All clients and creative partners have ideas about capturing attention, content creation, and lead generation. So often, marketing firms are hired to do one tactical thing that the client wants immediately, but as marketers we know there’s more to it. A marketing plan is a business plan, with most major decisions made at the C-Level. There should be concrete numbers tied to all of your actions based on an annual budget. Once that budget is set, the year tends to become a list of projects. Because there are so many projects on that marketing calendar, all vying for attention, it’s easy to fall into the habit of creative problem solving without a strategic foundation.
Good marketers are in the business of idea management. In addition to developing campaigns, a big part of our job is to evaluate creative ideas and recommend the best course of action. To give our best advice to clients, we need a framework to help evaluate where, when and how a brand should communicate. We look for this kind of information from the CMO or Director of Marketing.
It's crucial to understand the maturity of the brand management platform before diving into a new project. In order to do this, we ask four fundamental questions at the beginning of every engagement:
Who is your audience?
How do you reach them?
Why choose your brand?
What are your sales goals?
This article is the first in a series of four to help guide you through our approach to establishing a marketing strategy. Those four fundamental questions address Audience, Buyer Journey, Brand Message and Sales Goals. There are two other topics that we include in our practice, "Increasing the Take" and "Maximizing your ROI," but those are best addressed after the four fundamentals are thoroughly reviewed and the groundwork of the current campaign is in place. This article will be covering the first question listed above and is all about audience.
Put the Brand Audience First
B2C communication seems easy: we are all consumers, and a fallback position for evaluating a creative concept is, "this would convince me" to make that purchase. The issue with using your personal taste and experience is that for most consumer brands you are NOT your target consumer audience.
If you look at general census data and demographics alone, there is a high probability that the age, income, and education level of your senior marketing staff do not match your buying audience. In the US, the average salary for a brand manager hovers around $70,000. Marketing Directors can earn twice that amount. In 2016, the median household income in the US was $59,039. Only one in three adults have a college degree. There is a high probability that you don’t match your ideal consumer’s basic demographics. What interests and motivates you may not be central to your shopper’s life.
When you are pressed for time, it is easy to go with the first idea that feels good to you. Rushing to create content without first considering your audience’s frame of reference can result in messaging that falls flat. We’ve seen these campaigns in action before, and I’m sure you have too.
A few years ago, a national brand launched new products into Lowe's home improvement stores by investing in a gorgeous photo spread styled around the theme of a "party in the Hamptons." Coastal luxury is an easily recognized story, but it’s not even close to the lifestyle of the average American living in the heartland. When Lowe’s target audience aspires to beach life, I’m not sure herons, lobsters and cedar shake mansions perched on the sweeping Long Island coastline are what comes to mind. Lowe’s is an “everyman” brand that until 2018, was heavily invested in NASCAR. The leap from NASCAR to silver champagne buckets seems like a big one for Lowe’s ideal shopper.
Did this campaign fail? Certainly not. Could it have been more effective? Absolutely. Shifting the beach scene's visual icons from a particular geographic region and a specific high-income lifestyle to a more universally recognized, relaxed, beach-life vibe would create an attainable vision. Crafting a narrative from the shopper’s point of view shifts the response from “that’s beautiful, but it’s not me,” to “this brand gets me. I want that.” We make sure to start every campaign thinking about the receiving audience. This lends credibility to the brand story.
Targeting the Ideal Consumer
You may already have an outline of your target consumer. This ideal shopper may be part of your culture, but you’d be surprised how many brands don’t have this description written down as a useful reference. Most brands train their team on target customers with anecdotal asides during project meetings, and nothing more. Determining the ideal customer is always the first place we start when on-boarding a new client.
Even if you think you KNOW your customer inside and out, defining your customer and documenting that persona is a useful exercise for brand managers. A good time to revisit your target customer is when you onboard new team members or if you’ve recently moved to a new role or department within your company. It’s a good idea to build a review process into your calendar and revisit your consumer profile every other year or so, just to make sure the market hasn’t shifted.
