As 2020 unfolded, Heineken set out on an ambitious plan to promote its alcohol-free brew in a place where beer drinking has often been frowned upon: the office.
The Netherlands-based company had more than 1 million samples of its Heineken 0.0 targeted for workplaces across the U.S. in an effort to convince consumers that its product tasted great and would be a viable option when they crave beer but wanted to eschew alcohol during the day.
"All of sudden that came to a very sharp halt with the pandemic," said Borja Manso Salinas, vice president of brand marketing at Heineken USA. "We had to practically pivot and say how do we sample in the age of COVID?"
In an industry where taste is paramount, sampling is among the most useful tools for food and beverage brands to hook consumers and turn them into repeat customers.
"Sampling is this amazing and beautiful thing. There is nothing better than actually seeing and tasting the product versus seeing a digital ad or TV. As much as the world gets complicated, sampling will always be there."
Vice president of shopper and omnichannel marketing, snacking division, Campbell Soup
A 2019 study found shoppers who sampled a product were 11% more likely to buy it again during the course of a 20-week period. Sampling also had far-reaching impacts on other items offered by the brand, with sales for the franchise jumping 6% in the same period. Previous studies also have shown sampling siphons business away from competitors.
Sampling not only provides new brands with the opportunity to connect with consumers on the ever-important taste factor, but it also provides them with an invaluable platform to promote the offering by directly interacting with consumers — increasing the likelihood that a hesitant shopper will turn into a repeat buyer. Brand founders and employees can communicate why the product tastes the way it does, its functional benefits, its ingredients and how they are sourced, and why it's different from the competition.
It also helps keep the brand, and new products in particular, top-of-mind in a retail landscape where tens of thousands of products line store shelves.
"Sampling is this amazing and beautiful thing. There is nothing better than actually seeing and tasting the product versus seeing a digital ad or TV," said Stephen Chriss, vice president of shopper and omnichannel marketing with Campbell Soup's snacking division. "As much as the world gets complicated, sampling will always be there."
From cubicles to the big screen
For Heineken USA, sampling is among its most valuable tools to connect with consumers in a crowded alcohol space beset with countless craft brews, ready-to-drink products such as hard seltzers and Mexican imports.
But getting consumers to try a product like Heineken 0.0 is especially valuable in alcohol-free beer, which many consumers don't know when they are supposed to drink or why, and prior iterations didn't taste great, Salinas said. Sampling has proven particularly effective for the beverage maker, with 30% of consumers who try it becoming regular buyers of Heineken 0.0.
"We have been pursuing [sampling] as a priority since launch," he said. "That hasn't changed with the pandemic. What has changed is how we go about it."
Instead of infiltrating cubicles and break rooms, Heineken USA turned to the big screen, meal kits and in-home promotions as a way to build awareness for Heineken 0.0 and follow through on its goal of tying consumption of the alchohol-free beer to occasions that previously weren't associated with it.
It partnered with the Tribeca Film Festival to give cold Heineken 0.0 six-packs to the cars of attendees who drove into the event in New York. HelloFresh allowed shoppers to get a sample added to their order, deepening the perception that a person can prepare a fresh dinner and still be healthy by having a low-calorie beer without alcohol. And with Major League Soccer games closed to fans last year, Heineken USA provided some fans with an authentic stadium chair from their favorite team, stadium food and a Heineken 0.0 beverage fridge.
Traditionally, brands have dispersed bite-sized offerings and small cups of beverages for free in stores and at events such as fairs, races and sporting events. With those venues closed or in-store sampling promotions canceled, CPGs and retailers of all sizes had to get creative and rethink how they went about undertaking the decades-old practice.
Mid-Day Squares previously cut up one of its protein-rich functional bars into four pieces for people to try and put up a display nearby in the store loaded with products for people to purchase.
As it returns to Whole Foods, Sprouts and smaller chains later this month, Mid-Day Squares will test giving out individual bars — a move that dramatically increases costs for the three-year-old startup — to shoppers to munch on later in their car or at home. For consumers who want to limit their time in stores, Mid-Day Squares is placing $1 coupons on products to spur repeat purchases, and placing QR codes on the packaging so prospective buyers can learn more about the product and where it is carried in stores.
