I talk with food and beverage marketing leaders a lot about what it takes for consumers to fall in love with their brands. I write about the topic a lot, too.
But there’s another audience you need to woo … and they’re essentially the gatekeepers who grant access to your ultimate fan base. I’m talking about your brand’s retail partners. Specifically, category managers or buyers who choose which brands and products appear on their shelves. These relationships are essential to your business, present and future. And woe be unto the CMO or CGO who undervalues or overlooks these keepers of the shelf.
Perhaps your company has emphasized direct-to-consumer channels and wants to expand into brick-and-mortar. Or your sales team is getting some pushback in annual reviews with retail buyers who question the strength and performance of your brand. Or, worse, slowing velocity has put your products at risk of being discontinued by one of your outlets.
If you’re running into any of these challenges, it’s time to build or shore up relationships with your channel partners.
When Brands Overlook Retail Partners
The lousy retail partnerships we’ve helped our clients resolve typically occur under two scenarios.
First, the small passion brand that is still in First and Only mode. It has come out of the gate hot, with a unique product that’s attracted a legion of fans. Led by a charismatic founder, the darling brand is killing it at Whole Foods, and when it debuts at a trade show it stops traffic. It’s getting tons of likes and shares on social.
But this brand lives in a bubble, surrounded by a cohort of fans that don’t represent a broader consumer base. The founder-CEO is convinced that her product is the bomb and that if she loves it, everyone else will, too. She doesn’t value retail partners—and their input or feedback—because they just don’t get the brand. She’s happy to sell DTC, so she doesn’t have to deal with grocery category buyers. She doesn’t recognize that the cost of customer acquisition through DTC is significantly higher than at retail, where people are literally walking past the product every freaking day.
Second, the brand is mature and not a darling anymore. It’s reached 100M in sales but still struggles to be profitable. It’s gotten onto the shelf at Target—yay!—but then faded, gone on discount, and been discontinued. The brand has lost relevance. The CGO senses that retail relationships may be the issue, but isn’t sure why.
It’s Not a Sales Issue
Food or beverage brands that face challenges at retail often turn to their sales team to build better relationships with buyers. But this is not a sales problem. It’s a brand problem.
Understanding how to expand your audience without abandoning your die-hard fans is key to changing the conversation with category buyers who may be losing patience with your brand. These buyers are under enormous pressure to constantly elevate the performance of their departments or categories. They’re looking for winners, period.
Convince them that your offering isn’t just a set of features and benefits (which are easily copied—by the retailer’s own label—and ripe for discounting), but a purposeful brand that resonates powerfully with a rabid and growing audience. Deep relevance means you attract a loyal buyer who seeks out your products no matter what and is willing to pay a premium. Those are the kinds of shoppers the retailer hungers for.
Remember, too, that the category manager is armed to the teeth with data—probably more than your marketing team has. When you can demonstrate that your consumer syncs with theirs, you reframe the conversation.
While it’s tempting to deploy your most charismatic salesperson to woo the retail buyer, that may get the product on the shelf, but it won’t make up for poor performance. The retailer will gain the power to dictate terms and placement.
Instead, position yourself as a partner in their business. There’s no retailer on the planet with a block of shelf space just waiting for your product to show up. You have to have a story that convinces them why they should displace something else that’s already there for your new or existing offerings.
Show Retailers You Mean Business
So what does a retail buyer need to understand about your brand?
1) That you understand the consumer. You know who they are and who they aren’t, what they currently buy, how your offering sits adjacent to that, and what else is in their consideration set.
2) That they have your undivided attention. The Target buyer doesn’t want you to talk about your grocery business; the Costco rep doesn’t want you to talk about Target.
3) That you understand their world. They’re responsible for driving velocity and margin, and the extent to which you understand the expectations they’re facing will go a long way in establishing a collaborative relationship.
4) That you’re in it for the long haul. The buyer wants assurances that you’re sustainable enough to last and that their channel won’t become overlooked as your business grows.
5) That you’ve done your homework around supply chain and cost. You understand how the global economy works, and if one of your key ingredients comes from overseas, you have a plan for what to do if it becomes difficult or costly to obtain. If you have a supply chain breakage that forces you to discontinue some or all of your SKUs, a solid retail partnership ensures that you can return to the shelf when it’s resolved.
By leading with your capital-B Brand and a deep understanding of your current and potential audience, you’ll gain influence. You’ll build a partnership with retail decision-makers based on a goal of mutual success between equals. Rather than allowing the buyer to dictate terms and placement, you’ll bring to the table a plan that outlines how the audience shops their channel and how you can make the retailer more money. Your category review conversations will focus on new products, additional opportunities, and favored placement. It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Need some guidance on making your retail relationships work better? We should talk about it.