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What’s the Problem: Your Brand Strategy or Your Marketing Tactics?

Your latest campaign isn’t driving the velocity you expected. Instead of growing your sales, the new flavor you’ve introduced is cannibalizing your legacy product. Your leading retail outlet is preparing to launch a private label version of your offering.

If your food or beverage brand is facing headwinds, do you know if the problem is your marketing tactics? Or your brand strategy?

To find a fix, you need to understand the cause.

Identifying Tactical Problems & Fixes

If your sales and marketing teams are throwing a bunch of “stuff” against the wall to see what sticks, it can be difficult to isolate what’s working and what’s not.

Let’s look at some common problems that arise from sales and marketing tactical misfires:

  • Lack of awareness — you struggle to reach beyond your core audience of longtime fans; while they’re loyal buyers, they aren’t going to grow your bottom line.
  • Emphasis on product attributes — your messaging leads with features and benefits, not who, what, and why you exist. You’re on your way to becoming a commodity if you don’t retool your consumer communication.
  • Product cannibalization — your new flavors, sizes, or packs are eating away at your strongest offerings. When you emphasize attributes, not mission, you’re likely to grab consumers’ attention only with something shiny and new.
  • Placement and pricing friction — your products only move when on deal. Again, if your marketing doesn’t shout your brand’s mission from the rooftops, the consumer thinks, “well, this is a cheap option this week” instead of, “I need this brand in my life.”

To address a lack of consumer awareness, you might start with research (a competitive audit, category audit, and audience analysis) and then evaluate and refine your messaging based upon those insights.

If a marketing review reveals that your messaging is overly focused on your products’ attributes (Low carb! Now in vanilla!), then you need to retool your communication to explain your features and benefits through the lens of the brand. Let the brand’s WHY lead the dialog.

When you have a product cannibalization problem, the tactical fix is pretty straightforward: Develop the discipline to say no. Don’t make more varieties just because you can. Use consumer research, flavor trends, and retailer insights to anticipate consumer demands beyond just a copycat line extension.

Finally, if you’re facing pressure on pricing and placement, then leverage your consumer insights to help your retail partners understand that your audience is their audience. Knowing who your consumer is and how the brand fits into their lives will change the conversation about placement and channel strategy.

Brand Strategy Problems & Solutions

While product-specific data might reveal issues with your sales and marketing tactics, broader insights related to your consumer base and your performance against your competitive set are flashing red lights that you have a brand strategy problem.

We’ll dig into these warning signs in a couple of different business categories, and look at some potential strategic fixes.

AUDIENCE

Key indicators:

  • Brand erosion (loss of brand relevance)
  • Loss of key, long-time loyalist consumers
  • Lack of new audience cohorts
  • Misunderstanding among your internal team of what matters to your consumers

Strategic fixes:

In short, there’s a disconnect between your brand and your customers, one that goes both ways. Your team doesn’t understand who they are (or who they could be) or what they need. They, in turn, don’t get (or have forgotten) what you stand for.

Chances are, your company is sleeping on consumer data, ignoring it, discounting it, or thinking the brand is immune to changing consumer preferences. So research is the place to start fixing an audience strategy problem.

First, you need to look backward to understand the audience you have and how you got them, looking at SPINS data, syndicated research, or a Usage and Attitude Study.

Second, you need to look forward to identify an untapped group that doesn’t yet know they need your brand in their world. Decide who you want to reach out to, who you have a right to talk to, who you want to invite into the group — and then find ways to create linkage to them.

Remember: Your brand doesn’t have to be for everyone. If you’re an undifferentiated brand, you need millions of people to care. If you’re a brand with a purpose, you need a focused group of fans, both current and future, to care.

Always, your capital-B Brand — the promise you make and the way you keep it — drives decisions about who you’re inviting into the tribe. Defining a new audience should not change why you exist; why you exist should illuminate the new audience.