"We want to see how much extra we're going to be spending through this new type of sampling," said Jake Karls, a co-founder of Mid-Day Squares. He plans to review data through at least October before deciding whether to make the sampling change permanent. "I'm not going full throttle on it just because I want to wait and see how much it is effective."
Sampling goes digital
While online grocery sales have declined since the height of the pandemic, many shoppers who turned to the service during the past year are likely to continue using it in some form going forward. Online sales totaled $7 billion in May, 3.5 times higher than the pre-pandemic level of $2 billion in August 2019, according to Brick Meets Click Partner David Bishop.
The swift growth of grocery ecommerce is a big reason why food manufacturers and retailers alike are figuring out how to connect with consumers online, and navigating through the pitfalls and complexities of sampling in a digital world.
Earlier this year when Campbell Soup launched new Twisted Pretzel Sticks for its Snyder's of Hanover brand, the company had to rethink how it would market the product, with sampling being a major part of its multi-pronged marketing blitz. Instead of peppering events like fairs or in-store demos, it distributed many of the more than 1 million bags to consumers who ordered online or picked up their groceries in stores.
"Due to COVID, we had to completely rethink how we sample," Chriss said.
In 2018, Mid-Day Squares began selling its Fudge Yah bars for a quarter and mailed the refrigerated treat. It helped Mid-Day attract consumers, but after six months it became too expensive — mailing could cost up to $20 in some parts of North America — and the company ended the project. The snack maker has since turned to other more cost-effective ways to get buyers to try its product.
Sampling “was a big component given the vastness of the store and the tens of thousands of SKUs that are on the shelf. It was just a requirement: If we’re going to launch a new brand, we also need you in the stores supporting the brand and telling your story."
Former global director, local brands and product innovation, Whole Foods
Grocery retailer Albertsons debuted a sampling program in January through its ecommerce platform as a way to increase brand awareness and introduce new products.
But Albertsons, similar to other retailers and their CPG partners who have experimented with online sampling, said the process is mired by challenges that limit its overall effectiveness. Logistics and costs rule out anything that must be refrigerated or kept frozen, such as meat, yogurt and many plant-based foods and beverages.
Albertsons now sends out samples to surprise and delight customers — such as packages of popular treats like cookies or a candy bar — rather than an offering that is specifically targeted, said Michelle Goydan, ecommerce senior manager at the retailer.
The goal is to eventually offer samples that are targeted to males or females, a specific region of the country, a shopper's purchase history, or by giving the individual their choice of a selection of items, she said. By better personalizing a sample to the specific consumer, retailers and CPGs can increase the number who try the product and decide to purchase it again while simultaneously increasing shopper loyalty and overall basket sizes.
"Sending samples and figuring out the right way to connect with consumers on samples is something we're still learning," Goydan said. "We're trying to meet the customer where they are shopping."
Keeping iconic brands top of mind
Retailers, however, haven't given up on in-store sampling, especially in places like Costco and Sam's Club that are popular for setting up sampling stations.
Costco told analysts in May it planned to bring back full sampling at most of its roughly 550 locations by the end of June. Increased safety protocols would change how it takes place, with all samples prepared behind plexiglass, in smaller batches for better safety control and distributed to shoppers one at a time.
Sam's Club said in early June that sampling would return after a 14-month hiatus. The Walmart-owned chain said it will take place on the weekends and in limited quantities, using new safety measures, such as sealed samples.
Albertsons is not only expanding its online sampling but also tweaking the way it does it in stores. It started partnering with a sampling kiosk provider in July of this year, and now currently has dozens of the self-serve stations throughout its stores.
It's no coincidence that Albertsons is ramping up ecommerce sampling and investing more in the kiosks during the pandemic, said the chain's vice president of public relations, Kirby Nardo. "In-person sampling ... with the card table is just not a safe way to engage with your consumers anymore," she said. "The rise in both of those I think is definitely a strategy for the company."
