How to use live sampling for Specialty Food Marketing

It’s easy to see why live sampling is popular with brand managers.  Product costs are above the line and sampling overcomes consumer reluctance.  Stores like Costco have made sampling integral to the shopping experience, and done right, sampling can comprise a key piece of the marketing puzzle.

Research on consumer conversion proves sampling has the greatest impact on consumer purchase intent across all CPG categories (more info here).

A study by PortMA found that when consumers sample a product in store, 77.3% report that they are “Extremely Likely” to purchase on the item on their next shopping trip. The skyrocketing success of Greek yogurt Chobani  can be traced back to sampling, first inside grocery stores but later expanded to festivals, sporting events, and other venues outside of the store.

So what are the keys to successful sampling? Here’s what we’ve learned over the years:

Making the decision to sample:

Articulate your goals

Of course increasing sales is the ultimate goal, but do you want to launch a new product, boost brand awareness, demonstrate usage? Are you building a relationship with a retail partner?  How will you evaluate the success or failure of the program?  Some clients are driven by volume, others want to spend time showing consumers how to appreciate the products in a new and deeper way. Establishing your goals upfront is the key to choosing the right sampling program and coming away with useful insights and results.

Understand if your product is suitable for sampling
Sampling with consumers can be a fleeting experience.  So how distinctive and memorable is your product? The more memorable the flavor, the more successful the sampling.  For example, we sampled a British black tea at two store locations in Boston.  The taste was completely different from any other tea on the market, and that difference drove sales up 94% in six weeks.   What if you’re not strongly flavored?  Look for ways to make it work to your advantage: when we sampled a mild havarti cheese we focused on how acceptable it was to children (who typically don’t like strong flavors), and how easy it was to use as a creamier substitute for cheddar types.  By focusing the message on family usage rather than the taste alone, sampling helped drive sales up 54%.

Are you using sample packs or wet sampling? Typically, specialty food companies have not made the considerable investment in packaging made specifically for trial but rather opt for wet-sampling (i.e. pouring juice from the standard retail sized container or cutting cheese right from the wheel on site). Wet-sampling can work very effectively, but adds complexity: handling, storage, health code compliance, and transport.  POM began with wet sampling but learned that sampling went far more smoothly with an 8-oz trial size.   One of the key reasons is of course, with trial-sized samples, the package travels with the consumer, reinforcing brand identity.  If you’re considering the investment in pre-packed trial sizes but are concerned about cost, keep in mind that in certain categories, such as cheese, the ‘trial’ size is also been shown to appeal to consumers as a viable purchase size, either as a limited-calorie portion, or as a less expensive way to try a new flavor.

Choosing the venue: 

Plan every part of representing your brand.
What signage or other marketing materials are you allowed to display? If you have consumers interacting with your product, take every opportunity to reinforce your brand message and boost their intent to purchase – recipe booklets, coupons, product information are all good places to start. Capture email if you can – although collection is typically low and there are always fake addresses, those you do capture are often more valuable because they represent genuine interest.  If you can, incentivize email capture with branded swag, a game at your sampling station, or a charity– when we sampled cheese, we conducted a vote of which sample they preferred, with a donation to No Kid Hungry for each vote received.

Take a serious look at who is representing your brand. The staff distributing your samples is your brand’s front line with consumers. You should consider how you’re going to train and brief them, what they will wear (i.e. aprons, t-shirts and hats, suits, etc.) and what they need to do. Do you have enough staffers so that they can talk with consumers and gather feedback? It may be worth it to have an extra person to listen in: for example, we used engaged sampling at an event as an opportunity to test key brand messages – we tested the description of a cheese and found ‘hay flavors’ did poorly, but ‘hints of herbs and meadowgrass’ was a smash hit.

Think through the experience and put yourself in the place of a sampler who doesn’t know your product – -then keep it simple so they can execute consistently.For a national tour with Top Chef, with 24 city stops, we prepared a pre-packed box for each city.  All the freelance staff needed to do was open the box and everything – we mean everything—they could possibly need was right there for them – from a cheat sheet of product info to fake grapes and a photo of the preferred table set-up, to a pre-addressed Fedex envelope for returning the email sign up sheet.  Would having tape or scissors make the difference? Send ’em.

