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I spoke to 23 brands and they all failed this one crucial question

I was very excited to hit up my first ever Natural Expo West. This event has been talked up by many of my colleagues over the years as one of the best CPG trade show. It is a vast collection of established, new, upcoming, and glimmer-in-the-eye brands hoping to get a little shine time in the among industry players.

My first day, I visited the exhibition for the youngest of brands and I was completely overwhelmed! Not because there were so many brands -- I expected that -- but it was over-crowded (and hot!) and the room was intense with dialogue. I found it difficult to make real connections or have any dialogue with brands in this environment.

But I quickly learned that most of these young brands were there to snag distribution -- they were eagle-eye focused on anyone with a retailer's badge. Given this new information, I thought to take the opportunity for a bit of an experiment.

I went on to ask one simple question:

Who is Your Target Consumer?

Simple enough, right? Well, you may be shocked to learn (as I was) the sheer number of brands that could not articulate their target consumer!

I understand that many entrepreneur founders, who, are themselves, fanatic consumers of the product, have fallen into a sort of belief that the consumer is... well, themselves! And, unfortunately, that can prevent them from articulating the consumer beyond an experience of the functional product benefit. However, with the overwhelming amount of information on the interwebs about consumers and consumer focus, I was sure most would've spent time thinking about and defining their consumer. At least enough to rattle off a sentence or two that describes them.

I was wrong.

Here is what I actually heard:

Most popular response: Everyone!

Hint: It's the worst possible answer!

"Everyone who loves to snack!"

"Anyone who likes chocolate, or sweets."

"People who are looking for a refreshing drink, or those who want something on the go, or anyone really!"

"Well, Millennials, but anyone really."

"Mom is buying, but it's for everyone."

By far the most popular response. As in, well over 50% of the brands. After the 3rd time I heard it, I chuckled. After the 10th time, I was seriously concerned!

Second most popular response: Competitive Consumers

The second most popular response was a reference to a competitor. As in, my consumer drinks [competitive product]. Or more like "anyone who loves orange juice will love this!" Hmm. Better than everyone, but still.

Third most popular response: Millennials

Ok, I can't blame them too much for this response considering about 97% of all brand objectives these days say something about "growing with Millennials". But I did hear a few versions of the answer which were better than the rest, such as Salty Girl Seafood who specifically called out millennial moms for their Salmon Bites for Kids product.

So what is the problem with this?

1 - Retailers Want Specificity!

Well, let's first address the retailer. The primary objective for most of these brands at Expo West was to impress a retailer, right? I suspect some of these brands believe casting a wider net would give them greater favor with a retailer, avoiding any "wrong" answers - but that is false.

A retailer is not looking for something to attract everyone. As of 2015, FMI estimates an average supermarket carries 39,500 SKUs. Do you think they want another brand of iced tea that caters to "everyone"? Noooooo.....

Retailers want to define a purpose and role for each item on the shelf in order to maximize their efficiency and reach. They must minimize overlap of these products otherwise, the consumer is just swapping one item for another - no new consumers, no new occasions, no growth. This starts with defining the person (including the occasion or needstate it fulfills - not just a demographic) that will be buying your brand and product.

2 - Growth Needs a Target!

How can you build a successful brand without knowing whom you are building the brand for? Sure, you may be able to cruise for a bit without a consumer target, leveraging the momentum of novelty and trial. But soon enough you'll need to make critical brand decisions which can't be made effectively without a consumer target. Your definition -- again, beyond demographics, to include psychographics, needs, and occasions -- helps direct your strategic marketing choices to bring new, recurring and loyal users to your business.

3 - Functional Benefits Always Ladder to a Real Human Experience!

I can hear the argument - my differentiating product benefits are what separate me from my competitors. And sure, there is a lot of truth to that. But not being able to connect that to:

  1. a specific person beyond demographics

  2. in a specific moment in time

  3. with a specific need that is not being met

  4. and has a specific emotion about it

is a wasted opportunity. There is NO product category in which any of these points are irrelevant! You might think there is no specific emotion something as mundane as paper towels. But you'd be wrong. Check out this Bounty commercial:

While the key message of the spot is about the value of the roll (that it lasts a long time aka value), the message is encased in a beautiful narrative of the consumer: parents who need to balance the budgets and chores of adult life with the joy of encouraging their child to grow and learn.

Admit it, after you watched that don't you feel eager to go get some Bounty and make a mess with your kid so that he'll become the next Bill Gates and then he can pay for your maid and you'll never have to use paper towels again?

So what should these brands do next?

I'm not suggesting they go right to an emotional message in their marketing plans -- we can talk another time about the balance between functional and emotional messaging based on the brand's life stage.

But I am emphatically saying that you need to craft a real story, about a real person, and how they engage with your brand, even if only for the benefit of your strategic brand planning.

A good answer to the question "Who is your target consumer?" might look like this:

The 'in-the-know' mom who makes healthful and sustainable choices when buying mid-day snacks for her school-aged kids because she wants them to live long, happy lives and believes her choices matter.
  1. a person - in-the-know suggests she's connected and does her research; "mom" puts a fine point on her life and life-stage

  2. in a specific moment in time - "mid-day snacking for her school-aged kids" is a moment full of rich imagery and underlying details and is very different than "mid-night snacks for her" or "mid-morning snack for husband" and leans heavily into millennial without having to box into an age group

  3. with a specific need that is not being met - "healthy and sustainable choices that the kids also want" is a hard thing to deliver

  4. and has a specific emotion about it - love for her kids and the future they will inherit is something she does not take lightly and recognizes she has a role to play

While I've literally just made this up and it could go so much deeper, this is still miles above "everyone who snacks!"

So, if you own a new brand or an established brand, make sure you can answer this question. Even if talking to retailers, a superficial answer to "who is your target consumer?" can cost you more than you know.

- KG

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