Disrupt or die: How emerging CPG brands are winning in the field

25th Oct 2017

You don’t need to look beyond the headlines to see that retail is undergoing a massive transformation. Powered by changing consumer tastes, cost pressures and the growth of online channels, plus the resurgence of both retailers (and restaurants) that provide convenience and healthier options, there’s a LOT of change underfoot. 

Of course a key disruptor continues to be Amazon, as they remake the retail experience with big and small data, and start to rewrite the rules for merchandisers within Whole Foods.

Even among food and beverage brands not directly in Amazon’s sights, the headwinds continue to be stiff as more retailers focus on private-label offerings such as Costco’s Kirkland brand and Whole Foods’ 365 Everyday Value, and new funding flows into upstart brands ($5.9 B across 1,300 deals since 2012 according to CB Insights). More than ever the competition is likely to come from above...and below!

If change is the constant, how do emerging CPG brands survive and thrive? And how do they  foster strategic relationships with their retail partners while keeping one eye on the latest competitors?

The key lies in winning in the field. Here’s how:

Stand out from the crowd

The disruption of the old retail order creates new risks, but also provides massive opportunities for CPG brands who can ride the wave of change. This means offering new concepts that are on trend (or trend-setting), and align with retail segments that are growing (think C-stores and specialty stores who blend “experience” and value).

Specifically, brands will gain an unfair advantage if they can:

  • themselves act like a disruptor.
  • up their game in terms of sales approach and field execution excellence.
  • use data to get closer to their customers and stay ahead of their competitors.

Being a disruptor often goes hand-in-hand with building a lifestyle brand that appeals to enthusiasts or other passionate consumers that themselves like to “change the rules” - think Altra Running or Patagonia, or even Red Bull. For these types of brands, their customers are often their best sales people, they leverage them in promotions in the field, and in some cases the product itself reaches such a cult-like status that it almost sells itself and never has to be discounted (like Apple or Dyson).

Other disruptors stand out when it comes to field execution and getting close to customers by programmatically targeting markets, retailers, and specific buyers. And then amplifying their reach via social, guerilla marketing, and street teams (Barnana and KIND Snacks do a lot of these things really well).

Another approach that applies both to brands and retailers is creating unique or unexpected in-store promotions, demos, and experiences to stand out and build loyalty - something I’ve researched and written about with brand maven Loie Maxwell.

Being a disruptor often goes hand-in-hand with building a lifestyle brand that appeals to enthusiasts or other passionate consumers that themselves like to “change the rules”.

More tactically, brands need to focus on the unique needs/goals/views of each of their accounts. And make sure they are collecting accurate data that tells the whole story. Every day. 

This is why the role of true “relationship management” has never been more important. Brands who remake their reps as a brand consultants are sure to stand out. Use them to work on joint efforts with retail partners for both cost efficiency and demand gen, as a recent article from McKinsey advises.

Whichever approach you take, getting feedback is essential, especially in “frothy” market segments. This means tracking everything and anything related to the brand and progress vs goals, from consumer insights and campaign performance to team and account activity. And of course looking at how your product is selling - and where your competitors are playing as well.

Follow your passion...and the data

While data is the fuel that powers many disruptor brands, their back story and passion for changing an industry is often what sets them apart from the pack.

As I have interviewed and interacted with dozens of founders over the years, what strikes me is that disruptors typically have a lot in common (even if they offer very different products):

  • They have a personal, often emotional story and passion for what they are doing.
  • Their teams are market aware, with a keen sense of purpose (they know where they are going).
  • They empower their employees to take risks, ask “why?” and continuously adjust their plan.
  • Their leadership is laser focused on looking at ways to improve their entire team and products, create a learning organisation.

Successful growth brands also have a process and employ playbooks for each functional area of their business, and tend to focus on one small geographic region at a time, as beverage industry expert Dan Morad shared in my recent discussion with him at Expo East.

In addition, many invest ahead of the curve in social marketing, branding, and field execution tools to amplify their story and ensure their field teams have what they need to engage accounts, track brand performance, and share insights.

Give your team the right tools

So just as Amazon has inspired a generation of digital marketers and merchandisers, these disruptors should inspire emerging CPG brands.

Beyond knowing where you are going and of course having excellent products, the best performing emerging brands not only look at the data but also create a “data-driven culture” that revolves around getting close to customers, being on trend, and having everyone on the same page.

This means offering a powerful, yet easy to use mobile CRM to field teams for getting the data points needed to grow their business while they are checking on clients, placing orders, conducting price/stock surveys, taking notes and photos, and communicating with peers and managers — all in a natural way that fits the way they are already interacting with clients.

It also means giving managers their own app that allows them to see all live activities in the field, manage reps and clients, and use insights to optimize team and campaigns performance.

These approaches power the most effective disruptors, and make it (way) more likely for them to get funded, and make it into top retailers like Whole Foods or Boots.

But more importantly for growth companies, the right tools help upstart brands truly punch above their weight class by securing the placements, recognition, and sales they deserve.

Allen Bonde is vice president of marketing at mobile CRM provider Repsly, and has consulted with dozens of emerging and global consumer and B2B brands. He has also spent time at McKinsey and Yankee Group, was co-founder of social marketing pioneer Wyng, and started his career as a data scientist in the telecom sector.  You can follow him at @abonde.


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