Even for a brand that is ubiquitous, sampling plays a key role in keeping the product top of mind and helping it find new usage occasions.
Confectioner and snacking giant Hershey, for example, found in its own consumer survey that more people planned to make s'mores this summer compared to a year ago, with most planning to eat them around backyard camp fires. Still, with mobility increasing as the country tries to move beyond the pandemic, finding ways to grow usage occasions while keeping consumers who flocked to s'mores during the outbreak can be aided by sampling, said Bill Maclean, Hershey's senior marketing director.
Heineken USA’s Salinas noted the fast-moving consumer landscape means people are bombarded with choices all the time, and sampling helps the beer maker remind people who have never had its products or tried them in a while that they're an option. This is especially important in stores where consumers spend little time deciding what to purchase, and often go with a brew they've had recently or are intimately familiar with.
"If you haven't tried a Heineken in one or two years, it's like you have never tried it really," Salinas said.
Anup Shah, vice president and chief marketing officer of the juice portfolio at PepsiCo Beverages North America, which includes Naked Juice, Tropicana and KeVita, said sampling not only helps the beverage and snack giant connect consumers with its new products — those beverages that are tried by consumers often have very high repeat, he said — but the practice also allows the company to know how its items are doing and potential tweaks it may need to make.
If an item has mediocre trial but high repeat purchases, it will likely be a successful beverage with more marketing. At the same time, if consumers are trying it, but repeat purchases tail off, "there's probably a mismatch in expectations," Shah said.
Sampling as a mandate
The power of sampling in establishing and growing a brand is tough to ignore.
Elly Truesdell, who worked at Whole Foods overseeing local brands and product innovations before leaving in December 2017, said the retailer would often ask owners of brands they were considering carrying how often they planned to sample, and in some cases would encourage and even "require it."
“It was a big component given the vastness of the store and the tens of thousands of SKUs that are on the shelf. It was just a requirement: If we’re going to launch a new brand we also need you in the stores supporting the brand and telling your story,” recalled Truesdell, who is now a partner at Almanac Insights.
Some brands would be in Whole Foods three or four times a week pushing their products because "they knew how critical sampling was to their growth," she recalled. In certain cases, sampling space in some of its high-traffic stores in New York City stores became so competitive the company was booking spots two or three months out, and sometimes by quarter.
"Some companies naively thought they didn't need it or just had not been able to invest the time or hours into it and pretty quickly realized it was just such a huge driver," Truesdell said.
Traditional sampling is far more laborious, complicated and costly compared to other forms of marketing like an online ad or TV commercial where tens of thousands of people can be reached simultaneously as opposed to a few people at a time.
The brand needs to thoroughly train the person handling out samples, adhere to food safety measures, set up and take down displays and supply product. Heineken USA estimates it costs between $1 and $2 to reach a consumer through sampling, and that doesn't include the cost of the beer, compared to a few cents for other digital mediums.
Handing out beer samples is especially tricky. Alcohol companies need to card drinkers and keep brews cold to maximize their taste. In addition, complicated alcohol distribution rules mean the manufacturers actually have to buy their own products from the retailer at a much higher cost, a process that limits the amount of people they can reach.
"It's way more complicated and granular than other kinds of marketing where you can get scale very fast," Salinas said. "But the difference in effectiveness is so high that it's totally worth it."
CPGs and retailers say sampling is here to say, but the future will likely include a mix of traditional store-based approaches coupled with newer initiatives like ecommerce and direct-to-consumer mailings. The pandemic has not only accelerated and changed how people shop, but also forced CPGs and retailers to reconsider how they reach consumers when it comes to sampling and give more attention to channels that may have not been fully embraced before.
"If you stay the status quo, even in the world of sampling, and just continue to do the tried and true, and not understand how shoppers are changing their behaviors, you're not going to win," Chriss said. "Our brands are evolving and our communications are evolving all the time. I think COVID just put some kerosene on it to make it move faster. I don’t think we go back. I think we take what worked, we put it into the mix and we move forward.”