Of all the buying decisions a shopper makes, food ranks pretty high on the scale of personal choice. Food can be comforting, yet also polarizing. Mushrooms: too rubbery. Olives: too weird. Chocolate: only dark, please. Lemon: my favorite! No matter how tasty, how fresh, how lovingly prepared, your specialty food is not going to appeal to everyone. The truth is, not everyone will love you, and that’s okay.
Too often, companies spend their marketing budgets on the largest audience they can afford, hoping to capture true fans by casting a wide net. A more efficient and effective approach is to focus on reaching your ideal customer, the people who are most likely to love your products. It’s so easy to get lost in the mechanics of running a business that you skate right past what makes your specialty food so special to your buyers. On top of that, with all the opportunities that come your way to promote your products, it can feel like your marketing dollars are just spinning in circles. It's worth it to take the time and effort to define a complete picture of your ideal customer, your target audience. You need to know the answer to the question, "Who is the person on the other side of the transaction?"
I recently switched over to one of those restaurant rehab shows partway through an episode. About ten minutes in I was surprised to learn that the business under scrutiny was a vodka bar. There was nothing in their space or menu that gave a clue to customers how to choose the vodka bar over all their other dining or entertainment options. Aside from being an excruciatingly painful experience (the show’s editing made me wonder about the future of the owner's marriage), the celebrity consultant focused on creating a clearly personal story for the bar. Because it is television, there was a lot of attention on cosmetic changes. The unspoken lesson in the premise of the show, though, was an exercise in defining the target audience. Once they saw the business through the eyes of that ideal customer, every other decision was made to fulfill the expectations that customer would have about a vodka bar.
It’s called a target audience because you should be aiming right at them. A shotgun approach is wasted energy (and money) because your message lands on a lot of shoppers who just don’t want what you are selling. Once you know who you should be selling to, it becomes much easier to make a lot of other decisions. You’ll know where to find them, how to attract them, and how to sell (and keep selling) to them.
Instead of putting coupons for your yogurt smoothies in a neighborhood mailer (shotgun), you might partner with a fitness center, or support a soccer league, and put your brand right where a fun, tasty treat is a logical reward (rifle shot, aimed at your target). If you are a premium brand, maybe you don’t want that deal with a chain of budget stores because your target customer would not be shopping there (really, there are very few instances when a specialty food should be aiming for the bargain hunter, but that’s a post for another day) instead, look to partner with shops that are a better match with their lifestyle..
Here is the real payoff: If you describe your perfect customer, and keep them at the center of all you do, then every dollar you spend will be moving you toward more sales. You want to see a return on your total investment. Marketing is a holistic thing, not just money spent on advertising and promotions. You are already spending money in other areas that define your brand story. Take the vodka bar above. They rented space, they painted walls, they purchased chairs, they got a sign, they made a menu, they trained staff. All are steps along the way to running a restaurant. They just left their customer out of those decisions, which means they wasted money on actions and items that weren’t leading to a sale. They did everything to run a bar, they just didn't aim for their target, and the result was many of their choices did not reinforce the expectations a guest would have about a vodka bar. They generalized, instead of being specific. The end result was kind of confusing for their guests.
Once your marketing plan is up and aiming toward your sales target, it just keeps cycling shoppers back through the funnel. Expectations are set: We are a vodka bar. Hello, vodka lovers, come enjoy a place made just for you. Expectations are met: Vodka tastings, vodka drinks, vodka menu pairings, vodka "culture," a drinking and dining experience with vodka. Guests leave with a clear story about this place and it's products: this is a vodka bar, not just a bar with bar food. When you tell your brand story very clearly to your ideal customer it becomes very easy for them to share your story, too. Your fans become your brand ambassadors: "We had a really cool night over at the vodka bar, you should try it." Getting the brand story right is really important for retail brands. They pass through a lot of hands before they get to your customer. Aligning all of your actions (packaging, sales tools, aisle violators, digital marketing) so they reinforce your product positioning will keep your message true to your brand all the way to the shelf.
It takes patience to stick with the exercise of defining your target audience all the way to the end. The inner monkey-mind that distracts you will try to stop with a short definition, but demographics are not a full picture. It’s not enough to say, “We sell to homemakers, mostly women, aged 35-45.” So do a lot of products. You need to define the complete story of who wants to eat your particular food. What does their day look like? Where do they travel? Where do they shop? How often do they shop? What other products are in their refrigerator or pantry?
Think about the entire cycle in your shopper’s day. Are there things in your shopper's life that would lead them toward purchasing from you? Or events that might happen right afterward? I once heard Jonah Berger, a professor at the Wharton School of Business, describe these kinds of sales triggers this way, “What’s the peanut butter to your jelly?” When you say "peanut butter and..." the mind fills in jelly. Beyond all the jelly makers out there, are there lead-ins, or triggers to purchase your product? What makes your ideal customer reach for your product?
Yes, creating a fantasy character can seem silly at first. It can also seem a little cynical. The wedding dress industry really knows who they are aiming for, there’s even an industry term for the optimal moment of sale. They call it the “oh, mommy! moment” because they know that if they can get a bride to see herself in her version of the perfect dress, when she looks in the mirror and says, “oh, mommy!” then that dress is sold, no matter the cost. There are training manuals on how to lead a bride toward that moment. Not every sale goes exactly that way, but that’s the road map that’s used for every encounter, and they scoop up a lot of buyers using the same pattern. Your challenge is to turn the desire for your specialty food product into a craving. Who craves you?
Start with the "who" in who craves you. Making a customer narrative is a tough, but valuable exercise, and it can seem daunting at first. You make food, you don’t write stories! We get that, so we've put together our own guide that can help you with this exercise. Step one of our Marketing Plan Checklist has a list of the items and questions you should consider when you define your target audience. Step two helps you clarify all the ways your specialty food really is special... the things that can move someone from "that looks good" to "I want that one!"
Once you work your way through those first two items you’ll have a good picture of the person who is searching for food like yours, and what you should be saying to them about how you fulfill that craving. Then you can stop worrying about whether or not to place an ad in smart shopper, and start putting all of your money into meaningful activities aimed at closing sales.