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This past Wednesday, the 14th annual Shopper Insights in Action conference concluded in Chicago, Illinois. As always, the event focused on strategies to improve shopper activation across all kinds of consumer retail categories and channels, providing the shopper side of consumer marketing (and its research suppliers) an engaging forum to share ideas and success stories.

From a beverages and food service perspective, the three-day event at Navy Pier left me considering the need to address three, macro-level organizational challenges in the drinks industry:

1.       Using ‘big data’ more effectively

As the event’s exhibit hall demonstrated, there are a myriad of methodologically different ways to collect, measure and interpret the in-store responses of consumers to your products and shelves. As an industry that frequently delivers and merchandises its products through a two-tier bottling system (or other independent direct delivery partners), measuring the effectiveness of in-store activity – displays and product location – is vital. How can marketing and channel management teams demonstrate that ‘soft’ information on shopper response, preference or opinion is robust and indicative of volume growth or incremental revenue? Brands and their retail partners must work harder to interpret and contextualise data and insights in order to effectively advocate for change within their businesses.

Research focused and data literate leadership certainly helps. Keynote speaker Sir Terry Leahy, former CEO of Tesco plc, spoke about the need to improve the dissemination and understanding of data within large retailers and other organizations. As research tools become more powerful and useful – from generating understanding of potentially new, developing markets, to specific, localised consumer segments and their behaviours – it remains important that these insights are clear and actionable while reaching the right pairs of eyes.

2.       Retailer vendor collaboration is vital

The importance of strong partnerships between vendors and retailers – brand and category – was illustrated by a number of relevant case study presentations, across food, beverage, general merchandise and hard goods. While the products and retailers were diverse – from pet food to eyewear, supermarkets to c-stores – the strength of the relationship between retailer and brand proved to be a common thread in determining success.

Again, we see particular relevance to the food and beverages business. 7-Eleven and Dean Foods Company presented on their successes in working with franchisees to defend and grow regional dairy brands in the US. Transactional information sharing and advocacy between the companies – including a Dairy Summit and even joint-CSR work – produced a strong, long-term, and profitable relationship. Across the packaged drinks business, strong, mutually beneficial relationships between vendors and partners can help to maintain growth through information sharing and increasing consumer insight at both ends of the distribution chain.

Within large CPG companies with a global scope, these same rules (collaborative information sharing) can apply internally. The Coca-Cola Company presented on recent shopper marketing initiatives during the FIFA World Cup, relaying the importance of designing marketing campaigns that are flexible to the changing needs of many thousands of independent and chained retail partners. In-store displays and packaging was adjusted based on the needs of particular retail partners in certain markets, with exclusive designs offered for the largest operators. When particular local promotions or initiatives were demonstrated to be successful, these initiatives were effectively communicated by the company to other geographic areas of the business throughout the FIFA World Cup event.

3.       Understand changes in consumer decision making…and move quickly

More (and more effective) data can help to identify trends, but brand/retailer responses must be timely in order to be effective. In-store marketing is a difficult exercise for foodservice operators and beverage brands in a world in which values, habits and ultimately consumption choices are increasingly shaped outside the doors of the store, with consumers gaining access to an overwhelming amount of information (or plain opinion) concerning health, company activities, promotions or other preference shaping activities. The balance between values, preferences and shopper behaviour – active, rational decision making versus inactive impulse choices – and the behavioural economics of the consumer packaged goods industry was approached from an academic angle by other keynote speakers. These included Ravi Dhar of the Yale School of Management and Will Leach of Triggerpoint Consulting, who discussed the fine art of choice architecture and ‘behaviour design’ – underlining the need to approach consumer behaviour from a psychological and sociological perspective in order to improve understanding.

Different levels of consumer interest, attention and importance mean that not all shopping trips are created equal. Some are enjoyable and focused, others are boring and rote. Several speakers – from MillerCoors to Coca-Cola to Nestle – spoke of the need to understand various shopper mission states in order to fully realize the potential of in-store marketing campaigns. For example, in many markets, lower volume, higher priced impulse beverages are growing faster than higher volume take-home soft drinks. The demographics, values and need-state of a consumer in an impulse channel (c-store or forecourt) are likely to be quite different than those of a weekly stock-up supermarket shopper. In-store materials – how you attempt to speak to the different consumer in each channel venue – needs to be further explored.

In both developing and developed markets, shifting retail channels are a reality. In many national markets of Asia and Latin America, there is a vibrant mix of traditional, independent retail locations that serve rural, impulse consumers which coincide with the growth of urban, modern supermarket chains with a focus on take-home purchases. In the developed world – particularly Western Europe – the rise of value focused discount chains is the main channel shift affecting carbonates, juices and other categories. Is this purely a function of economic conditions, with consumers temporarily trading down during the slow European recovery? Sir Terry Leahy underlined his view that discounters succeed in taking share through more than just low prices: they offer a simple, but compelling marketing proposition. If higher priced channels cannot convey a similarly compelling marketing angle (as some pricier, premium ‘natural’ retailers have succeeded in doing) then they will be caught in a shrinking middle ground.

The newest frontier (new, at least so far as food and beverage is concerned) is online retail, a segment that brands – their extremely territorial bottling partners and national retail partners – are still adjusting to. The economics of shipping heavy, RTD beverages from one point to another are complex. From a shopper marketing perspective, online channel growth also poses questions about the shopper mission and need state: is the online shopper more or less impulsive in his choices? How can the traditional in-store displays and promotions that activate behaviours in the supermarket be translated to a digital retailing environment? While still less than 1% of soft drink volumes globally, an improved understanding of online consumer behaviour and activation will certainly be the next frontier of shopper research.

Many thanks to IIR USA for another successful conference. For more information on Shopper Insights 2014 and future IIRUSA conferences please visit www.iirusa.com/insights/homepage.xml

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