To be clear, your target consumer profile should be focused on your actual consumer, not a broad demographic target market that you aspire to reach. In this first step, look at your true target audience, the person who has a need that is easily filled by your product. This is your ideal consumer—the person putting the product into their cart right as the credit card comes out. There are a lot of millennial shoppers out there. The buying power of millennials may be very attractive, but your product may not be filling their needs right now. If they are out of your ideal customer’s profile, then hold onto that hope for later campaigns. A foundation should be exactly that, the base that supports future growth.
Our most effective projects are the result of very focused targeting. Crafting content and execution plans aimed at a very specific type of buyer are much more effective when you know your audience.
Empirical vs. Non-Empirical Audience Data
We use two different methods when creating personas for our clients: pulling information from deep data research (empirical) or from anecdotal research performed by you and your sales team (non-empirical).
Empirical shopping data will give the most accurate profile of consumer shopping habits. If you manage a large consumer brand with sales dollars to support it, you should take advantage of custom research every few years. If you have access to final sales data, receipt mining will create the strongest demographic profile of your current customers. Gender, Age and Generation (e.g., Baby-Boomers, Gen-Z), Income, Marital Status, Household Size, Location, Occupation / Employment Status, Education, are all demographic signals that can be gleaned from consumer purchase records.
Big data audience research is valuable, but this type of highly-customized consumer research is often out of reach for smaller brands. Many retail stores are often loath to share shopper info directly to their vendor partners. Trade groups and professional organizations offer market research reports with more budget-friendly price tags ranging from several hundred to a few thousand dollars. These generalized shopper reports should be analyzed for information that is pertinent to your product category. Recognize that the lower the cost, the more general the report.
Any empirical market research that you have should serve as the starting point for non-empirical audience profiling. This type of profile is essentially a written description of your target audience built from anecdotal knowledge provided by your team and other research reports. Don’t put walls up and keep this work inside the marketing department alone. It’s important to include reliable information from the boots-on-the-ground sales team. The closer a contact is with the buyer, the better the information.
We find that non-empirical profile building is most effective when conducted as a working session with all team members present. Starting with a bare sketch of the target buyer, start with a brainstorming session and capture everything anyone knows, or thinks they know, about the buyer.
Beyond census demographics, include a psychographic profile of the target consumer. This may include activities and interest, opinions and attitudes, as well as their personal values. What things do they care strongly about? (family, friends, politics) What do they do for fun? (competitive sports, travel overseas) What TV shows or movies do they watch? (public television, reality shows) This type of information helps you gain insight into the shopper's frame of mind during the buying process.
Keep Audience Data Relevant
One size does not fit all when it comes to buyer personas. For example, in the organic foods segment, there are several types of consumers that may fall into one or more of these high-level categories: Environmentally Conscious, Socially Conscious, Health Conscious, Concerned Parents, and those who’ve had a Health Crisis. Not all of them will buy every organic food product on the shelf. Keeping all the information for all of these segments in your consumer profile may dilute the effectiveness of your messaging, but it depends upon your product category.
There is a trend now in persona creating: assigning headshots and funky names to the consumer. That’s fine if it helps you focus on the end goal, which should be understanding your consumer’s journey and their motivation to buy. But quirky photos and expanding on your consumer’s hobbies and automobile preferences usually isn’t necessary and can sometimes lead to distractions.
Ideally, you should only focus on the information around your core consumer and what is relevant for each stage of their buyer journey. Unlike a sales funnel, the shopper’s journey is specific to the purchase, storage, and use of your product. To begin understanding your ideal consumer’s point of view, think of their life and frame of mind during these stages of the buyer journey, and consider:
- Out of Market: What they are doing when they are out of the market, not even thinking about shopping?
- Awareness: How do they become aware of brands similar to yours?
- Research: What motivates shoppers to research products, and what questions do they have?
- Evaluate: How do shoppers evaluate brands in your space?
- Point of Sale: Where are they making purchases and how can you attract them at the shelf?
- After the Sale: What actions do they take after purchasing your product?
- In Use: How are shoppers using your product?
- Other Activities: What other activities are taking place in their home or work life?
- Evangelize: How would shoppers make brand recommendations in your category?
We’ll discuss the Buyer Journey in depth as we navigate through the process of brand building. Your buyer and the journey they take with your product category should be the driving factors behind developing a buyer persona. The result should be a shopper description that is broad enough to cover a majority of your target customer and includes information that is relevant to their specific journey.