RETAIL ENVIRONMENT

Key indicators:

  • You have unhappy retail customers
  • Low velocity means category managers are days away from dropping your brand
  • Your business is not solving your retailer partners’ main problems
  • New competition is taking significant market share
  • You compete on price rather than value
  • You have low profit margins
  • You’re seeing stagnant ACV (Annual Case Volume) in key accounts

Strategic fixes:

Your salespeople are charismatic folks who could sell water to a drowning person. But they need more than personality; they need tools and language to explain why your brand exists and how it fits into the retailer’s universe. Just as you work to win your consumer’s affection, you need to woo your retail partners.

This retail relationship-building effort involves knowing your existing audience and working to expand it. (See above.) Retailers want to see that you’re constantly driving shoppers to their shelves to find your products: More fans for you equals more business for them. Emphasize, too, your brand’s mission and its power to attract devoted fans who’ll seek you out and pay a premium.

Armed with data and brand strategy, your sales team can build partnerships with retailers based on the goal of shared success. When you work as equals, you’ll face less price pressure, threat of discontinuation, or dictation of shelf placement.

INNOVATION

Key indicators:

  • Competitors’ products or services are no different from yours
  • Your product offering is outdated and no longer desirable
  • You’re behind in understanding new industry standards, consumer preferences, and competitive moves

Strategic fixes:

Throwing new products on retail shelves simply in response to trends or competitive moves is a recipe for becoming a commodity — because every other brand can make those same products. Pumpkin spice is not a brand strategy, it’s an opportunistic product play that may get you a spike in November but is not sustainable.

When you anchor R&D to your brand strategy, you’ll make things that only you can make. Things that are so attuned to your fan base’s needs that they can’t say no.

Consider the promise your brand makes and and how you keep it: What items in your current lineup deliver on that promise? Are there outages or opportunities that you’re not serving? Where do you have permission from your audience to introduce something new? That’s the target area for innovation.

MISSION

Key indicators:

  • You’ve lost track of (or never identified) your brand’s mission: why it exists beyond just making a product
  • You have difficulty finding and keeping talent
  • Your product offering doesn’t match its promise

Strategic fixes:

Really, there’s only one thing to do if the brand does not stand on a strong, defensible mission: Go to Chapter 1 of our book Beloved & Dominant Brands and do all the homework.

Without a mission, you shouldn’t be innovating. Without a mission, you’re selling to the masses instead of singing with the choir. Your competitive advantage isn’t your product features and attributes, it’s the flag you’ve planted in the sand.

Without a brand strategy built on a singular mission, the savviest marketing plan and the most persuasive sales team won’t move the needle.If your brand is struggling with strategy, that’s our superpower. Let’s talk about what you need.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

Connect with David
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How do I address the market shifts I suspect are happening?

The better-for-you food and beverage categories — indeed, the wider consumer packaged goods marketplace — have shown repeatedly that consumer preferences change unpredictably. And those changes happen more quickly today than even five years ago. For marketing and growth executives, that means simply buying and reading the latest trends report is no longer enough to maintain a competitive advantage.

Marketers and CGOs are tasked with getting more done and having a higher success rate than ever. So they need tools and teammates that work.

Data is important, but anyone can get data. Trends are important, but anyone can buy a trend report. Real opportunity lies at the intersection of the two, along with a competitive and category audit conducted through the lens of your brand’s culture and team dynamics. Information plus analysis equals actionable, category-exploding insight.

Do you have a spidey sense that the market may be shifting right under your feet? Worry that your brand may not be keeping up?

Let’s look at ways to verify or disprove those hunches, and how to act on what you learn to drive business results.

Signs Your Old Assumptions are Incorrect

First of all, your instinct is correct: The market is shifting constantly. Consumers are fickle, even those who are super loyal to your brand and choose your products every time.

