farr and Gordon Brown (now retired) at Millward Brown. This teased out how consumers react to four different combinations of marketing exposure: those who saw ads for a product and were offered the opportunity to sample it, those who saw ads but no sample, ones who didn’t see the ads but did sample them and those who did neither.

Consumers that were exposed to the ads alone were less likely to buy the products than the control group which had not seen the ads. “It is just possible that we have uncovered a genuine slight tendency to react negatively, initially, to the process of being persuaded,” the researchers wrote in a Market Research Society paper.

The good news, however, was that consumers who were exposed to ads and subsequently tried the product showed a much higher propensity to buy – enough, on average, to register sales increases of 25 per cent.

Bunyard has a theory to explain this. First, he suggests consumers are right when they say – as they do consistently – that they ignore or resist ads when they are exposed to them. It’s a natural psychological reaction, he says. If you buy one brand and an ad for a competing brand tells you you’ve made the wrong choice, then you react defensively. In this sense, he says traditional brand advertising is an inertia mechanism. “It encourages those who are in to stay in, and those who are out to stay out.”

But what ads can do is “pre-suggest”. Consumers who have seen an ad give it the status of a mere claim – and quite rightly. However, when confronted by the product they automatically test the claim and look for the attributes highlighted by the commercial. If the ad’s claims are justified, it provokes a “Eureka effect” and prompts genuine conversion, says Bunyard. “Ads do not persuade consumers. Consumers persuade themselves.”

To maximise this effect, Bunyard advises fast-marketing brand managers to forget sophisticated positioning and imagery and go for highly experiential ads such as those for Tango, Galaxy chocolate or Häagen-Dazs ice cream. Ads should be “pure product, stripped of all marketing paraphernalia”. Then, before consumers have a chance to forget the “psychological sample”, marketers should ram the message home with a physiological sample – the product itself.

Some sceptics say the results achieved so far are for products that would have done well anyway. It’s too soon to judge long-term effects, they add. Others point to the dangers. Fast-marketing a product that didn’t live up to claims would be a disaster. And the planning, logistics and air time buying can be a nightmare. Errors can also create a very expensive mistake.

Bunyard concedes that fast-marketing is not cost-effective where “new news” ads can generate trial of their own accord. And, because of the “inertia effect”, it’s not appropriate for established brands, he says. However: “If the objective is not to support the status quo but to create new ‘usership’, a completely different mechanism [such as fast-marketing] is called for.”

For number two or three brands, struggling against the built-in advantage of a market leader, fast-marketing may present an opportunity for some real marketing judo. Judging by the interest that’s being shown by many fmcg companies, the next few months could see some spectacular thrills and spills.

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