Strategic Sampling

Brands find ways to stay in the game as the pandemic changes the rules

As COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions lifted by early summer across the U.S., many CPG brands and retailers returned to tried-and-true shopper marketing techniques. But while the P-O-P displays, circular features and sales that had paused in March resumed, traditional sampling programs remained a challenge because of mask-wearing and social-distancing requirements, and increased concerns about health and hygiene.

Now, brands that relied on sampling to introduce products and increase household penetration are looking for new ways to educate and connect with shoppers.

“The normal things that we do every day just completely changed,” says Stuart Vass, region chain manager for Pernod Ricard USA’s strategic customers. “My whole job is convincing you to buy something while you’re in-store, making an impulse purchase, building the basket, and I can’t do that anymore. We’ve definitely had to think differently. We’ve had to try new things. If we were slowly moving people into e-commerce, [now] we are rapidly moving people into e-commerce.”

The pandemic forced a dramatic increase in the adaptation of e-commerce platforms as shoppers stayed home to avoid potential exposure to the disease. E-commerce likely advanced five to seven years because of the pandemic and sampling strategies have been shifting accordingly, says Alan Verdun, president of sampling company Brandshare.

“People are traveling less to brick-and-mortar stores,” he says. “People are doing more sampling to consumers at home because that’s where they can find consumers.”

That’s been a boon for Brandshare, which was already focused on e-commerce sampling through programs such as the Walmart Beauty Box and by tucking samples into third-party meal kit deliveries, both of which have seen increased adoption during the pandemic. Brandshare encloses QR codes in the packages that link to online marketplaces to enable buying while also allowing the company to create a profile of the consumer that it can then use for future targeted activity.

“Advertisers are finding a lot of value in knowing who tried their sample and what they thought about it,” Verdun says.

In a panel discussion held Sept. 9 as part of the Path to Purchase Digital Expo, LALA U.S. senior shopper marketing manager Laura Dickey said that when COVID-19 hit the U.S., she pored over reports on the changes in shopper behavior and began re-examining campaigns and shifting marketing dollars away from in-store sampling to a digital-first strategy.

“We had to get a little more creative at times,” she said. “We were planning a big retailtainment event at Walmart. For obvious reasons, we had to revise those plans.”

A planned Cinco de Mayo campaign was delayed and reimagined as a summer program. The goal was to promote the new packaging LALA introduced in April while driving trial and purchase frequency, which it did by reaching shoppers across multiple touchpoints with offers through a newly launched integration between the third-party Ibotta service and Walmart Grocery. The effort included a direct mail campaign handled by SKUlocal with an influencer overlay.

Running June 3 to July 12, the revised program was a huge success, increasing total average weekly online transactions by 60%, with 7% of the redemptions coming from users who were completely new to the category. The brand also experienced a 28% lift after the campaign.

In that same panel discussion, Yolanda Angulo, Mondelez International’s director of customer marketing, said that she expects more brands to find creative ways to continue retailtainment without conducting “wet sampling” – the distribution of food or drinks that are consumed on site.

“The important thing is how you translate retailtainment to the digital space,” she said. “Is it gamification? Is it other ways of interacting with shoppers? Retailtainment will take on that 360-degree digital approach as well, so all of us are going to be looking at that ... [and] for new ways to sample. It’s a reimagining of the current with the new, but also not walking completely away from everything.”

Even as shoppers have been returning to stores, most retailers still aren’t allowing wet sampling. Jesse de Agustin, founder and CEO of in-store demo, merchandising and sales training firm EDS Strategy, says that the pandemic has accelerated an ongoing shift in sampling to become more focused on educating shoppers about a product and giving them a coupon to encourage purchase. “Customers were demanding it before, and now even more because you can’t rely on the sample as a crutch,” he says.

Brands can instead consider dry product demonstrations like a QVC pitch, de Agustin says. “If someone’s selling food, you can’t have a taste when you’re watching someone present on QVC, but people pick up their phone and they order it because it’s such an engaging presentation. They’re demonstrating the product; they’re educating.”

Brands have turned to influencers to provide such engaging presentations, relying on the relationships that they have built with their followers.

