Getting Engaged in “Engaged Sampling”

Having worked with specialty food brands for over 20 years, we’re true believers in the power of sampling. Taste is the ultimate “word of mouth.” According to Arbitron Inc., 58% of customers who sample products plan to buy the sampled product in the future. What’s more, while 42% of customers would buy a sampled product they have never heard of, those customers who have heard of the product purchase the sampled merchandise 60% of the time.

But if your sampling program isn’t moving the needle for you it may not be your product – it may be the way you’re sampling. There are three main types of sampling: In-store, value added, and the type we’ve evolved called “engaged” sampling. Here are the pros and cons of each.

In-Store. The pros? It’s definitely point of purchase. The cons? Where do we start? Store-hired samplers have a minimum training and no equity in the success of the brand. They’re more like babysitters for a table of stale cheese and broken crackers. Display is unbranded and generic, and the overall takeaway for the consumer is “don’t stay long.” While a high-value coupon can force a sale for the moment, the consumer is focused on the value of the coupon vs. the cost of trial, not on the equity of your product.

Value-Added. These are the media-sponsored events where you get signage and sampling and they draw the crowd. The pros? Generally well-executed, good brand association, and decent exposure. We’ve done lots of these over the years and some packages are better than others. The cons? The potential to get lost in the crowd. For some media these are tightly controlled prefabricated events and your brand is there to foot the bill and feed the crowd. Not exactly your dream. We look for groups that are flexible enough to let us put a real footprint on the experience, while handling the logistics for us. ‘Top Chef’, the Tour, is a good example – our client got space and staffing in 22 cities, and a great brand association, as well as control over his own brand message. The only drawback? The hoped-for PR was swamped by the Top Chef story.

Engaged Sampling. What’s this? Imagine having consumers spend time with your product, learning new and inventive ways to serve it.  Consumers are tasting it among friends and associating your brand with a positive and memorable experience. This is the model we’re creating now; sponsored events all about our clients’ brands, for less money than you’d expect. For example: For an imported fruit preserve we created a Mother’s Day brunch at an upscale country club. Each place setting had samples of the product, the menu was centered on dishes that showed its quality, and each mother received a branded gift bag with a rose, a second sample of the product, and a special coupon and recipe booklet. For an imported blue cheese, (a product that can be an acquired taste), we developed customized dinners. A celebrity chef created a five-course meal, using the cheese in each course (yes, including dessert!) Table settings, prizes, menus, décor, and atmosphere all telegraphed the brand as the heart of an evening of positive, entertaining experiences.

The result? Our clients who have experience engaged sampling get the chance to educate and share their passion for their products. The attendees become well-informed, and can act as true brand ambassadors. So next time you’re looking at sampling options, think about getting engaged.