Distribution – from commercial imperative to brand-building opportunity
A globalised economy, supply chain interdependencies that have spanned across multiple geographies before getting to an end product, two years of pandemic-lead interruptions and the impending effects of war have brought a supply crisis to many brands. By drawing from lessons in regulated industries and looking at the full marketing mix, my agency has coined the term “beyond the line” to describe efforts that don’t fit neatly in a single marketing approach. This beyond-the-line approach looks at the whole brand ecosystem more systemically. Here are some of the ways distribution could affect such a system.
Consistency of supply
For a long time, brand building has focused on the consistency of messages to entrench brands in the minds of consumers. What we have seemingly overlooked is the impact of consistent supply. Brand leaders are happy to spend R5m on a TV commercial telling consumers how great their products are and getting them to the store – only for them to be turned away or redirected to a competitor due to the unavailability of said products. In a world of instant gratification, the risk here is not just single sales events, but the impact of trial and ultimately market share. Even high-involvement purchase decisions can be obstructed by inconsistent supply, eroding the brand’s value in the mind of the consumer. Out of sight truly is out of mind.
Buyers, brands and sales teams need to share insight. Interdepartmental negative feedback systems allow brands and businesses to buy better, sell more and reduce costs. Brands are built in systemic environments, where every element of a brand ecosystem affects every other element and in turn is affected. This may seem like some mental gymnastics to get your head around, but essentially the proposition here is that marketing is often seen as a just communications job, whereas it goes beyond that, including everywhere our brands affect (or don’t) our consumers’ lives. Likewise, the way our consumers affect our brands also has an impact on every other aspect of our commercial operations. This may seem obvious, but if we do not create connections between these departments we miss out on exponential brand and commercial growth.
From impulse buys to destination shopping
The product is a primary and intimate brand contact point of a consumer. By consistently providing them with the opportunity to have our product in hand we can move away from convenience and impulse purchase at the point of sale to a more considered choice. As humans, our trust is based on reliability. Ergo, consistent supply and distribution can create habitual consumption, and over time this leads to identity-forming. This ultimately fulfils the retail imperative of getting more products into more consumers’ hands more often. This is achieved by the mental switch from “I often buy product X” to “I am a brand X user”. The first is about behaviour that relies more heavily on impulse, whereas the latter is about who you are as a consumer – in other words identity curation.
Distribution networks that work for the consumer
If, as a consumer, I have R50 and I need to spend that amount on transport to get to the store, product distribution is a critical barrier to purchase. The unavailability of products where consumers need them can critically endanger spending power, particularly in the mass market. Not only does this affect access, it also has a role to play in branding. It allows us to keep our brands top of mind. Brands need to be present in the places and spaces where consumers live their lives. Many brands think about competition as something that is category specific. The reality for many SA brands, however, is that competition is cross category. For example, if a consumer has a limited disposable spend, they are often making choices across categories. Imagine a consumer wanting say, an energy drink and some airtime, but has only R10 in their pocket. They are not deciding only between different energy drinks on offer, but rather which is more important to them at that moment. Your availability at this point of sale will determine that choice (or lack thereof).
Creating new retail opportunities
If we consider the broader idea of what constitutes part of a consumer’s purchase decision, we could argue that we are always shopping and therefore everything is shoppable. A simple example of this is perfectly captured in the phrase “I love your shirt, where did you get it from?” A sound distribution strategy can help leverage this opportunity by bridging the gap between purchase and this point of highest brand affinity that is amplified by interpersonal influence.
Distribution as novelty
As humans, we are hardwired for the dopamine hit that comes from novelty. This poses a challenge for brands that need to constantly reinvent themselves (at great cost) to maintain interest. The reality is that this affects the bottom line. Distribution can be a key ingredient here where the unexpected context of a product or service can provide this novelty. It also opens opportunities for new media creation and cross-selling for occasion and mindset. An example of this could be off-the-shelf gym memberships in the health food aisles of supermarkets. While these consumers may already have a gym membership, this creates an opportunity for switching and can capture trial with those who are yet to join a gym.
Distribution has long been seen as a business imperative, but its impact on brands and brand building extends beyond operational efficiencies. Human beings form trust when they know they can rely on someone or something. This is what makes distribution such a key brand-building tool. Often relegated to a just business or sales imperative, it is also a powerful tool in brand building when the psychological impact of consistency is considered.
Matthew van der Valk is executive creative director VMLY&R SA.
The big take-out:
Distribution has long been seen as a business imperative but its impact on brands and brand building extends beyond operational efficiencies.
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