Know the health code. And the employment rules.
You need to make sure that you are compliant with all region-specific health codes and event-specific guidelines. Check the local health department and the event organizers (if any) to clarify any point of confusion.  If you are sampling in public, expect a health inspector to stop by to inspect your set-up.  You don’t want to spend thousands of dollars in event fees only to be told to pack up and go home because you don’t have adequate refrigeration. What are the hiring rules?  It isn’t uncommon to be required to provide worker’s compensation insurance for even the most temporary workers.  Be prepared for that as a staff cost.

Specialty Food Sampling AudienceHow many people will you reach? Beyond getting bang for your buck, you also need to have an accurate estimate for an event to run smoothly – the last thing you want is to run out of product halfway through an activation, but you also don’t want to have to throw product away afterwards. A rough rule of thumb in the programs we run is to provide enough samples for 10% to 15% of expected attendees.
More importantly, who are these people? If you have a fairly specific demographic or psychographic in mind, be sure to sample somewhere where you can actually hit those targets – don’t be persuaded only by the lowest cost per sample. Is it a family event?  Mom and Dad may be too distracted to care what you hand them – or if your sample is kid-friendly, they may love you forever for rescuing their hungry toddler. And be prepared for end-of-day gleamers — “free-stuff” seekers who will take everything that isn’t nailed down. Including the fake grapes.  Make sure your staff knows what is okay to give away and what has to get returned.

How does sampling relate to purchase opportunity?
Is the venue relevant to your brand and product? In-store sampling certainly catches consumers at the point of purchase, but you may be catching them too late in their purchase decision-making process for that shopping trip. Sampling before consumers arrive at the store can put your product more prominently in their purchase consideration set. If you’re not sampling at point of purchase, how is the consumer is going to remember to purchase you later?  Do you need an info handout? A coupon?

Food Sampling Event FeedbackThe number one question we get when sampling is “Where can I buy it?”  Be ready with a distribution list.  If available, provide coupons with information on where to buy your product are a great option.

Plan for no surprises – but go with it when they happen.
Outdoor venues aren’t always adjacent to a store with ice, tape, crackers, band-aids, or whatever else you may need — and your staff needs to be ready to start, not running around for supplies in an unfamiliar city.

What is the venue providing free and what are they charging for? What are the signage and other guidelines? How much are you allowed to customize the experience?  What are your transport needs? What’s the weather like?  If you’re sampling at a festival, how experienced are the people running the event? If the venue is unionized you may not be allowed to plug up your own mini-fridge, or set up an elaborate background graphic.  Again, rehearse the day in your head and imagine any obstacles — then plan to avoid them.

We ran a food truck sampling program one fall — and Hurricane Sandy hit right in the middle of the week!  We were sitting on 42nd street in Manhattan with no foot traffic and a truck full of perishable product.  So we cleared it with the client and headed downtown to feed emergency crews and stranded citizens.  Not exactly lemonade, but a lesson in flexibility.

Follow up after the event

Plan your strategy for keeping in touch and tracking results.

  • Collect emails –
    • Organize your database by event so you can remind consumers where they met you and what more you can offer them (recipe ideas, coupons, promotions…)
  • Post about your sampling
    • Put up pictures, recap highlights
  • Tweak how you sample based on feedback from consumers and staff
    • Did you receive any complaints about taste, presentation, or pairings from consumers? If so, you will want to rework your sampling tactic for next time.
    • Did your materials hold up? If your signage was falling down, was difficult to transport, or consumers had a hard time figuring out who you were, make changes.
  • Track Results
    • How many samples did you distribute? Was this more or less than expected?
    • How many consumers gave you their information?
    • Was there an increase in sales in the markets where you sampled?
    • Was there an increase in traffic to your website or in branded search in the market where you sampled? We raised branded search (meaning they looked for us by the product name) 254% in one market — due in large part to sampling.
    • Was there a noticeable spike in coupon redemption after the event? We haven’t found coupon redemption to be a strong indicator of sampling success, but many factors affect redemption including coupon value. Whatever your results, track them – it’s all good research.

We’ve touched on a few issues with live sampling.  If you have any questions about specialty food marketing or sampling, let us know.



About Angela Cason