Their specialist subject

Front-line field staff are often employed by an agency, rather than the brand they are promoting. But they still need some proper brand-value training, says Steve Hemsley

The philosopher Francis Bacon held that “nothing is more pleasant to the eye than green grass kept finely shorn.” He may have been right, yet for the majority of British homeowners with a piece of greenery attached to their homes, mowing the lawn remains a chore.

Lawnmower manufacturer Bosch, which owns the Qualcast brand, is on a mission to change this perception. During April and May, it employed 200 staff from field marketing company CPM to host product demonstrations in Homebase and B&Q outlets.

Bosch is convinced that, if consumers had a better understanding of how individual models are suited to the particular shape, size and condition of their lawn they would be less inclined to buy purely on price.

Prior to the activity, the CPM team received training at six regional centres where they took part in role-playing and presentations to learn about Qualcast’s brand values and its products, as well as those of its competitors.

The campaign, according to Bosch UK marketing manager Gary King, was a success. “A lawnmower is a distress purchase: people only tend to buy when their old one breaks down. This activity raised interest in the category for us and for the retailer. The store’s management even asked us if we could arrange training for their staff,” he says.

No need to wing it

Red Bull is another brand investing in training for its external field marketing team. In an attempt to increase sales of the drink in the independent retail sector, it has recruited 23 workers from field marketing company PMI. These workers have attended a day-long training session and taken part in events such as quizzes, to help them learn the intricacies of the Red Bull brand. Prizes acted as an added incentive to ensure the PMI employees took the training seriously and left the session with a feel-good glow about what the brand stands for – and what it doesn’t.

The time and money Bosch and Red Bull are prepared to spend on educating third-party agents is recognition that neither company is willing to gamble on how its brand is represented in store by people who do not work for it directly. In-house employees are expected to have a good understanding of their company’s products and to be passionate about what their employer’s brand stands for. For an external field marketing team, however, it can be much harder to get excited.

“Permanent staff have a psychological relationship with a company that goes way beyond pure finance. They tend to have a built-in loyalty,” says Morag Fox, a consultant at personnel specialist HBS. “To get field marketing teams to think in the same way requires considerable investment. Marketers must assess what damage could be done if they do not spend time and money explaining their brand’s unique selling point and culture, even if the field team will be involved for only a few weeks.”

Face-to-face training is an expensive option for brands. Industry estimates suggest the cost of hosting a day at a hotel can add between ten and 15 per cent to the overall cost of a field marketing campaign. Yet compared with simply posting a briefing note to members of a field team who may not even read it until the night before the activity begins, this is usually money well spent.

Many field marketing companies actually insist that clients allocate a portion of their budget to pay for one or two days’ training at the office or a local venue. They understand that if field staff are to be successful in store and meet the objectives set out in the client’s brief, they need to know where the brand sits within its category in terms of market share, how healthy the current retail environment is for that particular product group and who exactly makes up the target market.

“It is important that our staff know about any trends in the market, so an honest appraisal of a brand’s position against its competitors is vital if our staff are to live and breathe the brand as the client expects them to. Both parties must share information,” says Headcount director Linda Edge.

Field marketing provides brands with valuable one-to-one contact with existing and potential consumers when those consumers are in the mood for shopping. With this in mind, it is perhaps surprising that any client would begrudge investing in adequate training simply because the field team is employed by someone else. In fact, a well-briefed sampling representative or product demonstrator is often much more effective in prompting a sale and changing buying habits than is an attractive pack design, on which a considerable sum has probably been spent.

Casting impression

While brands are under pressure to invest in adequate training, they in turn expect the field marketing agencies they employ to recruit the right calibre of staff to meet the aims outlined in the brief. If the image of an alcoholic drink is young and energetic, then the people carrying out sampling activities must fit this impression.

Financial services company Norwich Union is using a team from LoewyBe to explain the benefits of equity release schemes to householders. The client demanded that the field team was made up by people to whom the target market could relate. This meant finding workers aged 50 and over who had some interest in the subject.

“Once we found the rightpeople, we involved the client from day one. The marketing team and the in-house financial advisers who are on the road with our workers needed to see whom we were sending out as brand ambassadors for Norwich Union,” says LoewyBe senior account manager Sarah Trumble.

Becoming what they buy

Once they have trawled their employee database or advertised for workers with specific skills, the challenge for agencies is to ensure the people they recruit will actually “live” a brand they have previously only interacted with as a consumer.

Field marketing companies that employ full-time staff are confident their workforces can adapt their skills depending on the client. An added benefit of using full-time professional field marketers is they can spend more time training and improving their product knowledge before any activity goes live. Agency Blue Water, for instance, recently took 30 of its full-time staff to a theme park at Chorley in Lancashire for a week-long training exercise to ensure they were totally absorbed in the brand values of a major new client.

One of Blue Water’s existing clients is Nokia, which since the start of the year has employed one of the agency’s full-time teams. This has added around ten per cent to the cost of Nokia’s field marketing activity but the brand is seeing a better return on its investment because retail managers perceive the field team as Nokia employees and are more accommodating to any activity taking place.

One member of the Nokia team is Emily Fletcher, who started out in field marketing four years ago when she took a part-time job while studying law at university. She has put thoughts of becoming a solicitor to one side while working at Blue Water, but she says her legal training helps her in her job.

“I am used to researching subjects so I don’t mind digging around to improve my product knowledge, while my debating skills mean I don’t get flustered if I am asked an awkward question by a member of the public,” she says.

Keep in touch with Nokia

The Nokia team has monthly meetings with the client and attends the Nokia academy at quarterly intervals to see new products before they are launched. Internal memos relevant to the team’s work, and the Nokia e-mail newsletter, are also forwarded to Blue Water’s offices.

Nokia also employs a full-time team from agency FDS whose chairman Alison Williams says she makes sure her staff “live the brand” when involved with ongoing strategic work.

“Sometimes we need to add temporary workers to our usual full-time team for specific client projects, but our regional managers are sufficiently trained to brief people effectively at very short notice,” she says. “When it comes to tactical campaigns, our staff are used to working with various brands and can adapt very well to different clients’ needs.”

Despite the promises from field marketing companies, clients still need reassuring that casual and temporary workers representing their brands care as much as they do. The only way to ensure this is to take a keen interest in the recruitment process and to spend time and money making sure there are no gaps in the team’s product and brand knowledge. Now, who knows the difference between a cylinder and a rotary lawnmower?

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