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Effective Sampling Strengthens Brands

When purchasing new products, many consumers wonder how effectively the product will meet their needs. According to the Promotion Marketing Association’s Sampling and Demonstration Council, 83% of consumers agreed that experiencing a product or seeing it demonstrated live increases their comfort level when purchasing. In May, GCI magazine explored sampling as a valuable tool in the marketing arsenal of a brand. Using innovative packaging, a brand can provide consumers with a positive product experience, motivating them to purchase while encouraging brand loyalty. The brand should focus on sample quality and packaging that resembles the full-size product. Creating a sampling program with clearly defined objectives is the first step.

Objectives of a Sampling Program

A sampling program can achieve a variety of objectives while inducing trial. Consumers receive as many as 3,000 advertising messages a day; a sampling program can help a brand stand out in the crowd, particularly on the mass market level. Sampling exposes users of a competitive brand, as well as new consumers, to the product. These two groups can diversify a brand’s consumer base while encouraging brand loyalty, particularly if the consumer had a positive sampling experience. “If a consumer tries the sample and subsequently purchases the brand as a result, there’s no reason to believe the consumer wouldn’t buy the product again since the experience would be the same,” said Cindy Johnson, corporate sampling programs manager, Sampling Effectiveness Advisors (SEA).

Over time, brands may need to be repositioned in the market. For example, a sampling program for an aging brand may be designed targeting younger users to overcome an unfavorable impression of being a brand for older women only. Consumers may see price as a barrier with prestige brands. Sampling is a path to surmounting that barrier. According to market SKUs, if consumers visit stores where trial samples are available, they are far more likely to spend $50 on just the right personal care product.

Sampling also works well when introducing a system experience to consumers, such as combinations of a skin care line or two complementary hair care products. Additionally, a brand can tailor a sampling program to help customers trade-up to a premium product within a line and increase loyalty.

In order to achieve any of these objectives, however, sampling needs strategic planning. A product or system must be chosen as the focus of a sampling program. Then decisions must be made—including such details as where samples will be distributed in order to increase trial; the product availability to consumers after the initial sampling; packaging and sample size; and brand information to be included within the sample. Additionally, no sampling program would be complete without quality return on investment (ROI) measurement.

Choosing a Product and Target

For a brand, choosing the target is critical to effective sampling. “The item to be sampled will dictate the target,” said Johnson. While defining the target, the brand owner should be thinking about the best way to gain trial. “It’s far better to reach secondary targets when or where they are likely to try the sample than it is to reach primary targets at a time when they are not considering product choices or where they are not likely to try the sample,” said Johnson in GCI’s May 2006 issue.

While the product may dictate the target, the brand should dictate the product with an eye toward a large target base. “The product chosen should be a likeable, high-performance product because you are spending money to get your trial to lead to purchase,” said Joni Rae Russell, president, Joni Rae and Associates, a promotional and marketing firm.

For a company deciding to sample, lack of experience can decrease the effectiveness of the trial. “The brand should go through the exercise of finding out whether a trial will result in purchase and, if so, if sampling should be part of the marketing plan,” said Johnson. “We recommend testing a program to find out if it does build business. If the research comes back that the program will provide a positive ROI, then the program can be expanded to a broader audience.”

Strategic point-of-use planning will result in a better trial, better consumer trial results and effective control over costs. “How do we develop a program that will provide adequate sample controls and will deliver one sample per consumer? This is the biggest waste issue with sampling—poor sampling control,” said Johnson. To avoid this waste, a brand owner must focus on optimizing samples. In pursuit of the perfect target, the sampling program may lead to poor sample control and low consumer trial. Events may provide a target-rich environment, but, to be effective, team members should be trained to execute each event the same way, thus tying inventory quantities with the number of customers reached at each event. “Realistically, brands should not expect to reach more than 25–50% of female consumers at any one event; otherwise re-sampling is more likely to occur,” said Johnson.

Educate and Inform

A sampling program should include educating the consumer on the use of the product, particularly if the proper application is critical to consumer satisfaction, explained Johnson. Smaller cosmetic and fragrance samples can include additional printed materials that detail product use and brand information. At the same time, care should be taken to avoid overwhelming the consumer. Instead, allow the sample to speak for itself.

When launching ThermaFuse®, Joni Rae and Associates helped the company create such an opportunity by providing hairdressers samples that became gifts to their clients. To do this, ThermaFuse chose a uniquely designed mini-folder that held a duo pack of shampoo and conditioner. These folders gave the customer information about the product and promoted the brand’s core philosophy.

Mass Market Sampling

Traditionally, mass market cosmetics are not highly sampled, frustrating consumers who have drawers full of ineffective products. For a mass market brand, cost considerations are a large factor in a cosmetic sampling program.

