Shopper Marketing Is Not Quite Dead Yet

Shopper Marketing is dead.

I don’t like pronouncements like this. There was a commentary in Progressive Grocer last week decrying that Shopper Marketing is dead and was going to be replaced by something called a ‘customer-of-one’ approach to marketing. The author waxed eloquent about technology that would allow right place, right message, right time marketing to individuals to scale up so that brands could deliver a customized message at just the perfect time. The way it was written, it made you feel like it was just around the corner— only a moment away.

It’s fun to write articles like this, but they don’t often come true in the smooth, simple fashion in which they are written. This is because there are human beings involved; people with businesses, employees, ambitions, mortgages and families who like eating and going shopping. They are invested in the way things are, and all these various motivations and ambitions collide in ways that we cannot ever predict. In short, too many people are making too much money in current businesses for them to just quit because a better idea comes along.

Nicolas Taleb writes that we get predictions wrong because we don’t understand probabilities well enough— especially when it comes to ideas. This is why science fiction (unless it is dystopian) always has everyone wearing white jumpsuits in trashless, clean, computer-run environments. The world is messier and harder to predict. In fact, it’s almost impossible to predict with any degree of accuracy. We are left to rely on the probability of alternate outcomes. How likely is it that the four scenarios you can imagine will actually happen?

When we are predicting which ideas will survive, we need to look to the past. This is because (again, stealing from Taleb) the likelihood that something will be around in the future is directly related to how long it has been around already. For example, we’ve had books for almost 600 years, so it is reasonable to predict that we will still be making and selling physical books in the year 2616. We’ve had Facebook since 2004 (twelve years), so it is safe to predict that it will be here in 2028 regardless of what teens think about it.

What about Shopper Marketing?

Shopper Marketing is at an interesting inflection point. It’s matured. Big agencies have developed, been rolled up into holding companies, and the practice institutionalized; all of this in the past 15-20 years. So, it is safe to predict that the idea of Shopper Marketing—or seeing shopper activities and behaviors as distinct from consumer activity and behaviors—will be around in the next 15-20 years. This means that it is too early to predict its demise. As Mark Twain said, “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

What is certain is that Shopper Marketing will have to change.

This chart, which shows the comparative search volumes of the terms “Shopper Marketing” and “Omnichannel” from 2013 to the present give us a pretty good indication of why. In it you can see that the idea of shopper marketing in the collective conscious has been overtaken by omnichannel, and this makes sense. Let’s look at a couple of reasons why omnichannel is overtaking shopper marketing, and what it really means for brands marketing at retail.

When shopper marketing started, we were in a period of rapid consolidation of retail and rise of national, big-box retailers. During the first decade of professional practice, shopper marketing was all about bringing a marketing mindset to a space that had been dominated by sales and promotions. Shopper marketing introduced marketing disciplines (like insights and strategy) to a space that desperately needed it.

Then came the next wave of internet companies (social media), mobile devices (the iPhone) and telco infrastructure (3G/4G/LTE mobile and broadband internet via cable & fiber optics). Now, we live in a very different, very connected world where we expect everything to be measured and mobile. The two giants of retail, Walmart and Amazon, are each moving toward one another’s business; each struggling to become not just what they are right now—single-channel retailers—but they are struggling to invent the future of retailing, or what everyone is calling omnichannel.

Omnichannel has some challenges.

From an operational standpoint, to make omnichannel work means that you need more integration and standardization of your systems and supply chain so that you can (hopefully) deliver to any shopper in any channel that she wants to shop in. If you’ve spent any time actually working inside of a retailer—bricks or clicks—then you know what a daunting task it is to convert legacy systems or ways of doing business into something new. Amazon’s foray into bricks-and-mortar retail will be an interesting test for them in the same way that Walmart’s struggles with their dotcom business are for them. Both of the giants are facing entirely new modes of working that will challenge them on many fronts.

This leaves openings for smaller, more agile retailers to invent the omnichannel future, right? The problem with this scenario is that both Walmart and Amazon have such an enormous head start on everyone else that it seems unlikely that we will have an new mass omnichannel retail brand emerge. Impossible? Well, of course, nothing is impossible. But is it probable? No, it’s not likely that someone is going to launch an mass omnichannel retail brand to unseat both Amazon and Walmart’s dominance.

So, what are we to do?

What we’ve been doing at SMACK is looking at the legacy programs at brick-and-mortar retail and trying to bring digital tools and tactics to bear on them; items like circulars, coupons, demos, display and promotions. We’ve been challenging ourselves to reimagine these from a shopper’s point of view. We’ve been imagining the kinds of content and marketing programs that we’d actually like to get if we were the audience, and we’ve been thinking from the POV of the brands about the challenges of sales and marketing in the digital world. And we’ve been talking to both brands and shoppers about all of it.

What we have found is that when you move from Shopper Marketing to Omnichannel, you have to embrace a fundamental shift in what is important to your audience today.

Distribution used to be important, now access is the operative word. We used to define retailers by how they got you the product. Now, shoppers just don’t care how you get the products to them, and they don’t think about one channel versus another. They just think of a product or a category and look for it. They want to compare your brand to other brands. They want to read reviews—expert and otherwise—that give them the scoop. They want the history, your origin story, your manufacturing standards, your sustainability information, the ingredients in your formulation— the whole scoop. Don’t hide anything from them because they will find out.

They insist on information access.

This means you have to have the information about your company, your leaders, your brands and your products easily and readily available. In fact, it would be great if you were promoting your content to people before or instead of your products. Tell people a great story first, then they’ll let you sell them your products. They need access to interesting, engaging content about your brand and your products available in text, image and video; stories, interviews, documentaries, photos that inspire, provoke, inform, challenge, reveal. They want to know you more than you realize.

People also insist on product access.

If you don’t have it available, then you lose. If you don’t have it in the channel where they are looking right now, then you lose. If you cannot get it to them when they want it, then you lose. They don’t want everything right now. In fact, they want everything at different times. Sometimes they want a book right now. Other times, they can wait two weeks for a book. There is no possible way to anticipate all the times that people are going to want something. Let us repeat that:

There is no possible way to anticipate all the times people are going to want something.

So, let’s stop trying. This ideal of just the right message for just the right product delivered at just the right time through just the right medium is not a right or reasonable strategy. It sounds great in articles, but not in practice.

We need to start making everything accessible everywhere.

That’s what omni means after all— in all ways or places. The essence—the essential strategy—of omnichannel is to have it available for people. If you have it available, then they will find it. They are really good at finding— just don’t hide anything. Make it easy to find out all the information, and then make it easy to purchase everywhere anyone could want to. That’s all people want— products and information available everywhere 24/7/365.

Yeah, that’s a big task, but it’s the one in front of retailers and brands. It’s the one to tackle if you are Walmart, Amazon, or Joe down the street. Put it everywhere and make it easy to find and get it— and by it, we mean your products and your information.

We see two ways to get started:

  • Brands and marketers can make it easier for people by creating more useful and interesting content in more forms and putting it in more places.
  • Retailers can make it easier for people by ensuring that all of the products are available both in-store and online, and that they can get them to us in a variety of ways.

Shopper marketing is dead like Barb. You know, from Stranger Things on Netflix? (don’t act like you didn’t binge the whole thing last weekend) She may look dead, but we guess she’ll be back for season two – just a little … different.