Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Pros And Cons Of Product Sampling

This past Saturday, I walked to the end of the driveway, like I do every morning, to pick up the copies of my two daily newspapers, the Ventura County Star and the Wall Street Journal. On this morning, however, I got something a little extra: the Ventura County Star was enclosed in a special branded poly bag featuring a sample box of General Mills' WHEATIES® Fuel and a large, four-color coupon for the cereal.

It really made me sit up and take notice, not for the obvious reason that a breakfast cereal came with my morning newspapers, but because: 1.) Product samples of this nature are included in my local daily newspaper on a very limited basis...only 2-3 times a year, in fact (actually, this was the first instance of 2010 in the Star); and 2.) This tactic is normally reserved for new product introductions, of which WHEATIES Fuel is not. In fact, according to the following article in the July 22, 2009, edition of the New York Times, WHEATIES Fuel has now been on the market for well over a year. (Editor's Note: In the interest of full disclosure, and in only a very minor coincidence, I do eat WHEATIES Fuel, but I have only been doing so for several months. I regularly eat other brands of healthy breakfast cereal, and I have no official ties to the product or the manufacturer.) In any case, I began to think about the marketing implications associated with this program, and more specifically, about the pros and cons of product sampling:
  1. Normally for New, Not Existing, Product Introductions: As already stated, product sampling normally accompanies the introduction of a new product to increase brand awareness and consumer trial. So why is General Mills sending out sample boxes of WHEATIES Fuel now? This tells me that sales must be extremely weak. It also indicates that, given the tremendous marketing investment to date in the brand extension, the company is desperately attempting to boost sales to justify these large expenditures. The New York Times references a multi-million dollar marketing campaign behind the product, not to mention expensive endorsement deals with five prominent athletes, including St. Louis Cardinals first baseman and three-time National League MVP Albert Pujols and Indianapolis Colts quarterback and four-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning.
  2. Expensive: Product sampling like this is extremely expensive. However, it does put the product directly in the hands of consumers, but there is no definitive way to ensure consumers actually USE or EAT it once it arrives. A better tactic is to distribute prepared product samples in stores, as is often seen at Costco and Sam's Club, where representatives can physically see shoppers' reactions to a product when it is consumed.
  3. Difficult to Track Actual Trial: As alluded to above, another con of product sampling is that it is difficult to track actual consumer consumption. Honestly, most consumers will simply toss the product in the trash can. The best General Mills can hope for is that consumers will redeem the coupon that came with the sample, and this will temporarily boost sales. This is far easier for the company to monitor since the coupon carries a unique bar code associated with the promotion, and that code is scanned when redeemed.
  4. Immediate Impact Unknown: Like with many other consumer marketing activities, it will be some time before General Mills sees definitive return on its product sampling investment. To generate immediate impact, consumer brands typically prefer to use coupons, contests, and other in-store vehicles to drive sell-through. Although a coupon was present in this case, it is the sample box of cereal that is most significant, meaning that General Mills wants people to physically try the product before buying.

In the final analysis, WHEATIES Fuel will most likely be successful, particularly since the product is targeted at men, and because of its professional athlete endorsements. And honestly, it's a solid product with an appealing, pleasant taste and excellent nutritional benefits. But General Mills' consumer marketing approach is flawed, as evidenced by this latest sample drop in newspapers. I think the sampling would be much more effective if distributed in stores, at NFL stadiums, and at experiential football fairs and fan fests.


  1. Hey Keith,

    I live in Evergreen Colorado and I also received my Wheaties Fuel sample this weekend. I also happen to be in the sampling business (see www.handittomom.com)

    The biggest problem I have with this campaign is the lack of targeting. The brand screams '20 something guy' and General Mills decided to uniquely drill down to reach this demographic via....suburban homes? If you took a look around my neighborhood, you'd see that the ~500 houses in our HOA probably are home to a total of twenty guys in their 20s. The rest are families with kids and empty nesters.

    The brand team could have done a better job targeting venues were 20-somethings actually live/go, such as the venues you suggested (sports stadiums, sporting events, etc), or maybe...
    - health clubs
    - renters (not homeowners) i.e. apartment complexes
    - college campuses
    - anywhere that attracts 20 something guys

    As for my household (me age 41, wife age 33, three girls aged 5, 4, and 1), we kept our sample, and we will likely try the product. But even if it is delicious, my wife would never buy a cereal with 'fuel' in the name and Peyton Manning on the front and sporty imagery that seems to belong in the grocery aisle next to Axe deodorant. All of that is an immediate turn off to her, and frankly to me as well. So this is a completely wasted sample as it will never generate a sale.

    Now if the product was called 'Wheaties Family' and it had a cute gymnast on the front, that would be a different story...and the targeting wouldn't seem so bad...

    Andy Potter

  2. Andy, thanks so much for commenting. Your points about the lack of targeting are right on the money. I neglected to mention this as a major weakness of the campaign, so I am glad you did. I find it hard to believe that General Mills spent this kind of money on a sampling campaign that did not precisely target the core audience. It's mind boggling!

    Actually, you should try the product when you get a chance to give it a fair shake. As I mentioned in my post, I like the product a great deal, but then, I'm rather picky when it comes to cereal, and I'm the only one in my household who eats its. And to be clear, I only like Fuel because of the taste, not because of the branding or the involvement of Manning, Pujols, or the other three athletes.

    Honesly, I wish Total Protein was still on the market. THAT was a great product, but it never gain traction!