Know Your Product: Doing Customer Research at Whole Foods

September 3, 2020
Jhana Ellard

This post describes a recent experience I had doing some on-the-ground research into the products of a local Vancouver company that reached out to me regarding digital ads.

I wanted to share some of the processes an advertiser goes through when engaging with a new product.

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Is it even possible to send a more warm and welcoming message to someone you’ve never met before on Linkedin??

I received this message on Linkedin a few weeks back. This message was the catalyst for this whole post about doing market research as a digital advertiser. The company Martina works for is called Smartbite Snacks.

I still haven’t actually spoken to Martina on the phone about any sort of formal ads engagement, nor is Smartbite a client of mine.

This post shares what I’m doing before talking to a potential lead about formally running ads for their business.

Digital vs Traditional Advertising

Though there are many perks to being an advertiser in the online world, there’s one major facet of digital advertising that’s often lost in many working arrangements when compared to traditional advertising.

This is, of course, our ability to directly interact (touch, feel, smell, taste, play, etc.) with the products that we’re trying to advertise.

The bulk of my clients either provide an intangible online software/service, or they sell eCommerce products in the United States. It’s incredibly rare that I get to touch a physical product I’m advertising.

This is in stark contrast to the advertisers of yore, where a “factory tour” was a central part of the advertising process.

When the local Vancouver company, Smartbite Snacks reached out to me about running ads for their eCommerce business, I realized I had an incredible opportunity to truly get in the mind of their customer in a way that isn’t generally available to me — given the fact that I’m a remote freelancer.

First, what does it mean to “get into the mind of a customer?”

There are dozens of ways you can do this as a modern digital marketer. This is all about understanding the psyche of someone who would potentially buy your product or signup for your service.

The better you understand the customer, the better you can craft ads that speak to that customer.

This comes in many forms, but may involve:

  • Meeting with the client discussing their user persona(s), understanding their needs, fears, desires, and much more. Doing some standard research into personas is the baseline for anyone doing online marketing.
  • Sending out customer surveys designed to gather key information about what the existing customer base likes or dislikes about the product.
  • Speaking to the company’s sales team to understand why it is that their customers decided to “close.”
  • Looking for places online where people are discussing the product (like YouTube unboxings/reviews, Reddit boards, etc).
  • Going through the online checkout flow of the eCommerce store and taking note of potential checkout pain points.
  • Looking into competitor products and what people say about them.
  • And much more.

The above should come as no surprise.

All of the above you can do virtually. What about in-person research?

I had the opportunity to go one step further for Smartbite Snacks.

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The Smartbite Rice Snack

Simply by looking at the branding of Smartbite Snacks, I knew that this was the kind of brand that would be at Whole Foods.

I walked out of my apartment, walked a few blocks down the street, went to the local Whole Foods, and immediately navigated to the snack aisle.

Here’s what I saw.

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Who knew there were this many types of rice crackers!

An entire shelf of cracker-style snacks.

A quick word on grocery stores

Well, let me take a moment to tell you about grocery store shopping.

The placement of the snack, the amount of shelf space the brand takes up, the brands that are featured, and the prominence of their position on the shelf, is all paid space. This falls under the umbrella of what’s called “listing fees” for grocery stores, and its a 9-billion dollar industry in the US + Canada.

Let me restate that. What you see in the grocery store aisle, and where you see it, is a decision based on money.

Remind you of anything? Like when you search something on Google and the first, most prominent listings, are paid ads?

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Highlighted are the spots on the search results page that have been paid for.

The grocery store aisle isn’t so different from a search results page. Let’s compare the two.

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Only an advertiser would be crazy enough to see a Google Ads Search Results Page in a Grocery Aisle. But here we are. The two aren’t so different. You have companies paying for premium real estate as people are browsing to select a product within a category they’re looking for.

**Before I move on, I want to note here that, on Google and in the Grocery store aisle, money is not the only determining factor of position here. At the most basic level, prominent positions are given to those who win the equation of: How Much Money You Pay + Quality.

I’ll spare the details, but it is important to note that this is not a system where the “deepest pockets always win.”

Why am I showing you this? Well, this turns into interesting research into the Smartbite product.

The Positioning of the Snack

The first thing I noticed in my experience was that was a little bit difficult for me to find the Smartbite Product. It was near the bottom of the shelf, so I had to scan my eyes before finding it.

This tells me that it likely has a smaller market share than the eye-level competitor (who is taking up three racks! (Eye-level, and the rows above and below)

Perhaps Smartbite is a newer company, it hasn’t been around as long, has a smaller team, or serves a more niche audience with specific dietary/health restrictions.

The Pricing of the Snack

The second thing I noticed was that, though the product itself was featured lower than it’s competitor, the product was selling for $1 more!

This tells me that, though they may be spending less money on listing fees, they are framing themselves as a more premium product than their competitor. It’s important for advertisers to make a note of how their client is positioning themselves in the market.

Search ads in lower positions also get a smaller piece of the market share, but they may have a larger payoff upon conversion — meaning less money on ads and more revenue. First position on the Search Engine Results Page is not always better.

The same applies here. Though Smartbite may sell fewer items, given their lower position on the aisle, every individual sale makes them more revenue.

The Branding & Features of the Snack — Time to compare!

Let’s compare the biggest competitor vs Smartbite.

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Let’s play spot the difference

Let’s look at where your eyes first go. On the left-hand side (competitor) the company name + logo is the most prominent in terms of visual hierarchy.

On Smartbite’s, it’s actually not. Instead, what you see is the words:

Fit Figure.

That’s important, right? Remember when I mentioned that perhaps Smartbite is speaking to a more niche, health-minded audience, this shines through in the copywriting.

In addition to that, Smartbite has three additional labels and two bullet points at the bottom and side of the packaging telling us that this is a:

  • Gluten-free product
  • Certified Vegan
  • Non-GMO

The competitor mentions none of these things.

I’m not making the point that it’s right or wrong to do so, I’m simply highlighting the ways in which these two companies speak to their audience — meaning I can gain a deeper understanding of the customer.

If I could offer any sort of criticism to Smartbite (based on my very limited knowledge of the company) the only bit of copy that seems “off-brand” is the name of the item themselves. (Apologies, the photo is in French).

The competitor calls these items “Rice Thins

Smartsnacks calls them “Rice Cakes

This seems odd that the company touting their health, non-gmo, vegan benefits has opted to call their snacks “Cakes” (something traditionally associated with indulgence/sweet/unhealthy food) as opposed to calling them “Thins.”

Perhaps this is by design, and it’s something I would certainly ask the owner of Smartbite about.

This type of research is a privilege nowadays

It’s rare that I get to do something like this, but I want to use this post as a way to highlight just how much you can learn as a marketer by taking a more guerilla-style approach to customer research.

If Smartbite ever decides to take bids from freelancers and agencies to run their digital ad program, I feel like I’m equipped to show them that I understand their customers quite well after this experience.

I will be one of the first people to tout the importance of online measurement, data analytics, and drawing conclusions based on numbers. That is all still important.

But to take your marketing to the next level, you need to be able to combine the quantitative with qualitative research like this.

Because look at how much you can learn from a simple trip to the grocery store.

Jhana Ellard //