Brands can get away with coasting on old assumptions and tactics for a while. But eventually, you’ll begin to see signs that you’re missing market shifts that impact your results. Maybe that award-winning new packaging design system didn’t boost velocity. That massive ad spend didn’t pay off. Social media engagement isn’t translating to real-world sales. (We’ve kinda heard it all.)

So leaders think, “Hmm, this didn’t work the way we thought. It didn’t disrupt our competitors or gain net new customers.” They begin to question their thinking and to recognize that the issue lies up-funnel from creative expression. There’s something much more human going on in the market.

How can you make better hypotheses about your brand positioning and product offering that account for those shifts? How can your brand thrive in a world that keeps proving to us that forecasting what’s coming is impossible?

Consumer Data is Only the Start

Begin by understanding where and how to get (and keep) the pulse of your industry beyond SPINS and IRI data. Market data are backward-facing views of the market; they don’t predict future consumer demand. (Plus, everyone in your category has access to the same data.)

A competitive brand traction audit is a good place to start. Different from a category audit (which focuses on how your brand stacks up to others in your retail set), a competitive audit surveys the full landscape of the consumer’s life your brand lives in. It examines what else a consumer might spend their dollars on if not on your products. Would they buy a snack for their kids instead of buying your product for themselves? Buy a high-end skincare product instead of your nutritional supplement?

Our competitive audit often starts with purchased category and demographic data. Then we benchmark the brand against seven key marketing disciplines to understand how it succeeds, or doesn’t. (Interested in learning more about these seven factors? My book Beloved & Dominant Brands dives deep into them.) This rigorous examination often reveals problems brand leaders didn’t know they had and opportunities they didn’t know to look for.

Know When to Trust Your Gut

Even the veteran CPG marketers we work with can start to lose confidence in their own decision making over time, because the tactics they know and trust start to fail. So they hedge. They and their teams overthink consumer testing and design studies to verify their own point of view. They rely too heavily on data, become paralyzed, and take way too long to make decisions.

Trusting your gut can be useful, especially in highly uncertain circumstances where gathering more data and analysis simply will not change the evidence. When your team is tasked with creating the next new horizon for your brand, too much data can become debilitating.

So how do you learn to build the “trust your gut” muscle?

First, understand the type of problem at hand and be candid about the level of unknowability. Consider this: A true category disruption (for example, determining a new category or ingredient or seeing when dietary trend will become a real opportunity) comes with a higher degree of unknowability than line extending a successful product in pursuit of incremental growth. Routine brand evolutions are typically based upon high probability of success with clear and minimized risks.

By contrast, when you’re reaching for an audacious goal with a high degree of unknowability, attempting to reassure your decision making with consumer testing and data gathering beyond what’s readily available is unrealistic and damaging. Not only does this overanalysis delay important decisions, but all the second-guessing can also demoralize your team.

Next, understand the corporate cultural context. If your company values charts and graphs, KPIs, mental models and canvases, by all means use those to emphasize what can be known (for example, stage-gate methodology and execution planning).

Then you can better explain known, vs. unknowable decisions that need to be made and speak about the areas that require gut instinct. And then agree to respect using your gut as another input based upon the myriad of experiences that, in addition to the available KPIs and research available, have gotten you here. When you’re confident in your brand promise — its mission to right a wrong or serve the consumer in a meaningful way — then data should verify, not make, your decisions.

Your brand strategy tells you who you are. A competitive audit shows you where opportunity lies. And data says, “yep” to your decisions.

With that trio of inputs, your team can act in an entrepreneurial fashion. Your innovation process will be more focused and product launches more successful. Your organization will be more nimble and less beholden to the way you’ve always done things.

One closing note about consumer data: When we’re advising food and beverage brand leaders, sometimes we know we’re on the right track because there’s no data there. A lack of consumer research or syndicated reports can indicate there’s a huge opportunity that’s ready to explode.

That’s when we know we’re onto something.

If you have a hunch that an opportunity is ripe for the taking and you’d like us to help verify your thinking, let’s start a conversation.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

Connect with David