In my line of work, I come across many startups that are shaping the future of retail, CPG and marketing industries. These companies are often founded by former industry insiders who saw an unmet need and business opportunity and successfully rolled out new shopper marketing capabilities. In an effort to share their wisdom, we will be featuring interviews with up-and-coming technology companies who can teach shopper marketers new things and help us peek around the corner into where shopper marketing is heading. Today’s interview is with my mentor and friend Bob Gilbreath, Co-Founder & CEO of Ahalogy, a Cincinnati-based content analytics and optimization company.
Olga Yurovski: How did you come up with the idea for Ahalogy?
Bob Gilbreath: I spent my entire career at P&G and then at a digital agency, Bridge Worldwide, helping guide the brands’ shift from traditional to digital marketing. In the process, I realized that digital technology had potential to disrupt everything we know about marketing because it would put control in shoppers’ hands. I saw the tremendous value digital technology could add to consumers’ lives, if brands used it wisely. For example, the app we built to help consumers manage their diabetes was extremely gratifying to work on, and it was during that time, I coined a phrase “Marketing with Meaning.” That has been our guiding principle throughout the years. About a year after selling our agency to WPP, I left the company to look for a new way to following that Marketing with Meaning path. Eventually, I met Michael Wohlschlaeger and the two of us discovered that marketing on Pinterest was a huge opportunity and a natural platform where brand content sells at scale, the starting point for bigger opportunities.
OY: Is that where your focus on shopper marketing came from? Seeing the opportunities in this space based on shoppers’ social media behavior?
BG: It actually started with influencer marketing. Almost two years ago, we spoke with a client agency who asked if Ahalogy worked with influencers. In that conversation we learned that shopper marketing teams were among the first in CPG to recognize the potential and tap into the influencer marketing capabilities. Not surprisingly, because influencers help bridge Retail and CPG brands strategies together, they lend their authentic, trusted voice to the retail promotions. That conversation inspired us to develop new capabilities around high quality influencer marketers that generate premium content.
Our strategy was to focus on three things:
- Trends data that is relevant in the brands’ usage context
- High quality influencer network that can use the trends data as inspiration to create authentic, premium original content
- Content optimization via paid advertising capabilities to deliver the content in a laser-focused way during the key activation timeframes.
For example, M&Ms secured incremental display in the bakery section of Kroger — a great opportunity for new sales — and the team tapped Ahalogy to help create ideas that would drive Moms to add a dessert to their shopping list. Working with our category trend data, we identified the ingredients in recipes with M&Ms that tended to perform best during that particular time of the year. We also identified the type of recipes that tend to perform well with the busy Millennial Moms the brand targeted — things like “no bake” recipes and “5 ingredients or less.” This trend data went into the our decisions on which influencers to select for our program, and the data informed their creative decisions. The result was high performing content, which continues to drive traffic more than a year later.
Our early shopper marketing engagements were very successful and turned us into obsessive believers in the idea that content from an authentic influencer can sell product by creating new usage occasions, getting on a shopping list, thus increasing frequency and buy rates.
Ahalogy has been growing quickly because brand and agency teams appreciate that we are bringing an evolved approach to their shopper marketing strategy: trend data, fewer/better influencers, and laser-targeted social media.
OY: You use trend data to pick the right influencers for a campaign, and then pinpoint your audience with targeted social media, but without great content, none of that would matter. How do you define “great content?”
BG: There is no easy “formula” or recipe for great content — sometimes it’s surprising what people find interesting. But generally speaking, great content tells stories. Human brains are wired to respond to storytelling, and the more authentic and relatable the story is, the stronger the reader’s response. Don’t tell shoppers why your cleaning product is best; tell a story about how your kid made a mess (so they can imagine themselves in the same situation) and how the brand came to the rescue.
To come up with good content, our team helps clients seek inspiration from search trends, come up with a story and figure out how the brand authentically fits in. Here at Ahalogy, we call this process of using trends to inspire quality content “data-based creativity.” To help our clients along this journey, we created Muse, a software platform that helps us identify category-level trends. Trends data goes into the brief; in a way, we build “a box” for the influencers so they can can think outside of it. It’s a more natural process than starting with a clean sheet, and it yields better results for everyone — the brand, the influencers, and the retailer.
It’s important for us to know what people are searching for, inspire them and make it very easy for them to buy the products. Story comes first, brand names follow. Recognize that people are not looking for brands, rather solutions, and that your brand can be relevant in that solution’s context. For example, Jo-Ann Fabrics & Crafts is selling a lot of slime kits because they recognized that slime was trending on Pinterest several months ago, before it became mainstream. This trend came from nowhere and no amount of consumer or shopper research could have predicted it. Now, if a specific brand had used the same trend data that Jo-Ann Fabrics & Crafts had used, they could have partnered with not only Jo-Ann, but other retailers to corner the market on slime kits.
Watch both short- and long-term trends. In-the-moment trends can help your brands become ultra-relevant, if you have agility to adjust your in-the-market activities quickly; long-term campaigns help you prepare for what’s around the corner. For example, “Vegan Thanksgiving” has been an emerging trend over the past 4 years, and it’s early enough to let your Sales and Shopper teams pre-sell to or jointly develop a relevant solution with your retail partners.