Capture all the information, write it down, and include it in your project planning toolkit so you reference it each and every time you hold a product strategy or launch planning meeting. It is important to remember that the best marketing plan is one that leaves room for improvement. As you target, test, evaluate, adjust, and repeat, keep that shopper in mind, but remember that they’re not the only person you need to reach.
Your Target Customer Audience
The biggest marketing fails we see (on both the client and the vendor side) happen when campaign work starts and stops with the consumer. There are a lot of people between you and the shelf, and each of them needs to understand your brand and how your brand adds value to their work life.
The focus on creating your Ideal Customer Profile should reflect the channel partners who serve the same consumers you serve. This is not the time to identify aspirational markets. Think about your ideal consumer and make a list of the all the channel partners who are after the same consumer.
Your channel customers, the buyers and merchants, will be most interested in what helps them do their job better. How a product makes a person feel after they eat or use it isn’t a top priority to someone who is trying to excel at their job. As an example, we’ve pulled a short list of typical channel players and examples of what might be their top concerns.
- Retail Buyers: They will have category goals to meet, and will look for the best mix of brands to help meet their sales targets. They’ll be interested in sell-through rates, how quickly your product sells and how quickly you can fill reorders. Are there seasonal varieties that will change the line throughout the year? What’s the buy-back policy for unsold merchandise? A product that shows up damaged cannot be sold, so they’ll be concerned about shipping and packaging conditions.
- Store Managers and Associates: Once you’ve sold into a large retail chain, your brand shifts to being managed by the store employees. Most cash & carry products do not require a lot of shopper interaction with store employees. These employees will be looking at your brand and how it impacts their daily tasks of store maintenance, stocking, and restocking, special events and promos. You don’t necessarily close deals on these details, but you certainly can lose accounts when there are problems at the store level.
- Distribution Partners: They have some of the same issues you do, for example: selling to resellers. They will be looking for tools can you give them to help them sell, and sell more. Are there route salesmen involved? Case packs, easy restocking, bestseller planograms, any market information you learn from your big retail accounts that you can pass along will help them sell to smaller shops and, at the same time, position your brand as a partner in their success.
- Dealers, Small Shops, Regional Chains: They’ll need carry-through support from distributors. Any sell-through strategies you observe from your bigger retail accounts should be replicated in a way that small customers can manage.
- E-Retailers: When order fulfillment and shipping come into play, these online buyers are looking for slimmed down product lines, products that are easy to ship, fast movers, products with a stable shelf life, and attractive bundle packs (think amazon prime subscribe & save monthly shipments).
Institutional customers, such as school systems, hospitality chains, and healthcare providers typically deal in direct sales and have their own concerns. Their quantities will be different from retail, and service after the sale presents other needs. If you are selling to institutional or hospitality markets, you’ll need to understand all the ways your brand supports their business goals, too.
Once you’ve identified your ideal channel partners, start listing how your product solves problems for them. You should assume that everyone along the path-to-purchase is focused on getting the consumer to the cash register. However, channel partners have other business goals beyond sales, and they are interested in how you are going to be a partner in reaching those goals.
Targeting Adds Value to Partner Relationships
Clearly documenting your target audience and how they purchase keeps not only your marketing campaigns but also your product development steadily moving toward increased profit. Leaving the target audience out of the planning stage will make your job harder down the road.
More than one brand manager has complained that they feel they are at the mercy of the retail channel saying, “They own the stores, we have to do what they want.” Do not forget that you own the brand. Retail merchants sell many products, with often several categories to manage. Your company has invested in product development in order to fill a specific need in the market. Your brand should be the expert at fulfilling that need. You should know what your ideal consumer wants better than anyone else. When you can bring that knowledge to the table, you become a partner in the relationship and can participate in a conversation about sales instead of being perpetually on the receiving end of directives from the retailer.
Once you have clearly defined personas, the next step is to focus on their needs and state of mind throughout the buying journey. My next article covers our second fundamental question, "How do you reach your audience?" In it, we’ll take a deeper look at what is happening when buyers are out of the market, researching products, evaluating brands, and making a purchase. We also include what happens after the sale, how are products used, how they share and recommend products and other activities.