Food and Beverage Brands: Enlist Your Retail Reps as Powerful Allies

April 6, 2021 | by David Lemley

Recently, a client of ours had a category review meeting with a certain retailer to pitch a group of new products. The retail buyers picked the client’s concept apart and demanded a whole bunch of changes. Our client’s team was dejected but persistent. They set a follow-up meeting, and we helped them refine their presentations to just three slides that powerfully and simply explained the new offering and why it would rock. They walked out with a signed purchase order. No packaging or ingredient changes required.

You’ve probably been in these category reviews with your retail partners. And dreaded them.

We hear you. Many brands come to us and say that the feedback they get during category reviews with multiple retailers is overwhelming and contradictory. This retailer input may wield an outsized impact on your brand and packaging design. Your team feels like a ping pong ball getting whacked around by buyers with competing interests and conflicting directives.

Understand Your Retail Buyer’s Business

Why does this happen? To answer that question, let’s step into the retail buyer’s world.

The category manager within the retail company is under immense pressure to get her category to perform well and make as much margin through as much velocity as possible. Her job keys on finding stuff that will move quickly and drive profit. And the people she reports to—the retailer’s chain of command—are merciless and swift in making changes should she be less than successful. In other words, it’s not just your butt on the line in these review meetings; it’s hers.

And while your sales team thinks your brand is the center of the universe, it’s one of many the category manager deals with. (If you dread these review meetings, know that she has them with other brands, nearly every week.) So she’s constantly hearing similar pitches from other brands. And she has to make smart decisions about which products to carry, and where, and how. She’s not looking for another product that will cannibalize existing strong performers. It’s not like there’s an empty slot anywhere; she needs for you to bring something to the retailer that will increase sales or replace a flat/declining brand.

Category managers are busy people. Make it easy for them—period, end of story.

Make the Retail Buyer Your Friend, Not Your Nemesis

Here’s another thing to understand about these retail managers: Most of them are passionate about the category, too. They use products like yours. They want you to succeed—partly because that means they’ll succeed, but also because they’re fans of your brand and others like it.

So your sales and marketing teams’ focus should be on wooing these channel partners. Around here, we talk all the time about showing consumers the love—and yes, that is essential. You must constantly seek to widen the circle of adoring fans that your brand connects with. That’s how growth happens.

But growth can’t happen if you can’t get onto retail shelves. (Also onto Amazon results pages, but that’s a different animal.)

A few points of advice on enlisting retailers in your brand’s success:

1) Your sales team and their pitch have to be underpinned by a real brand story and mission. If there’s no there there, your products will get discontinued. Why? A powerful purpose attracts consumers like moths to the flame, which translates into velocity and margin for the retailer.

2) Bonus points if you can convince the buyer to love you just as much as your fans do. Buyers aren’t lacking data; they lack brands that they can believe in, brands that have done their homework and crafted a meaningful story about their purpose and products and how they fit with the consumer’s life.

3) Without a mission, you open the door to nitpicking. If you don’t have a brand position, all they have to push back on is your packaging or logo or flavor profile. That’s when you get all the conflicting feedback that makes you nuts.

4) Retail buyers can be key collaborators in your brand strategy process. And when you turn their input into products, they’ll be the first to place an order. Don’t just go in and say, here’s our thing, what do you think? Make a short, succinct case for the brand’s impact and the product’s likelihood of success. If they believe that you have something to offer that will displace something else and boost their section, then they’ll want to like you more.

5) Finally, strong retail relationships can boost your business in other ways. Managers are category experts: They see sales figures, they know what’s moving, they have access to their company’s deep consumer insights. And they’re meeting with other brands, so they know what your competitors have in the pipeline. If you want to get inside the ropes and lean on that knowledge, you to have a relationship with them. It’s not in a retail manager’s best interest to share what’s going on in your category or adjacent ones, so you have to have a great connection in order to tap into that insight.

Relationships with these retail managers are essential, and nurturing them requires that your reps are regularly meeting with them in person. Use your brand positioning and supporting data to help them see the opportunity for them. Buyers want to know that it will be “easy” to increase sales and keep their superiors happy. Your job is to help them.