OY: You said “that people are not looking for brands, rather solutions.” Is this part of why content is so important for shopper marketers?
BG: Today’s shopper is less responsive to interruptive offers, but more interested than ever in ideas and inspiration. They turn to social media to find those ideas. Imagine yourself seeing $.50 off coupon for M&Ms baking chips. You will most likely ignore it because it’s not on your list this week. But if you see an easy-to-make dessert idea with M&Ms, you will be more likely to add the product to your list — often without a costly offer to go along with it! If a brand can create special moments for shoppers and help them tell stories of their own that foster an emotional connection, they’re building brand equity and, hopefully, brand loyalty.
We truly believe that “content moves cases” because we’ve proven it time and again. Case in point, we ran a massive social media campaign with a diaper brand. The brand ran several creative executions. The first group had traditional features and benefits message. The second offered tips for how moms-to-be can prepare for the hospital stay or how to get ready to come home with the baby from the hospital. We’ve seen overwhelming evidence that the second execution had 17% better sales lift than the first.
All of our brands, especially those in the center of the store, need growth. But how do you create a new occasion, bring one more shopper down the aisle, get them to put one more item in their basket? Trade promotions can’t do it all for you. We, as shopper marketers, should address the challenge of growth with quality content and inspirational ideas. Instead of selling one more bottle of glue on trade promotion at back to school season, how about building a $20-$30 slime kit and sell it year round?
OY: Focusing too much on specific promotional seasons like Back to School can blind Sales and Brands to other opportunities. What are some other common mistakes you see shopper marketers make in the area of content marketing?
BG: The biggest missed opportunity is the failure to bring consumer category trend data into the planning process. Too many teams have a short term habit and have a hard time looking 6-9 months out. That’s why we’ve recently made our Muse trend software available at no charge to our brand and agency clients. They can look out to Q4 right now and see a growing trend around “Vegan Thanksgiving” and “The Day After Christmas Breakfast.”
Another big opportunity is taking a more long-term view of content and influencer marketing. We all do a lot of quarterly promotions and “start over” each time. You miss the chance to take that first click and build a longer term relationship, and in content marketing the traffic keeps coming back for years. Our more advanced clients are starting to create platforms and continue building on their success, versus starting from scratch each time.
OY: How can shopper marketers leverage content trends with Retail partners?
BG: Use trends to excite category buyers, substantiate and sell in your promotional ideas. Retailers have massive amounts of data about sales activity, but they don’t have insights into what their customers are thinking and planning. Our clients tell us they are bringing our data into meetings to help sell in big ideas. For example: client wants to do a grilling campaign for Memorial Day. Ahalogy comes back with top trends for Grilling – it’s fresh and new and inspires new types of conversations with buyers to help sell-in incremental campaigns dedicated to new occasions.
One of our clients was working on breakfast meal solution campaign for one of their retail clients. They saw that eggs were selling well, but had a hard time convincing the buyer to focus on the egg category because he didn’t think eggs were contemporary or relevant. To support their recommendation, the client’s shopper marketing team brought the buyer trend data on eggs, demonstrating new and trendy egg recipes. That trend data completely changed the buyer’s mind.
We advise our clients to leverage influencers not just online but also in traditional and in-store media. When we realized that our clients wanted to extend their content usage beyond social media, we changed our licensing contracts with influencers to let client own the content forever, instead of just one year. The offline content placement requires advance planning and therefore gives sales teams and retail clients a chance to weigh in and tie in in-store merchandising activity, which further improves compliance rates and campaign ROI.
OY: What should every shopper marketer do right this minute (to make sure they are not missing out on the content marketing opportunity and latest trends?)
BG: Get passionate about the category you are working in, which includes getting in touch with emerging trends. The best marketing comes from when you are truly immersed. Your ideas are better and your opinion is more trusted.
Go to muse.ahalogy.com and request access. We’ll give everyone a trial account if they mention this post. Spend your first 10 minutes per day with your coffee seeing the emerging trends.
Our clients often check trends first thing in the morning when drinking coffee. Get in the habit of doing so as well. If you are marketing certain categories, you have to be very in-tune with market sentiment. Think speed, speed, speed. You can’t wait for the trends report to come in, you have to get your hands dirty and act immediately if you see an opportunity.
OY: What should shopper marketers prepare for in the coming years? What content capabilities are important to explore, invest in near- vs. long-term?
BG: I’d say prepare for e-commerce and build out your product content pages. Even though grocery is late to e-commerce game, the shift is definitely happening, and we must get obsessed with it. Every time you add helpful content to your product pages, the conversion rates increase. Think of various types of content, beyond product images and ingredients list and reviews, such as user-generated images, recipes, allergen info, usage ideas, etc.
Again, content is going to lead here as people don’t want endless reviews on paper towels and cereal. They want ideas. And both brands and retailers need incremental sales, which comes from inspiring content.
OY: Thank you for sharing your experience and insights with us!
Understanding that shoppers aren’t looking for your brand but a solution to a problem is the first step in helping shopper marketers rethink how to create awesome content and engage with shoppers in order to grow sales.