The Endless Online Shelf

titleThe results are in: craft beer and artisan spirits are a hit with the consumer! The marketplace loves the variety and the opportunity to support local breweries and distilleries. Consumers might even have a friend or family member who has decided to brew their own beer or distill their own gin. The craft boon has created jobs, brought about an increase of suppliers for dry and wet goods, but in turn, created new challenges.

Though these challenges are a good sign for the industry, all this choice can create clutter and confusion for the consumer and a big challenge for the retailer. A bar only has so many taps and so much back bar space. Liquor stores, particularly in metropolitan areas, have limited shelf and storage space and the top liquor retailers know that they need to be informed about the products they are selling. Consumers with too many options can start to see a blur of one big mass of “craft products” without establishing a connection with any individual brand. Emerging bands struggle with supply and the task of differentiating their brand. How does retail deal with the challenge of allocating space on a tap, in the cold box or on the shelf for new and interesting brands? And what can your brand do to make a compelling case for this coveted retail space?

Retailers see online sales as a promising, but a still evolving option, and are frantically working to improve their online retail presence while integrating the online sales experience with their store experience. Some retailers have realized online sales provide a much needed opportunity to expand their offerings, test what sells and to feature small batch or special products that would not necessarily fit into their physical footprint. Liquor stores can use the online sales option to expand their shelf space beyond what can be stocked within their stores. Consumer convenience and brand information are also important driving forces in the creation of robust retail sites. Consumers can learn about new brands and products on their own time and then choose to order online or go to the store with their shopping list mostly determined.

For example, Total Wine & More carries approximately 3,500 spirits brands, 8,000  wine  labels  and  3,000  different beers in each retail store. For John Jordan, the Vice President of the Customer Division, this means that the brand needs to create and provide brand relevant content to highlight their product in the online store. A brand’s web page and social media presence needs to be brand consistent and well organized. Often the consumer has made their purchase decision by the time they reach the store. In the case of Total Wine, their model relies on in-store pick up instead of delivery. Its goal is to be a destination store where consumers can curate their shopping list online.

CONSTANT BRAND “DRIPPING”

Brands need to regularly analyze what is required in this changing landscape. A great package, hang tags and shelf talkers still play a role in the physical retail space, but the online component significantly expands the brand requirements to help their product sell. Realize this is not accomplished in any one definitive moment, no single kickoff campaign or killer tagline. You will need to constantly “drip” your brand message and identity to the retail outlet and the end consumer. The brand must do three fundamental things well to differentiate themselves from other brands and drive sales:

A MEANINGFUL BRAND STORY AND PURPOSE.

This brand platform has to be well thought out and allow for consistent consumer emotional engagement and have multiple “hooks” to hang that on over time. In other words the brand has to be able to live, breathe and grow as time goes on. This is not a new concept, but the implementation of this has dramatically changed. For example, if you are an organic brand or a brand that is delivering a ‘healthier’ option, you will want to show this in the events you choose, the partnerships you forge and the events you sponsor. You also need to show this living part of your brand through appropriate event photos on Facebook and Instagram as well as through your tweets and whom you choose to follow. If you are an Irish product you will want to tie that into what your brand is doing locally. If you are a ready to drink cocktail you will want to emphasize convenience and work that into your brand narrative. The challenge today is to create a brand that is interesting to consumers who have a very short attention span but are very sophisticated in identifying inconsistencies in message and actions. Your brand needs to withstand online scrutiny (i.e. ferreting out false stories and/or claims) and has to be able to tweet and post multiple times each week without coming across as bland, or worse, annoying. This ongoing “brand dripping” is not an easy process. You have to be believable, interesting and informative. If not done  with a strong central concept, your online presence risks appearing fragmented and confusing, not allowing for consumer connection with the brand.

ONE MESSAGE, A MILLION MOMENTS.

The frequent communication aspect of online branding requires well-crafted and updated ongoing brand relevant content. Information about the product, its production method and its unique features must be provided to retailers for their own ecommerce sites so that they can effectively market and sell your product. While it is important to learn from your key retailers what content they are looking for, it is crucial to provide them with the information necessary to learn about your brand, train their staff and actively engage the consumer. Retailers also encourage brands to provide video and other image rich content about their product, which enhances consumer interest. This same content can then also be used in a variety of online social platforms and for promotional purposes and to get the end consumer involved. Filming your production process, a tasting, an event, your grain or grape harvest or even your bottling or label application process can be interesting and make consumers feel like they are involved with the brand. Total Wine estimates that its new ecommerce site will have over 40 hours of video with plans to add more in the near future. To keep your messaging fresh, even unchanging elements like your production process must be explained in new ways over time to continue to engage consumers. Consider doing seasonal pieces or focusing brand content specifically on a variety of platforms — a series of Pinterest photos instead of a Facebook post. Make sure that your retailer has important content about special offerings or holiday related content in plenty of time to integrate it and use it in their sales material. Make sure you know their timeline to update their online content about your brand. Updated and well-curated content keeps your consumer interested and helps your retailer sell. While creating this content is fun and not complex, it does require an investment of time and money. All efforts will require tracking, tweaking and potentially changing direction if it does not resonate with the end consumer.

STRUCTURED  CHAOS.

Once your brand information is established on a variety of social platforms and retail ecommerce sites which you plan to regularly update, keeping track of all of this can seem daunting, even with highly specialized data and reporting from Sproutsocial or Hootsuite. The data is only useful if you have the opportunity and understanding to analyze it and make sense of how this is affecting your brand, what is working well and what needs to improve. Furthermore, the different platforms have constantly evolving rules and tools. By June, it is unlikely that Facebook posts will reach any significant consumer group that you have not paid to reach. This requires a recalibration of your strategy and potentially a shift in emphasis or a budget change. If you are regularly updating the retail sites with content at the same time you are updating social media, you will need to stay organized, make sure retailers have included the latest content and  make
time to evaluate your efforts.

In addition to this, there is the external challenge of consumer perception across multiple touch points from the low-tech shelf talker to the brand video on Youtube. If you are not consistent or clear in your message, the retailer and the consumer will perceive this disconnect, become frustrated, and give up on your brand. At worst, they may post, tweet or blog negatively about your brand. You can’t control consumer posts, but you can ensure that you are listening as well as talking online and respond  in a timely, open manner by tracking your company name and product via Google alerts or Mention. Keep in mind, you will also attract negative responses if your brand’s promises are stretched or outright inaccurate. Eventually, your brand “inventions” will be uncovered — be transparent from the beginning with your brand information. These negative posts are easily found and can discourage a retail buyer or an end customer from purchasing your product.

As retailers become more serious about online sales and begin to create more complex online and offline strategies, brands will need to stay on top of this process by providing more sales tools to the retailer and to recognize that they have another point of relationship with the retailer that needs to be nourished. Done correctly, brands will have an endless shelf for their products.

Susan Mooney is CEO and founder of Spirits Consulting Group

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