It Doesn't Have to be Difficult

It’s easy for CPG brands to offer free samples, whether in stores, supermarkets at public events or on street corners. People love getting free stuff, and will grab almost anything you hand them...then go on about their business.

There's the rub. Why invest the time, money, product costs and other resources to make that initial touchpoint with consumers, to then get virtually nothing in return, particularly when endearing your brand to consumers is often a goal of product sampling and trial.

It’s a question I ask in nearly every conversation with brands that handle product sampling this way, and often get the same response: “It's working.”

Is it really? And if you believe so, you might be measuring the wrong thing.

Handing out hundreds or even thousands of samples during brand activations has its place in generating awareness for new brands and jumpstarting product trial. But something many brands fail to consider (or perhaps choose to ignore) is what happens after total strangers walk away with your sample, and you've learned nothing?

I'll tell you what happens -- usually nothing, which means you've missed a huge opportunity to connect with -- and earn the trust of -- prospective customers. Trust is hard to earn and takes time to nurture. Consumers need time to figure out who you are and what you stand for before they're even coming close to becoming one of your champions, much less start talking about you.

Even if you have the luxury of a fleeting interaction with consumers during in-person sampling, chances are their attention is elsewhere, because you've interrupted them on their way to do something else. Creating brand connections requires a level of focus, calling for consumers to make an effort to think about what they think.

Circumstance and environment are important components of earning customer loyalty and trust, and consumers need more than a few seconds experiencing what you've worked hard to create, for it to start sinking in.

It's understandable why consumer brands believe getting meaningful consumer feedback tied to product sampling is hard, time consuming and expensive.

And while that may have once been the case, times have changed.



Product trial is good, but why not take sampling programs a step further?

We see it all the time.

Brand street teams in matching t-shirts pass out product samples willy-nilly on street corners and at special events to anyone who will extend their hand to take it. Often times, consumers don’t even know what they’ve grabbed, only to realize they don’t want it, then toss it into the next available trash can.

I'm curious. When that occurs, does it count toward the program's goal for consumer reach? Unfortunately, it probably does.

If you’re launching a new brand or product that has no zero awareness, these types of street/brand activations have some merit to drive awareness and trial, but what happens after the sample literally walks away?

In these situations, brands rarely know to whom they gave their product or if they even liked it – much less if they’d ever buy it. Sure, there are ways to track area supermarket sales following brand activations, but if your program hasn’t captured any meaningful consumer data (most don’t), how do you get a real handle on ROI?

That’s the part I struggle with when I see many thousands of dollars being spent on products sampling programs relying on the comfortable, but questionable approaches that can be deemed random, at best. With all the tools at marketers’ disposal to target consumers with a laser-like focus, why is this scattershot approach still being taken?

I challenge CPG brands to start re-thinking things.



How Can a Retail Store be “Brand-Neutral?”

I often tell brands that SamplingLab is a brand-neutral experience for consumers, which sounds rather odd when we’ve built a store full of new products, then invite consumers to try them in exchange for their feedback.

What I mean by brand-neutral is that we don’t promote one brand or product over another, plus there’s no brand rep on-site soliciting an opinion or pressuring consumers to buy what they’ve just tried -- often the real objective of in-store sampling.

Millennials particularly hate that.

Our members often ask what’s good or what we recommend they try, and our response is “That’s for you to figure out.” Offering a comfortable and pressure-free environment is essential for consumers to experience a product and offer honest feedback – something lacking in most in-store and event-based sampling situations.

We’re not dismissing the value of in-store sampling tied solely to making an immediate sale, however it’s time for brands to look beyond that short-term metric and focus on creating a lasting connection with consumers that might lead to a lifetime of sales.



Focus Groups, Your Days are Numbered

New CPG product introductions occur all the time, and I've been surprised to learn how many consumer brands conduct little, if any, consumer testing before bringing a product to retail shelves.

Unless your brand dominates a product category and has the luxury of “owning” the retail or supermarket shelf where consumer research is less critical, wouldn’t you want to know what consumers think about your product before making the investment in manufacturing, packaging, distribution and marketing?

I know I would.

The past 12 months have taught me while consumer brands want and value consumer opinions, many perceive new product testing and getting consumer feedback as being too expensive, time consuming and sometimes just too hard. The good news is it doesn’t have to be.

Traditional product research methods like focus groups can indeed be expensive and very time consuming, and even worse, often end up yielding minimal actionable data, which is why I believe their days are numbered.

I’ve had numerous conversations with brand marketers and ad agencies who once deemed focus groups as their default consumer research approach, but now agree focus groups have lost their mojo, and in fact have stopped doing them. They simply no longer map to how today’s consumers – particularly Millennials – interact with and respond to new products and concepts.

Unless conducted perfectly, focus groups are usually contrived, highly subject to groupthink, and often held in uninviting and sterile conference rooms where participants (who know they’re being watched) are being scrutinized behind a two-way mirror. Gee, who wouldn’t jump at the chance to sign up for that and speak freely?

The truth is, consumers are more apt to be honest and engaged in the feedback process when they can interact and connect with products (and each other) in a comfortable, casual and more social setting.  They crave to be heard with little restraint.

When it comes to consumer insights, it’s time for brands to look ahead at new approaches, and stop running back to the comfort of outdated ones whose time has passed.



SamplingLab Opens Dec. 6.

It's finally here.

SamplingLab opens its doors on Saturday, Dec. 6. Our store is located at 4019 N. Williams in North Portland, just north of Shaver. 

We're launching with products from about 20 brands, including food & beverage, health & beauty, pet products and household goods.

You need to become a SamplingLab member in order to sample our products (it's completely free to join), so go to to sign up.  



A Message From The Founder

SamplingLab's very first store is just a few weeks from opening in Portland, Oregon, and it's been an amazing experience watching not only an empty retail space evolve into a real store, but also bringing an idea more than a year in the making, to reality.

Our little start-up brand has created a lot of curiosity to say the least, and one we hope will shake up how consumer packaged goods brands think about connecting with consumers, and more importantly, listening to their feedback and fostering a new, co-creation product development culture.  

Though our start-up resources are pretty lean here, we've had a lot of invaluable help along the way to make it happen, namely the retail design and build professionals at Siteworks here in Portland, who created the overall design concept and is overseeing the buildout to bring it to reality.

Kudos to Portland branding and design agency Pollinate, which designed a very creative logo and brand identity, which has received a lot of praise from those who have seen it come together during our pre-launch phase.

There are others to thank, and you know who you are. 

As SamplingLab's founder and owner, I will be posting here as frequently as I can, but once we're up and running with employees, you'll likely see posts here from some of them as well.

Since we're in the business of gathering feedback, we look forward to hearing yours. You can always email me personally at jeff (at) samplinglab (dot) com with questions, suggestions or comments.


-- Jeff Davis, Founder