“Influencer and micro-influencer programs have seen a resurgence,” says Susie Sapp, director of business development – field marketing at Switch, an experience agency. “Allowing consumers who are getting a chance to try the product to speak to your other consumers is proving to be an effective way of communicating a message because of its authenticity. If consumers cannot directly try it themselves, this gives them an avenue to take it from someone they trust.”

GT Universe, which handles cultural and specialty marketing for Albertsons Cos.’s Jewel-Osco, suspended all in-store activities in March, but by June had taken their activations virtual. The annual “Chop & Shop” summer grilling campaign featured in-store sampling, raffles, influencer appearances and giveaways in 2019, but for 2020 it focused on virtual grilling demonstrations from Weber Grill Masters and food bloggers. Consumers who reserved a spot for one of the digital events and shared their address were mailed a gift bag with exclusive coupons, samples and branded items from the approximately 20 participating brands.

The company then transitioned to a hybrid approach for Jewel-Osco events such as Hispanic Heritage Month, combining a virtual mixology-focused event with in-store distribution of coupons and dry samples.

“Like it has for many organizations and industries, COVID-19 definitely changed the go-to-market strategy for our normal specialty in-store activations at Jewel-Osco,” says Tracy Galindo, managing director of GT Universe. “Time will tell if and when the right time is to bring live sampling back to the stores. For now, we know our shoppers are enjoying the savings, solutions and demonstrations being offered to them.”

L Catterton’s Cholula participated in both the Chop & Shop and Hispanic Heritage Month campaigns, as the brand has in the past, and actually saw a much stronger lift from this year’s efforts, according to Tracy Garbowski, the brand’s director of brand marketing.

“Obviously a portion of that is due to COVID and just the change in consumer behavior,” Garbowski says. “Consumers are still hungry for those types of activations, whether they’re digital or a hybrid approach with some in-store activation, and they’re responding through purchase.”

Pre-pandemic, Cholula used restaurants as a sampling venue, deploying ambassador teams to get the brand’s hot sauce in the hands of diners with the goal of getting them to purchase it in-store later. When most restaurants closed for dine-in, the brand ensured they were well stocked with packets for use in to-go bags but also sought to reach consumers at home through a virtual “Tacothon” event conducted on Cinco de Mayo. Working with creative agency Virtue and social agency The Fourth, Cholula enlisted six influencers – two each for the East Coast, West Coast and Midwest – for a live Instagram event that raised $100,000 for the Independent Restaurant Coalition.

“Traditionally, we’ve got some key seasonal tentpole moments that are activated in-store through different CPG partnerships that we have in place, or through secondary displays and other shopper marketing programming,” Garbowski says. “With COVID hitting, we really had to shift. We knew the environment consumers were in was a digitally captive audience. They were not able to leave their homes, so what a great way to help celebrate Cinco de Mayo in a way that was engaging.”

Brands have also been finding creative ways to conduct sampling safely. Hormel Black Label used a food truck to distribute its new oven-baked egg bites at retailers across the East Coast and Midwest from Sept. 28 to Oct. 23. Kraft Heinz Co. was going to introduce its new Creative Roots drink for kids via in-store demos, but when the pandemic hit, the company pivoted to working with sampling agency CoOptions to distribute the flavored water in pediatricians’ offices. where parents were also hearing about the importance of keeping their children hydrated. The program ran from August through early September and distributed 330,000 samples, with a 43% conversion rate within three weeks.

CoOptions president Brian Scott Sockin says that wet sampling is highly effective in stores as a basket-building tool, especially when it combines several brands into a recipe that can drive shoppers to multiple areas of the store. But social distancing rules and changed shopper behavior are likely to continue to make that difficult. “In the past, (shoppers) looked at the aisles, stopped at shelves, examined new things,” he says. “These days they’re very focused. They get in, they get what they need, they get out.”

The sampling companies Pernod Ricard USA works with have been asking to restart activity, but Vass says he doesn’t have anything planned for the next six months and is remaining focused on digital and influencer programs. “We’re just trying to be as safe as we can be. We’d never want to be involved in something that led to an outbreak,” he says. “I know a day will come [when sampling returns], I just don’t know when that day is.”