UK marketers have long relied on outsourced teams of field marketers to report on how their brands are being stocked in stores and put right any problems. Field marketing agencies are often a brand's main interface with retailers. Their agents visit stores checking products are merchandised in line with agreements, train store staff, conduct sampling campaigns and, with increasing frequency, run experiential campaigns.
More-sophisticated technology is being put into the hands of these agents, allowing them to report back in real-time via mobiles and tablets. This allows agents to photograph merchandise on-shelf and record stock levels and facings, then upload the data to a central hub for marketers to view from the comfort of their own desks. Some fear, though, that the increasingly technical nature of field marketing risks cutting out human contact between brand owner, retailer and consumer.
As Oliver Rudgard, marketing director at crisps brand Tyrrells, says: 'There is a danger of becoming divorced from the human element. These technologies are a lens, they are not the only way to assess what's going on in the market. It is important for us as marketers to spend a lot of time with customers in stores, talking face-to-face. I don't think there is ever a substitute for that.'
Even so, Rudgard appreciates the huge strides made in technology and how this can help brands improve the merchandising of their products. Tyrrells is looking at using a field marketing agency as it moves from distribution primarily in small stores to relationships with the major multiple retailers.
Rudgard worked with field marketing agencies when he managed ice-cream brands at Unilever in the mid-2000s. 'At that time, it was quite a laborious manual operation; hand-held devices were in their infancy. Now we've moved (on) to software platforms. The speed of reporting is much faster, we can get more real-time views. That will be more attractive,' he says.
Some agree that the distance between marketers and shoppers is growing, but dispute that the new technology is to blame.
Martin Ryan, managing director of the UK's biggest field marketing agency, CPM, says: 'It's quite scary to see how infrequently people get out from behind their desks and see what's happening in the real world. There are many barriers between marketers and how they connect with consumers, but this is down to the marketers' own inertia, rather than the technology.' CPM has set up a dedicated unit called Activation in Retail to break down the barriers between marketers and what is going on in retail outlets.
Other steps to bridge the divide between marketers and retail include a programme run by Heinz called 'Adopt a Store', which is dedicated to ensuring that people from all its departments keep in touch with what is happening in shops.
Kathryn Purchase, head of customer development at Heinz, believes that such initiatives, allied to technological developments, are enhancing the connection between marketers and the point of sale.
'Marketers' link to the shop floor is as strong as ever, or at least it should be,' she says. 'Technology delivers simple photos and data capture with more insightful and intuitive reporting. It is easier than ever to get a real-time understanding of in-store execution and correct plans if necessary. But this doesn't replace the value of experiencing stores directly.'
Purchase downplays the idea that technology used by agencies somehow interrupts the relationship between marketer, retailer and consumer. 'The power of field marketing comes from the results it delivers. The execution and compliance of joint plans brings a triple win for the shopper, retailer and manufacturer. Building the right plans together is the key to success,' she says.
The growth of technology for keeping tabs on how products are displayed in stores includes the launch of Field Agent (above), an app that can be downloaded to mobile devices, enabling agents to take pictures of products on shelves then upload them for perusal by a brand's marketers. Many of these agents are consumers who are sent information about a job, then go to the store to investigate within hours, perhaps as they do their shopping. In the UK, 16,000 such apps have been downloaded; some 5000 active agents have been to jobs in stores over the past month.
According to Bo Ekberg, a director of The One Flat Earth Corporation, which represents Field Agent internationally, the big plus-point for brands is the speed of response - information can be gathered within 24 hours of a job going out, rather than having the lead time of two weeks that may be needed by other agencies. The service can also work out cheaper than employing an agency.
'We have the ability to take the photos and deliver them in a way that is easy for our clients to work with,' claims Ekberg. 'We are overcoming scepticism about who is actually carrying out the jobs - the fact that we can give the time stamp and GPS stamp means brands know our people have been there when they say they have. The business is growing at a good clip.'
Value to brands
Julia Collis, managing director of field marketing agency Powerforce, defends the value of professional agencies. As she points out, one of their main contributions is that the agents check that the retailer is complying with agreements and fix any problems that might arise there and then.
'While untrained members of the public can check on compliance, if brands are spending that amount of money getting someone over the retailer's threshold, they are better off investing with a professional company and getting value out of it,' argues Collis. 'They have somebody out there checking the merchandise and fixing any problems. If the agents are just taking photos, you have to send somebody back later to resolve the issue.'
