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Cyber-Snacks: Food Companies Go Online

Some of the largest companies in the world sell food products. Nestles, Kraft, General Mills, ConAgra and other brands you’ve heard of (many of which are owned by those mentioned here) sell nearly everything edible: frozen foods, canned foods, snack foods … if you can take it out of a package and put it in your mouth and eat it, they’ve made it.

They are also quickly learning how to use the Web. Consumable packaged goods advertisers are fast becoming the most prolific and most creative advertisers online. And they are just getting started.

Why Them? Why Now?

The packaged foods business category is among the largest in the world. The companies in this category represent some of the most recognized brands. This is because their products can be found in nearly every household in the world. Nestle has the same level of name recognition as Disney and Coke. Five of the largest 50 advertisers are primarily food companies (this does not include advertisers like P&G or Diageo or PepsiCo).

Needless to say, packaged foods, and particularly snack foods, is an enormous category.

It would make sense that this industry would make use of the Internet as an advertising vehicle. First of all, these are advertisers who have never been wont to pass up an opportunity to reach a potential customer.

The next time you are at a public event, like a football game or a concert, take a look around you. Depending on the venue and the core audience, you'll see ample evidence that any space that might be seen by human eyes is an opportunity for this category of advertiser to talk to potential consumers.

It would stand to reason, then, that these same advertisers are going to be doing the same thing in the digital space. The Internet is a vast medium with enormous opportunity to capitalize on "empty" spaces people find themselves confronted with on a daily basis.

When you have an audience that is sitting some twelve to eighteen inches from an information delivery system that is commanding a significant amount of that audiences' attention, it makes sense that as an advertiser you would do what you can to get a message there.

At the time of this writing, for the week ending August 10th, according to AdRelevance the two most voluminous advertisers on the Web in the consumer goods category were Pepsi (at number one) and Nestle (at number 10).

These companies know that we are living in a fragmented media environment and monocular reliance on a specific medium will no longer suffice to reach enough people to generate the kind of volume necessary to make a difference in the bottom line.

What's Doing?

The kinds of companies we are talking about here are very serious advertisers. There is nothing that surprises them. They have tried everything. And although most packaged foods companies weren't rushing to the Web, some were experimenting very early on.

In the winter of 1995/’96, Nestle's Carnation Hot Cocoa did a sponsorship of the weather section of The Merc Center, San Jose Mercury News' version of online newspapering, debuting on America Online in 1993 and on the Web in 1994. It was one of the relatively few places advertising could go on the Web in those days and the brand manager at the time was willing to take a risk. And so static GIFs on a weather page linking to personal email addresses to request a sample and more information had to do. The program was, for its time, an unmitigated success -- so much so that the buy was pulled early.

The online advertising landscape has changed a great deal since then, and so the advertisers have changed what they do in response.

Most packaged food advertisers, and snack foods in particular, have made ample use of the unique offerings of the Internet. Rich media and interactivity are the most oft-used tools, and usually to great effect.

But what packaged food advertisers have used the Web for the most is to engage consumers in intimate and interactive relationships, enabling customer relationship marketing and, hopefully, hastening demand.

Over the last two years, companies like Nestle have aggregated their touch points with consumers in both the offline and online environments to get consistent messaging and more efficiently use media. Online allows for much more precise targeting and can be used to both engage and preserve a relationship with a potential customer.

Last year M&Ms ran a captivating rich media campaign that allowed online audiences to choose a new M&M color. Not only did the effort attract a great deal of attention in the press, giving M&Ms more bang for the buck from a PR perspective, but the company also captured a vast amount of valuable data about customers and potential customers based on interaction with the unit.

So, the bulk of packaged foods advertisers are using the Internet in part to move traditional branding metrics as they would be with other advertising, but the real difference with the online efforts is that the medium’s strengths are being brought to the fore. These strengths continue to be interactivity, immediacy, and precision targeting.

Who's Getting Targeted?

Back at the turn of the century - not this new one, but the old one - there was a company that made film. Throughout the late 1800s, this company grew very large and became very successful selling and processing film. But as the 20th century approached, this company realized that if it was to continue making money as a film-making and processing entity, it was going to need to create more need for film and film processing.

So it was in February of 1900 that Eastman Kodak introduced the Brownie Camera. Until then, cameras and film and photography were professional concerns and engagements. Eastman Kodak decided to make photography a mass phenomenon by marketing the camera not in trade journals as was the standard, but popular magazines, which was a new idea for a product in this category. And the company didn’t target adults. It targeted children. The Brownie was sold for a $1 and all of the ads for it proclaimed that a child could use it. The ads themselves had pictures of children using them. Children were encouraged to join the Brownie club. And modern popular photography was born.

Part of the lesson here: If you want to market a product or service in a new way and you want to give that product or service a future, the target to go after are the kids. After all, habits are still being formed; patterns of behavior are not yet fixed. And these days, children command an extraordinary amount of influence over what is purchased.

Packaged food companies know this and have found that online is a fantastic way to reach kids.

Two of the top twenty most popular sites on the Web for kids two through 11 according to Nielsen//NetRatings are Websites run by Kraft foods.

Lucky Charms has a great layering Flash unit running on Nickelodeon.com right now.

Starburst has a promotion running there, too.

Fruitloops cereal has advertising running on the Kid's Island section of Disney.com.

Skittles is the sponsor of Win Ball, a game found on Cartoonnetwork.com's Cartoon Orbit section.

Kraft also has display advertising on Cartoonnetwork.com.

It is the kids that these companies are targeting and it is the Web they are using to do it most precisely and most efficiently.

"Advergaming is widely utilized, as are any ideas that are spread virally as they then receive endorsement from the person who sent them on," says Cory Treffiletti, media director for Carat Interactive in San Francisco. This type of marketing unit is fast becoming the most popular to use by packaged food companies when targeting this particular audience. It is an involved experience that draws the intended into a branded environment and gives the intended something to do, all the while surrounding them with messages and experiences that are affiliated with the particular product or service.

When you do advertising like this, which is to essentially drive acquisition of a customer, your brand is there. The advertiser captures a potential consumer, but achieves wider recognition of the brand as well.

Packaged food companies spend BIG money to advertise their products. They can never rest in the hopes that people will remember who they are or deem them of value just by virtue of their existence. And so they need to keep the buzz on their own behalf alive. That means using any means at their disposal. And the online means is efficient and targets with laser-like precision.

Posted on aef.com: September 8, 2003


Underscore Marketing, iMedia Spotlight - September 3, 2003

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