New marketing strategies are combining advertising with sampling, in a clever and successful way.

Life used to be simple for advertisers. Consumers were just waiting to be sold to, only too happy to swap their current detergent for a new brand, and unwilling to accept two of the old products to swap back again.

Such openness was not only the basis of most fmcg advertising, it also launched the modern door-to-door distribution industry – in 1952, Circular Distributors (CD) did the first free sample drop in the UK, handing out 10 million boxes of Omo.

Now things are different. Consumers live in mortal fear of Danny Baker knocking on the door. A trip to the supermarket may result in them having to take the Pepsi Challenge. And choosing margarine over butter is no longer about getting the same taste at a lower price – it is about not being accused of damaging the family’s health.

All consumers really want to do is get the dinner on the table, wash their hair and make sure the kids’ clothes are clean.

Small wonder that in the early Nineties, fmcg advertising hit a crisis of confidence about how to achieve product trial and brand switching. The difficulties were summed up by Gordon Brown of Millward Brown, who in 1991 wrote the book How Advertising Affects the Sales of Packaged Goods Brands.

He wrote: “At the same time they see the ad, consumers inevitably regard what advertisers say with powerful scepticism – advertisers obviously have a vested interest. But the scepticism is reinforced by a psychological need to simplify purchasing habits, which is essential to avoid becoming bogged down by constant decision-taking.”

As Chris King, deputy managing director of Mellors Reay, puts it: “How long do you really want to spend working out which is the best furniture polish? If you try it, and it does the job, that’s one less thing to worry about – you just recognise where the product fits into your life. Marketers may spend all year thinking about their products, but the consumer only spends 30 seconds.”

Brown’s book examines differences in the way consumers respond to advertising and the way they respond to the product. Consumers faced by advertising often dismiss the idea that it influences them, and they feel defensive because it challenges their purchasing habits. However, when they actually experience the brand, they frequently replay the advertising claims as if they are their own attitudes.

This is the rationale behind new moves to yoke together advertising and sampling, to generate a more powerful reaction among potential users than has previously been thought possible.

The essence of this strategy is that advertising is more likely to have an impact on consumers – provided it tells them something new, that is of value, and that they believe – once they have actually experienced the product. Offering a free sample remains a powerful way of getting consumers to test a brand not in their repertoire. This was clear from research carried out in 1995 for CD by Synergism/RSGB (see tables) which showed 94 per cent of household consumers agree “samples give a better idea of the product than advertising”.

At the same time, 68 per cent said they tend to stick to products and brands they know and 43 per cent claimed advertising doesn’t influence them in the things they buy.

The way to get round this barrier is to put the product into the household using a sample, says CD managing director Nick Wells: “A lot of people forget that the sample itself is a 3D ad. You get far higher levels of recall from a sample than from virtually anything else because of its bulk and shape. And, if it stays in the home for a long period, it is a constant reminder.”

He believes there is an increasing use of sampling to support new product launches or brand relaunches, alongside heavy TV advertising. Timing is critical – dropping within the first two weeks of a six-week campaign will boost awareness. So too is exploiting the link. “You would be crazy not to integrate the creative elements and television advertising,” says Wells.

The value of samples is supported by a media effectiveness study carried out by the Association of Household Distributors. It asked consumers to rate the usefulness of items they received unaddressed through the letterbox. Free newspapers came top, with 67 per cent saying they were very or quite useful, followed by samples at 61 per cent.

David Sneesby, group marketing director of Taylor Nelson AGB Marketing Services, says advertisers should now be looking again at how to plan and track their sample distributions, to increase their effectiveness.

AGB’s acquisition of MRM Distributions has enabled it to use data from the 10,000 household Super Panel in door-to-door work.

“Through panel members, we can do a tracking study to see who’s buying what products. When it comes to targeting door-to-door, we are able to identify postcode sectors that offer the best potential to the manufacturer or retailer. We can pick up specific competing brands, or own-brand – whatever the advertiser’s targeting critieria are,” he says.

The Super Panel will then show if purchasing behaviour changes following the sample drop. Sneesby adds: “The area of response tracking is one we are looking at very seriously. The idea is that you can become more and more effective with a distribution through seeing what previous campaigns achieved.”

But the process has been taken even further by some. Fast Marketing, based at TBWA, was set up specifically to use the insights gained from Brown’s seminal study. By applying what it calls Focused Advertising and Sampling Techniques (FAST), the agency claims to bring in loyal new users of packaged goods brands “dramatically and overnight,” according to managing director John Bunyard.

The basis of the approach is to blitz the target audience. “It uses a large volume of TV advertising in a short time to create artificially high levels of awareness of the brand. Before that starts to drop, you hand out a lot of samples for them to try. We predict that you would get a change in belief – people would say they have discovered some-thing.That ought to start buying loyalty,” says Bunyard.

Results from campaigns that have used FAST appear to justify his claims. Recall and trial have jumped massively, and even brands that were previously in decline have been able to put on 50 to 200 per cent in sales.

A campaign last summer showed that FAST may even be powerful enough to overcome seasonal factors. Lift Lemon Tea saw sales in its product category drop by 18 per cent in June as temperatures reached 90 degrees. But, following its campaign, the brand’s sales rose by four per cent.

This kind of work does require some important re-orientation. For one thing, the campaign run by Lift spent the same amount of money pro rata on airtime in the test region as it would have done nationally. Bunyard says the short-lived campaign was “more intense and bought less than half the ratings”.

The creative work used may also have to be rethought. Brown’s theory and FAST’s practice both hold that the more tangible the experience being offered, the better the results will be. An ad that says a product “tastes great” will generate higher recall and trial if it says something along the lines of, “it tastes like liquid honey trickling down the throat”.

Bunyard says: “Consumers might doubt that, but if they then sample and end up saying it does taste like that, you will get a deeper involvement with the brand.”

But for this approach to spread across the fmcg advertising industry, some political barriers will have to be removed. As one distribution company head says: “The amount of advertising and sampling activity running together is not that great. The opportunity to consider things jointly would involve a couple of agencies, which is a potential area of non-communication.”

Mark Young, managing director of The Leaflet Company, recognises that this is a problem but believes those who solve it will stand to gain.

“I think door-to-door is a very interesting position. It was historically firmly below the line. Direct marketing and sales promotion agencies were happy to deal with it, while ad agencies and media buyers were not,” he says.

Clients are bringing about a change in these attitudes. Having seen that combining sampling with broadcast media, either TV or radio, can significantly improve sales, they are now pushing for greater co-ordination of effort. This does not necessarily remove the politics – Young notes that one ad agency is using its expertise in door-to-door to lay claim to a client’s entire media budget.

At Mellors Reay, King says his agency has already applied the technique highly effectively for several clients. But he warns against rushing to adopt it as a revolutionary new advertising weapon.

“I don’t see it as a new way of thinking,” he says. “It’s a smart way of harnessing different approaches but it’s the same thought as integrating messages. It’s about doing trial-gaining activity and dovetailing that into advertising communications, to make the two work together. The danger is that it’s difficult to generalise. It is not a panacea.”

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