Forces on the ground

Field marketing covers the vital final stage of a product’s passage to the consumer. From checking availability in superstores to helping corner shops choose stock, field teams are indispensable, says Steve Hemsley

It has been troubling the accountancy trade for years: how to change the perception that working with numbers is boring?

Traditionally the “milk-round” recruitment drive by large accountancy companies has involved hiring a plush hotel and inviting graduates to enjoy food and alcohol while senior partners do their best to explain that topics such as taxation and auditing can actually be quite exciting.

This approach to attracting new talent has not, however, been an overwhelming success and it has prompted one high-profile company to break the mould and employ a field marketing team to entice students.

KPMG’s Discover Your Destiny experiential campaign ran during October and early November and involved transporting two giant geodesic domes to 15 universities. Each dome could hold up to 200 people at a time and they caught the eye of accountancy students as well as those studying non-financial subjects. Visitors met a variety of KPMG employees who explained why the company needs a variety of skills and personalities.

The tour was organised by field agency Virgin d3 and the results are being assessed by KPMG’s senior marketing manager, Paloma Alos. “We needed to show that accountancy is not a dull profession and explain there are actually 17 ways people can join us, only one of which is traditional corporate accounting. This activity enabled us to talk to a broader mixture of students in their own environment without having to increase the graduate recruitment budget,” she says.

The reputation of field marketing is certainly growing. Like KPMG, increasing numbers of clients are choosing experiential campaigns to get their brand message across. Other companies are investing heavily in the less sexy end of the discipline, where field teams play a vital role in ensuring products appear on retailers’ shelves and are merchandised and promoted correctly in store.

Prepared in peak periods

One of the most important roles of any traditional field marketing team is to ensure a client’s products are available during peak sales periods. This is particularly important in the healthcare sector which has a number of seasonal product categories, such as hayfever and coughs and colds.

Reckitt Benckiser owns the biggest-selling winter remedy, Lemsip, and its marketing department needs to know that everything is being done to encourage consumers to buy its product rather than switch to a rival. Pharmacy marketing controller Martin Attock says he has been let down by field agencies in the past. “The lack of priority awarded to my brands by some agencies and the poor feedback given to me on retail calls has been very frustrating,” he says.

Despite this, Attock remains a big fan of field marketing and is pleased with the service being offered by his agency Blue Water, which helps to maximise sales of Lemsip during the two-month peak of November and December. If stock levels are not monitored closely during this period shelves can remain empty for hours until the evening.

“Lemsip is worth &£50m at retail but because it is a distress purchase it must be on the shelves when people need it. The stock levels we make available to retailers are generally good, but the difficulty we have is over the last 50 metres, where we need to get packs on to the shop-floor,” says Attock. “The choice of field marketing company is crucial because we are competing for retail space with Christmas stock.”

Small stores, big returns

Large brand owners allocate a considerable slice of their field marketing budget to improve their sales through the multiples, yet some of the best returns on investment can occur when time and money is invested in servicing the fragmented independent retail sector.

United Biscuits (UB) focuses heavily on this area after identifying that about &£200m of its snack sales are generated in independent shops such as local convenience stores. The company outsourced field activity to FDS in April 2001 and has increased its field marketing budget every year since. The spend will rise again in 2005, by about 25 per cent, with the FDS team growing from 42 people to 50.

UB sales operations manager Graham Millar says field marketing is particularly important to get national distribution of new products. The company’s research has shown that if it relies purely on above-the-line advertising and trade marketing to encourage retailers to stock a new McVitie’s biscuit, for instance, it achieves a 20 per cent distribution in the first couple of weeks, but this rises to 75 per cent if a field team is used.

FDS also runs an incentive scheme for small shops on behalf of UB. It means shops that commit to its lines are rewarded with free product, usually best selling brands such as Hula Hoops.

“The secret is to work in partnership with the retailers and the wholesalers. Store owners need to see which lines are the best sellers and understand how we can help them with merchandising so they know where to site dump bins and promotional items,” says Millar.

Premier Foods also generates healthy sales through local community stores from brands such as Branston Pickle, Ambrosia and Typhoo tea. Channel marketing manager David Osborne employs field sales company DVC Sales’ specialist cash and carry team to ensure brands make it on to the shelves in sufficient volumes. The DVC reps also offer advice to shopkeepers on behalf of Premier to make sure the stock profile matches the purchasing trends of local consumers.

Although this kind of help can increase sales for manufacturers and retailers, the assistance on offer from brand owners has not been met with universal approval. The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) describes such marketing support as “a doubled-edged sword” for many local shopkeepers.

“On one hand, small businesses rarely have the manpower or resources to compete with the multiples in terms of promotions or merchandising, so field marketing agencies can help narrow the gap. However, the FSB has received reports of brands coercing small businesses into adopting practices that go against their own business sense. What is in a brand’s interests might not always be right for a retailer. For instance, the number of promotions they are under pressure to support could cause space difficulties in a small store,” says an FSB spokesman.

This response perhaps sums up perfectly why field marketing is such a growth area. Retailers and brand owners are realising that in their own fiercely competitive environments, they must be more aggressive when fighting their own corner. The struggle to generate sales volumes by ensuring the correct amount of product is available when consumers want to buy is one numbers game that is far from dull for those involved.

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