How to Leverage the Consumer-Connected Marketing Tactics of Specialty Food

What are consumers looking for on your shelves, and how do they discover new products and develop loyalty to your brand? Specialty food brands are making what’s old new again as they reach consumers through thoughtful education and engaging social media. It’s the sort of marketing that the Big Food companies could learn from – and so could retailers.

Great consumer-connected marketing is probably happening right down the block from you.
The new breed of specialty food brands can teach marketers a lot about community-driven marketing. | Credit: Phil Kafarakis by Maria De Angelis

What are consumers looking for on your shelves? How do they discover new products and develop brand loyalty? To help them find it, there’s a number of consumer-connected marketing tactics that will bring them closer to your products in a visceral, experiential and direct way.

Specialty food brands are making some of what’s old, new again as they reach consumers through thoughtful education and engaging social media. It’s the sort of consumer-connected marketing that the Big Food companies could learn from — and so could retail.

The market slow-down experienced by Big Food companies is now a well-documented story. These days, massive and highly complex multinationals have a hard time staying relevant. Health-conscious consumers are looking for clean, minimally processed foods. They also want more information about what they eat and to know the values of the brands they choose. This has opened the floodgates for smaller, specialty food companies, who now make-up 14 percent of the total food market.

Specialty food’s market share will likely inch closer to the 20 percent mark within the next few years. How are they accomplishing that? They seem to do more with less — something all businesses would love to do.

Some Big Food companies have already taken cues from younger consumers’ passion for causes and ethical sourcing, and have instituted systems for innovating packaging and messaging. They’re getting more proactive about partnering with and acquiring smaller companies, and have invested in new product lines. But these days, the consumer is also looking for more authenticity, and that can mean a lower-gloss, less expensive approach to how food is presented. For the retailer, it’s important to engage in consumer-connected marketing  through these techniques too.

Connect With the Local Community

Effective consumer-connected marketing requires smart decisions and dedication to capturing customer loyalty — that is, building better customer relationships to sell more products and services. A lot of specialty food companies got started in response to a localized or personalized need — think of Annie’s Organics or Ella’s Kitchen — so connecting with their “community” comes naturally.

For all businesses it truly is about who you know — or rather, who knows about your business. Small food companies often start by networking at events in and around their towns. They attend Chamber of Commerce meetings, local business association meetings, and community events. They exchange business cards, speak at conferences, become sponsors of local parades, and are generally friendly and welcoming toward other new businesses in the community. They see networking as a grassroots way to set their business apart from the competition.

Social media is a natural offshoot of this. Younger consumers in particular look to those online “influencers” we hear so much about. Specialty food producers often develop close relationships with these influencers. They also stay connected to multiple platforms. And they approach new web-based communities. Gamers are one burgeoning example. Sponsoring a gaming event would be a great step forward to reach these interactive consumers.

All of this works. While Big Food companies spend millions in marketing, smaller companies build on their ties to their own communities. That’s something retailers can easily do too. Join in a free-admission event, or create your own in-store. Zoom in on local interests and needs and get involved in providing solutions, information, and support. And don’t forget to tell your stories online.

Consider recreating the tactics of Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery, a specialty food company whose customers are in touch daily by email, receiving updates about their products and the goats on the farm. The company also hosts events, inviting the public to attend free tours of the family farm every year and hosting an annual Goat Festival.

Similarly, small food companies use sampling is a proven way to connect consumers to their products. They make sampling more impactful and beneficial by combining it with product education, targeting their audience, and involving key influencers.

While these tactics may seem no-brainers, are you implementing them? In our post-recession economy with our increasingly long-lived, health-conscious population, direct connections work. The days of Big Food waving a shiny new box in front of consumers and getting a massive ROI are over.

Take a note from the start-ups and bright minds behind them: by connecting as personally as possible with your customers, you can win their hearts, minds, and a share of their wallets too.

Author: Phil Kafarakis

Phil Kafarakis is the president of the Specialty Food Association (SFA), a non-profit trade association representing more than 3,800 food artisans, importers, buyers, distributors, and other entrepreneurs in the U.S. and abroad spearheading innovation in the food industry.

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