One of the biggest issues facing any field-marketing programme is gaining access to stores. While some brands use undercover 'mystery shopping' tactics to observe how products are being merchandised, this can be dangerous. If a brand is discovered doing so by one of the big supermarket chains, it can be forced to pay a fine or have their agreement renegotiated. It is usually easy to identify an undercover field agent in stores as they are either taking notes or fiddling with their phone or tablet. But as shopping with these devices becomes more common, supermarkets are finding it harder to differentiate between legitimate shoppers using barcode apps and 'brand spies'.
Field marketing agencies generally deny involvement in any undercover work, and insist their agents are signed in as visitors and walk around the stores with accreditation. However, the store chains are clamping down on the use of field marketing agencies as their outlets become crowded with agents working for the huge numbers of brand-owners stocked by the average store.
According to Laurence Clube, managing director at agency REL, some supermarkets are working with select groups of agencies and strengthening their relationship with them. This leads to improved information-sharing between the two sides.
'What is achieved in store is now more effective than it was. Because field marketers are working within each store's guidelines, you can be more confident that any interventions made will remain for longer, and won't be removed or undone as soon as the brand representative leaves the store,' he says.
For fmcg products, the difference between being stocked on a gondola end or on the bottom shelf in mid-aisle can be huge in terms of sales, so field marketing can make a big difference.
For higher-ticket items, however, it is staff training that can really boost sales. Tim Bedward, consumer sales manager at printer manufacturer Epson, says that brands need to engage with store sales staff to make sure they understand the strong points of a product so they are enthused enough to promote it effectively to consumers. The staff - especially Christmas temps - need to be engaged just as much as the consumers.
'Delivering practical training through iPads and interactive sessions can make a difference in how quickly your team is able to understand and immerse themselves in your company values and in the way they go forward and interact with customers,' he says. 'Shop floor staff are your key brand ambassadors for every consumer that enters the store. By involving an appropriate use of technology to enhance the training experience, it ensures you have an army of enthusiastic, empowered staff who build relationships with shoppers. Technology plays an invaluable role in maximising effectiveness and fostering positivity and a sense of team.'
The work of field marketing agencies is becoming ever-more commoditised by technology that bypasses human interaction. Nonetheless, the agencies insist that the human element is essential in any field-marketing programme, even if it proves more expensive in the short term.
WORD OF MOUTH TRUMPS PUSH-MARKETING
The use of technology in training staff is helping real-world retailers fight back against the threat from online sales. This is the view of Daniel Todaro, managing director of field marketing agency Gekko (right), which specialises in consumer electronics. The agency worked with Epson to create a training plan for retail staff that was delivered by the field team via iPads.
This technology allows what Todaro calls a 'one-device technology solution' that comprises training, product presentation and demonstration materials, as well as photo capture and point-of-sale ordering. 'Technology does not make the experience, it enhances it,' he says. 'Consumers (use) channels such as mobile to research, but expertly trained staff offer a level of guidance and reassurance that can give consumers confidence in their purchases that can't be found online. People need to be at the centre of the field-marketing experience.'
FIVE FM TIPS
- Don't be wholly price-led, advises Julia Collis of Powerforce. 'It is worth paying for added value. Some agencies cut corners to save costs and this shows when something inevitably goes wrong,' she says.
- Meet the field marketing team who will work on your brand's activity, not just the pitch team.
- Understand what value means to you, says Laurence Clube at REL. 'ROI will always be important, but is it so important that you won't support that NPD launch or promotion in support of it? Be clear about all your commercial priorities and how they are measured to ensure you drive the maximum value for your business from field marketing.'
- Clarity of visit is vital, says CPM's Martin Ryan. Ask an agency to resolve one issue. Do not keep adding new tasks into the same visit or you will lose focus.
- Most important of all, says Ryan, is his advice to marketers: 'Get out from behind your desks.'
EXPERT VIEW: 2CV - THE PERSONAL TOUCH
The expanding discipline of field marketing now includes experiential, the promotion of brands and products 'in the field' - on the street, station concourses, supermarket car parks, or anywhere else that members of the public congregate. This is a growth area and marketers are diverting resources to it from traditional media.
Experiential field marketing can include the distribution of free samples or promoting a brand or product through fliers and activities.
As Sam Elphinstone, head of experiential at research agency 2CV, says: 'It feels like a purer form of marketing, you have more control over who sees what and what you tell them. It is personal and one-to-one.'
The agency offers to research the effectiveness of experiential programmes. It does this by quizzing members of the public who encounter the activities to find out about how they affect their perceptions of the brand. Their responses are then compared with the perceptions of a control group of people who have not participated in the activity.
'The best-received activities tend to be very consumer-centric,' says Elphinstone. 'Even though we are in the digital world, some brands still try to show off their brand equity and construct experiential activity from the brand down, rather than thinking about the situation the consumer is in and what would please them, then building something around that.'