In the Weeds

April 5th, 2013

It was a fairly common sight for me. The customer standing in front of an aisle, eyes glazed over, staring blankly at a wall of products. Gears turning. Their mind yearning for a differentiator. Something that made one brand stick out. Something that made their choice easier.

Eventually, something made them decide on one product. But what was it?

Before I started working in an agency, I spent almost seven years working in a grocery store. I lovingly refer to this period of my life as my time “in the weeds.” Looking back, I had no idea that my experience there would give me an advantage when I moved on to strategy and planning. But every time I have a problem that I can’t seem to solve with my standard research toolbox, I think back to the shopper, staring at the shelves and struggling to make a decision.

When I was working in the store, I would watch these shoppers and wonder what the deciding factor was. What clicked in their mind that made them choose the product they did? What made it stick out from every other product on the shelf? I would even ask them sometimes, although I got much more accurate responses (and less puzzled looks) by simply watching.

I learned that there are many, many factors, both conscious and subconscious, that can come into play, including, of course, advertising. But, more importantly, I learned that you will never discover what these factors are unless you go watch people interact with your product in the store. Watch them buy it. Watch them pass it up for a competitor or a generic. Watch them take it off the shelf, read the label, and put it back. And then think about why they are doing those things.

I also learned to look for the effects of successful and unsuccessful campaigns at the store level. I watched Old Spice go from a stale brand with four products on the shelf to a rejuvenated brand with a four foot section of shelf. I saw the painfully brief implementation of Sun Chips’ sustainable bags (that noise!). The short-lived popularity of various diets. The rise of Chobani Greek yogurt. I could connect the ads I saw and the stories I read with these real-time results.

Combine this real-time monitoring with a knowledge of how people are interacting with the product at the store level, and you’ve got a damn good understanding of why some campaigns keep brands afloat, and why some sink ships.

If this post does nothing else, let it serve as a reminder to planners everywhere to get out of the office every now and then. To stop reading the industry reports and the survey results and go to the store. (Or wherever it is that people are buying your product from.) Serve on the front lines and spend some time “in the weeds.” It’s refreshing to be able to step back and see that it all boils down to something very simple. All the research, the thought, the insights, the creative. It all comes down to that customer staring blankly at a wall of products and choosing yours.


Joe Elliott is a brand strategy intern with Moses in Phoenix. He’s got a website and a twitter.

Photo Credit: HckySo

One Comment:

  1. Great post… I think sometimes the advertising industry forgets why it exists… to sell shit.

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