Your In-Store Sampling Program is on Hiatus. Now What?

September 29, 2020 | by David Lemley

It sounds like the plot of an up-by-the-bootstraps movie: The young entrepreneur creates a food product to address her kid’s nutritional needs; she hands out samples of her energy bar at her local farmers’ market and health foods store, and everyone tells her how great it is. Soon her business takes off, and as it does she’s always there at the market or the store, giving away samples and basking in the favorable comments.

In fact, many natural food and beverage brands share this kind of origin story. The passionate founder-owner takes the role of chief evangelist, bringing the product to the people. These niche brands rely heavily on product trial to drive purchase. Sampling is their primary (or even only) marketing activity.

Sample is a Solid Tactic Until…

For the past six months, we’ve been living a situation where product sampling isn’t possible, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. Even Costco had abandoned its weekend sampling program that’s beloved by consumers. (It was returned in a limited capacity in June.) But it isn’t just the COVID-19 pandemic that’s put the kibosh on sampling; it simply isn’t effective or practical as a stand-alone marketing tactic.

If you’ve relied heavily on in-person product giveaways to generate sales, you’re immediately and acutely feeling the loss of this channel. If that’s what you’ve been hanging your hat on … COVID has blown a hole in the heart of your marketing plans.

Sampling is a challenging undertaking even in ordinary circumstances. It seems like an ideal opportunity to introduce new people to your product: They don’t have to pay for it; your brand ambassador gets to share a little sales pitch and hand over a taste and maybe a coupon. In that interaction, the consumer tells the brand rep how great the product is (perhaps she really thinks that, or perhaps she’s just being nice).

But sampling doesn’t create brand affinity; it’s merely a way to initiate trial. You can’t know whether it creates long term fans of the brand. There’s a danger, too, that the conversations that happen in-store create a false sense of success and an inaccurate portrait of your audience. It’s easy to hear positive feedback from consumers who are tasting your product for the first time and extrapolate that into widespread adoption. (Everyone tells us how great it is, so it must be great!) It also exposes the brand to a very narrow set of consumers—people who shop at that market or store or chain—and marketers risk defining the brand’s entire potential audience based on that tiny segment.

What’s more, it’s simply a demonstration of features and benefits. As we know, your brand is not your ingredients or flavor profile or “free-from” position; you have to have a reason for being other than, “We make a really good snack.” Your brand is a promise and the way in which your company keeps it.

Finally, scale presents another challenge. It’s time-intensive to “prep and schlep” those product giveaways, to hire demonstrators, to do those meet-and-greets. If your brand has growth plans, it has to evolve beyond sampling as a marketing avenue and taste as a brand strategy.

Introducing New Consumers to Your Product

If you’ve relied on sampling and now your marketing activities are frozen because you can’t get into stores, or if you’re thinking of adding some kind of sampling program to your 2021 marketing plans, know that there are ways to do it well.

Sampling can be a small-player tactic, but larger brands like our client KIND also use it. When the brand secured funding, the investment came with a caveat that it be used to give away product. That introduced the product to new consumers and helped KIND achieve Beloved & Dominant Brand status.

At this point, let’s differentiate between sampling and giving away product. Sampling means just a bite in a little cup in a store. Giving away means whole product, sealed in its original package, for the consumer to take away. Product giveaway has a longer marketing tail, because the prospect may pocket the product, take it home, engage with the packaging, and consume it later.

Giveaways can happen via various channels, such as a digital coupon for a freebie or a handout at an event or a product mailed to the home (direct mail – remember that?). We have a couple of clients launching new brands and products this year, that require a bit of product education for consumers to understand how the brand fits into their everyday lives. So they’re planning to tip-in a sample of the product into targeted magazines to get it into people’s hands.

It’s harder for perishable items to employ the above sampling/giveaway options. For these brands, we’re seeing an increased interest in partnering with brands like Instacart and participating retailers and even meal delivery apps to include targeted samples into delivery orders. While there have been a few trial iterations of these programs they’re are still a bit fledgling – and we continue to keep our eye on these.

Another tactic worth considering is approaching a key retail partner and getting into their promo calendar. Couponing may seem like quote-unquote a thing of the past, but it still has traction; both online and traditional retailers like Instacart and Kroger hyper-segment their communications and coupons to customers by demographic or shopping habit, so you’ll reach people who are likely to be interested in your product.

It’s worth noting that KIND has a solid brand strategy foundation upon which to layer product giveaways as a marketing approach. Without that, a brand is simply a commodity—and you can’t give away enough product to make consumers fall in love and part with actual dollars.

The ways consumers shop, find new products, and make purchasing decisions are probably going to be upended for some time. If your brand has relied on sampling and has to pivot, or if you’re seeking to increase trial, we can help you reach the right people with the right offering.