Why You Need to Build Awareness Ahead of Distribution

In the world of early-stage consumer brands, you are generally premium-priced vs. the Lay’s, Philadelphia, and Oreo in your category. Sometimes, you’re very premium-priced. Premium pricing will shut down almost all curiosity trials from the average American in a conventional supermarket if they’ve never heard of the brand/product outside of the store. Over-promoting from a very high SRP may also just trigger many curiosity trials that vanish after the promo is over.

Promoting a brand with no awareness is a horrible idea strategically. Your initial retailers may demand it, but please keep it to a minimum until you have some critical awareness in the retailer’s trading area.

You need to build awareness out of the store BEFORE you get to the shelf. 

In the 1990s, founders seeded initial awareness at farmer’s markets and by showing up at small cultural events to hawk their goods, one by one to early adopters. They relied on word-of-mouth within local social networks based on superb product design and memorable consumption experience. 

Later on, founders got used to sampling in stores when they could get access. 

One benefit of launching at ‘discovery’ retail locations like Whole Foods or your local specialty chain (e.g., Erewhon in LA) is that the inventory risk is low, AND the mere placement combined with sampling activities serves as your primary advertising package. Hundreds of folks will browse and move on or see your sampling station and move on. Over time, once someone in their social network shows them your brand, they’ll often say, “yeah, I’ve seen that at Erewhon but didn’t know if it was worth it.” 

You want to build awareness ahead of broader distribution. Again, this is usually done with your tiny initial specialty retail footprint as the ‘ad.’ Still, there are other ways to build awareness out of the store before adding a significant door count. And you must commit time and budget to make this happen if you want to have a successful launch in your local Kroger division. 

You can’t rely on the seemingly automatic high velocities of Erewhon to magically continue in a chain that takes into an awareness dead zone. The most compelling, premium consumer brands build awareness digitally and physically months and years before consumers decide to purchase them. This is the ‘cool’ advantage of a patiently scaling brand. Its ‘cool’ power correlates directly to its lack of omnichannel distribution.

To its relative scarcity and exclusivity. 

Making your brand hard-to-find is not what I’m suggesting. It’s about ensuring that your local household awareness is 2-3x your market penetration. You may not be able to measure this awareness: HH penetration ratio at the metro level, but you can measure it at the state or regional level and for very little on Google Surveys at the national level. Keep an eye on it. 

And work hard out of the store from the beginning to build awareness. 

Dr. James Richardson

[email protected]