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What to Test Before Launching a Specialty Food Marketing Campaign

Whether you’re creating a new brand, adding to your product lineup, or launching a new specialty food marketing campaign, investing in consumer research is important. But when it comes to specialty foods marketing, it’s often the first thing to get axed from an already stretched budget. Why?

The answer is simple – it’s expensive and time consuming. The reality, however, is that it doesn’t have to be.

For larger brands and traditional grocery products, consumer research has been and continues to be a critical part of the product development and specialty food marketing process – sometimes to a fault. Great ideas and epic campaigns have been known to die in the pipeline, unable to ever make it out of the endless consumer research spiral. But for smaller, specialty food brands, the opposite is often true. In an effort to save time and money, many specialty food brands rely on their instincts and rush products to market, only to have to circle back at a later date and re-do packaging, signage or even messaging after struggling to generate turns, or facing on-shelf competition that forces them to differentiate.

While it’s important to always be testing and measuring consumer sentiment, even after products hit the shelf (more on that later), there are a few things that smaller brands can and should test before going to market in order to hit the ground running – without having to retrace their steps.

Good specialty food companies don’t market on demographics alone, and certainly don’t follow what legacy brands have always done. But, sometimes understanding the customer dynamics can help you understand your category opportunity.

1. Market Research

In the specialty food market in particular it can be tempting to bring a product to market simply because you love it, because you have a great idea for how to create it, or because it has an awesome story to tell – but if that product doesn’t also fill a need – it’s likely to fail.

Before launching into a new category, it’s helpful to understand who your target audience is demographically, who are the heavy users, how often do they buy the product, how loyal are they to a given legacy brand, and what are the causal drivers of volume and trial.

A relatively inexpensive household panel report from IRI or AC Nielsen that profiles the audience and buying behaviors of a traditional legacy brand can help answer some basic category questions. It can give you a sense of the size of the market and the opportunity, and is much quicker and cheaper to purchase than a typical habit and attitude survey.

2. Message Testing

Product positioning is crucial in any market but especially in the specialty food market where differentiation is key. Often specialty food products boast multiple benefits, from superior taste to sustainability benefits to commitments to giving back. It can be difficult to discern which features and benefits are most important to the target audience.

Message testing can help specialty food brands prioritize their messaging hierarchy and focus on the stories that resonate most with their target audience.

Jim’s Organic Coffee is a great example of how transformative message-testing can be.

When we first started working with Jim’s, it seemed logical that organic coffee drinkers cared about the same things as typical organic food buyers – no artificial ingredients, no pesticides, health, and sustainability. However, after conducting consumer research with LOHAS consumers, it became quickly apparent that the value of organic in this category wasn’t about the lack of pesticides and artificial ingredients. While environmental sustainability remained an important key value, their cup of coffee was personal to them. Taste and quality were of the utmost importance. Specifically, the benefit of organic coffee was about taking the time to do things right, from farm to roast to brew. What this consumer connected with was the idea that organic coffee meant no short cuts to quality.

Armed with this insight, we built a new brand platform and package messaging that told the real story of patience; the patience of an organic farmer responsibly growing the most flavorful beans; of a roaster ensuring that each batch hits the flavor notes just right; and of our target audience brewing a cup, drip by measured drip. We emphasized that the art of good coffee comes from patience, and that taking the time to do it right yields a coffee with character.

The good news for Jim’s was that their investment in message-testing really paid off. Their new package saw a 45% lift in retail sales and a 55% bump with their largest natural account.

The even better news is that consumer research doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg to do the research. Unlike quantitative research, which can sometimes be cost prohibitive, qualitative messaging research can come from a variety of less expensive sources. It may not be “statistically significant” but it still provides incredibly useful insights. Whether it’s IDIs (in-depth interviews) with existing customers, conversations with friends and family, or networking at industry events – the information you get from peers is a valuable resource for understanding and refining your messaging.

In addition to utilizing friends, family, and current customers – there are also online tools such as Instapanel and GutCheck, that provide relatively low-cost ways to get qualitative feedback from potential customers or members of your target audience. Results can be turned around in as little as 24 hours, and for less than a few hundred dollars, making these both cost- and time-effective research tools.

3. Packaging Review

If you can only afford to test one thing before launch, test the packaging. For products that are sold in retail this is the primary way you communicate with consumers, and it’s the critical component to building trial. Form, messaging, design, and materials are all crucial components that should be carefully evaluated and tested before launch.

In addition to doing store checks (What does your competitor’s packaging look like? What’s working? How big or small are the shelves in your section?) you should also see what consumers in your category think about potential package designs before making the (usually pretty large) investment in creating them.

In the past, package testing may have been a time consuming and expensive endeavor, now online research companies like Toluna make it simple and easy to get quick feedback about everything from design to messaging to package form – all with the click of a button.

Ongoing Testing

While it would be great if you could get everything squared away before launch – the reality is that sales are required to fund marketing and research budgets, and eventually products have to go to market. But the testing shouldn’t stop once your product hits the shelves.

Facebook, Instagram and other social media networks have long been heralded for their audience targeting capabilities, but while many companies use these tools for advertising, fewer have tapped them as a resource for market research.

Social media can be used in a number of different ways to get ongoing insight from your audience. You can use simple polls, surveys and open-ended questions to see what your current fans and customers think – or you can use targeted promotion to push those posts out to a broader or more aspirational audience to find out what potential future customers are looking for. Oakhurst Dairy turned to social media for insight into the packaging for their new Wild Blueberry Milk – and not only did they receive a plethora of feedback, their new product went viral because of it!

For more complex research objectives, social media can be used as a recruiting tool to direct the appropriate audience to a longer-form survey.

Social media is also an excellent sandbox for A/B testing – i.e. launching the same post, ad or other creative to two similar audiences with only one variation and measuring the results. A/B testing is something all businesses should be practicing on a regular basis (whether you are specifically conducting market research or not) to help continually refine campaigns and improve creative.

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About Ethos

Ethos is a multiplatform branding agency that develops and executes integrated marketing campaigns across multiple channels for companies inside and outside of Maine.

At Ethos, we believe that the most effective way to set a company’s marketing course is by finding its core truth – its ethos. We know that once we discover and communicate that core truth, we can truly make a difference for each client’s unique marketing and business objectives.

With Ethos, you get more than a marketing agency. You get a long-term partner whose goals are your goals.

Learn more about the Ethos approach and the work we’ve done for our clients. Want to have a conversation about your brand’s core truth? Contact us!