“A couple of factors the cosmetics industry faces with sampling are: color of sample and cost of applicators,” said Johnson. “For example, mascara brands are not going to sample because the applications are so expensive and a lesser quality applicator would not provide the same experience. For (cosmetics), preferences are based on colors available. One size does not fit all.” To take advantage of efficient sampling, mass market cosmetics can make use of co-op sampling programs reaching typical targets, such as moms and teenagers. These programs are effective at controlling resampling because of their established procedures, such as using one bag with several samples inside.

Making samples available for purchase can give consumers a chance at trial without a large expense to either the consumer or the brand owner. However, this approach may lose effectiveness if a consumer is purchasing samples online. To increase the consumer’s willingness to pay for samples, include coupons, giveaways and other offers with the samples. Additionally, using a premium sample within a product can differentiate it on the shelves while introducing a line extension or a system within the brand.


Fragrances use magazine sampling as a cost-effective way to introduce new products and lines. This approach is limited, giving the consumer knowledge of the scent without necessarily creating a desire to purchase. However, magazine sampling can effectively reach a large target audience. High-end fragrances may find a higher ROI with sampling programs that provide an actual product sample.

Calvin Klein accomplished the actual perfume sample using LiquiTouch® by Arcade Inc. when launching Euphoria last year (see GCI magazine’s November 2005 issue). “It was an applicator with some of the perfume oil inside on a pad,” said Lisa O’Hara, marketing communication manager, Arcade Inc. These samples were distributed in magazines, on airlines and through direct mail. Traditional scent strips were not used in this campaign. Judged a success by the fragrance sales, the samples gave consumers the opportunity to evaluate the scent against their own skin. “People were able to try it at their leisure,” explained O’Hara.

This type of sampling also was cost effective because it allowed the brand to use a traditional delivery system, such as a magazine, while adding value to the product through the sample size and unique packaging.

Direct Sales Sampling

Direct sales always has had a unique advantage in the world of marketing. During in-home parties, trial is virtually guaranteed, and most attendees purchase at least one item. In addition to introducing products, Beauticontrol® utilizes samples to make contact with existing clients and prospects, as thank-you gifts and for add-on sales. “It’s a small investment on the consultant’s part, and is integral in building a lasting relationship with that client,” said Jo-Anne Jaeger, senior vice president, marketing, Beauticontrol, Inc. This interactive approach appeals to consumers who also can access the knowledge of the consultant during the trial. In this setting, packaging plays a smaller role next to the consumer’s experience with the product. Additionally, the consumer can see immediate results, creating a greater impact and on-the-spot sales.

Sampling and Ad-driven Marketing

Coordinating sampling with an ad campaign can increase the likelihood of trial—yet it can be a double-edged sword. “If the consumer has seen foundation applied to a model with flawless skin, she may not be as happy with her results,” said SEA’s Johnson. “As long as the advertising has prepared the consumer for a realistic experience, it will help the sampling campaign.”

Traditional media, unlike a sample, cannot convey a brand’s consistency, scent or color on the consumer’s skin. Sampling complements ad-driven marketing through public relations events, such as gifting a television audience to receive mention on the show. Ads also can direct consumers to the brand’s Web site by offering free samples through the site. However, this type of sampling may be cost prohibitive. According to Johnson, it is important to limit the number of samples per household and make sure the fulfillment company adheres to that policy. Ad-driven marketing puts the product on the consumer’s radar, and new product samples can bring the ad’s message home to the consumer. New product samples also can be included with other purchases, inviting consumers to a new product launch. In this case, the sample becomes the ad.

Measuring ROI

Sampling ROI is the value of incremental business the brand sees after sampling costs, annually based. With sampling being a higher cost-to-consumer ratio, it is critical to measure the effects and ROI. Johnson recommends a market research effort aimed at measuring the ROI of a sampling program. Marketing research should include information such as if the sample was tried, the number of samples received and if a full-size product was purchased. The brand may use a third-party research firm that can design the research aspects, including the control cell, while the program is being designed. “It completely changes the ROI of a program if you find out that each consumer received two samples on average, instead of one sample, on average. Most brands are not measuring this aspect of their program in any way,” said Johnson.

Additionally, when sampling a premium brand, the ROI should also measure the incremental profit realized by moving current users of the base brand to the premium-priced brand.

Sampling can be an effective tool in brand marketing when executed with a well-designed and measured program focused on the brand’s objectives. Each brand must decide which product or system within a line would be best served by sampling and then focus on that product’s target audience. A brand must do its homework, creating samples that give the consumer a positive experience. Sampling is most effective when combined with an ad-driven campaign or another product. At the same time, a brand cannot forget to measure the ROI of its program. When a brand follows these steps, sampling can achieve an increase in brand loyalty, sales and expand a user base— creating a positive and effective sampling experience for the brand.

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