Jumping Off the Shelf by Sharpening Both Edges of the Promotional Sword

By Rick Hill

WHEN BARQ’S LAUNCHED its Soviet Union Going Out of Business sale, it set the industry on its ear and generated worldwide publicity for what would turn out to be the only organized celebration of the end of the Cold War.  It generated an eye-popping 30 percent sales increase — but not for the reasons most folks think.

We launched the sale within days of the collapse of Soviet Communism.  The offer was simple: send in proofs-of-purchase from specially-marked 12-pack and 2 L bottles of Barq’s and receive an otherwise unobtainable collection of genuine USSR-era memorabilia. So otherwise unobtainable was it that I would need to go to Moscow to personally find and select it, and that’s a whole other story.  It would be an adventure to say the least.

The announcement was carried by the global news media and generated enormous enthusiasm by Barq’s bottlers eager to get on board to make history themselves.

As a beverage marketer, you should pay attention to this event as a case study. It satisfied consumers and trade customers – the two major constituents a beverage marketer has to serve daily. For the distributor and retail trade, you must provide competitive pricing and margins, periodic promotional incentives and support for their go-to-market agenda. But the trade asks that of everyone – and given the trade’s (understandable) impulse to put its agenda ahead of yours, it is difficult to distinguish your items from everyone else’s.

For consumers, you offer important benefits that include fulfillment of refreshment needs, variety and pricing that represents value, but repeat business comes only once consumers appreciate a unique product benefit.  Keep in mind that it is important to distinguish benefits vs. attributes.  Benefits, simply put, are a function of what the product does for the consumer, vs. what it is. Consumers do not want a ¼” drill; they want a ¼” hole.

Beverage products are all consumed because they provide sensory and physiological benefits: refreshment, nutrient intake, and satisfaction of flavor cravings.   Most brands offer these benefits, but unless they’re designed to provide more than that, it’s a pretty typical set of product characteristics.  The trade understands this and, until you show them otherwise, they will treat your items as commodities.

Still, you’ll get your chance to impress. The good news is that because of an onslaught of new product entries and channel choices – occasioned by historically low barriers to industry entry – beverage consumers are increasingly on a continuous trial curve and are willing and able to try new beverages when and where they become available.  On the other hand, brand loyalty is eroding in favor of impulse stimuli offered by new (or newly discovered) value propositions, unique flavors, new benefit claims and price incentives.

The vast majority of new beverage trial occurs at the individual consumer level, typically via single-serve, cold bottle purchases for immediate consumption.  Products enjoyed in this manner can lead to repeat purchases and ultimately to multi-pack take home buying, but only if the product makes its case in the midst of the flood of competition. The bottom line of all this traffic means that products have a tough time jumping off the shelf and so stay there.  Brands that make news and make waves get the attention and take the leap.

To make that happen, you need a two-edged sword: you have to energize both the trade and the consumer simultaneously.  Consumer-only appeals seldom work, mainly because there is an inadequate effort made to build up retail inventories and visibility. Trade-only programs may create a week or two of display or feature, but are almost always price-centric alone and do nothing to distinguish the brand.

Go for both parties at the same time. Generate excitement in the trade among consumers. Regardless of their age, brands benefit from taking the perspective that they’re still new and untried by most consumers.  The types of news-making programs often used to launch new brands works for old brands as well so long as new news is offered.

That was the logic behind announcing Barq’s Soviet Union Going Out of Business sale. We executed quickly and the announcement was carried by the global news media; it also generated enormous enthusiasm by Barq’s bottlers eager to get on board to make history themselves.

The only catch was that the vast majority of Barq’s bottlers did not produce or distribute the brand in 12-packs or 2 Liter bottles.  Barq’s was basically a 6-pack brand that seldom took part in retail promotions invariably built around these key promotional packages. Truth is, the entire promotion was launched as the incentive for them to get Barq’s into promotional packaging and thus let the brand join the big leagues. Almost all bottlers did.  The promotion went on to win the PMAA Super Reggie Award, Clio recognition, AdAge’s Top 100 Marketer status and included in the soft drink industry’s list of top 100 events in the preceding 100 years.  But the real win was getting the brand into the bottlers’ and retailers’ promotional sets forever forward.

Look at your go-to-market activities as a double-edged sword with a trade and consumer edge and look far upstream of consumers for real opportunities.  Don’t expect products to jump off the shelf unless you give them a push by inducing the trade not only to just include, but also to rely upon your brand to lead an off-shelf promotional agenda.  Being “Me Too” is bad anywhere and anytime.   It is really awful in the promotional space.

It’s equally awful if your packaging is generic, not promotion-friendly and fails to distinguish itself.  Barq’s was the first to be available in a remarkable silver, unpainted can. Its quirky graphics were a package designer’s nightmare, but served to set it apart from its oh-so-polished competition.

Choose your advertising and promotional partners with boldness.  Barq’s focused on MTV and Headbanging to attract an equally non-traditional target market of 12-24 year old guys.  Barq’s sponsored the launch of Beavis & Butthead since no one else would.  Barq’s tied in with Freddie Kruger slasher flicks for the same reason.  Barq’s launched in Manhattan with posters plastered everywhere, despite it being at best a quasi-legal activity.

A side benefit to breaking out of the mainstream is that you can substitute the power of a great idea for big budgets.  The Soviet Union prize pool cost under $80,000 and Gorbachev got zero dollars for appearing in the ads.  Barq’s was in a (solo) buyer’s market for edgy advertising media and promotional properties.

You need to be different and interesting to jump off the shelf. And when you jump, make sure you bring your parachute and your two-edged sword.

Rick Hill, a longtime beverage marketer, is the Founder & CEO of BrandHeat Marketing