Theories of Evolution

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Theories of Evolution

By Peter Breen - 08/19/2016

My biology is a bit rusty, but you can't undergo a metamorphosis if you're already dead, right?

This admittedly odd question sprang from my arguably odd mind in July, after I first read that shopper marketing was "dead" and then, one day later, that it's undergoing a "metamorphosis."

News of shopper marketing's demise came from Gary Hawkins of the Center for Advancing Retail & Technology (an online marketplace for retail tools). In an essay published by Progressive Grocer (our new sister publication), Hawkins declared that, "Shopper marketing is dead ... the latest victim of the technology-fueled transformation sweeping the retail industry."

Cause of death, says Hawkins, is shopper marketing's inevitable focus on "mass promotions ... providing too little savings to convert a sale, giving away more margin than necessary, or being out of sync with the individual customer's purchasing pattern."

This autopsy was troubling, since we devote an entire Path to Purchase Leadership University course on the ways in which digital marketing technology has improved and expanded the ability to reach targeted shoppers in more relevant, more efficient ways.

In fact, "Target Specific Shoppers" is one of our Six Principles of Shopper Engagement, since you can't drive truly sustainable engagement if you're trying to reach everybody at once. We present digital technology as an enabler of timely, relevant communication with individual shoppers – digital tools make shopper marketing better, not obsolete.

After that tempest in a teapot, I should have been relieved when an Association of National Advertisers' media release announced, "Shopper marketing, long considered a discipline limited to in-store, point-of-purchase and end-of-aisle promotions, has undergone a metamorphosis since the advent of digital marketing."

At least it ain't dead, I guess. But "limited to" in-store activity? We've been fighting that kind of uninformed opinion from the marketing world's above-the-line contingent since Advertising Age infamously dismissed shopper marketing as "formerly known as trade promotion" back in 2008.

Shopper marketing moved beyond the store a long time ago. Heck, customer marketing teams have worked across all media for decades. And digital marketing has been a fundamental aspect of the discipline since at least 2010 (when we started covering the topic in earnest). So the idea that it's been "long considered" as only in-store should have been long gone by now.

ANA's release also stated, "There is little consistency in how [shopper marketing] is defined and what the best practices should be." Granted, there is inconsistency in how shopper marketing is defined and practiced across the industry. There even are some companies that simply renamed their traditional work at retail as "shopper" without changing the underlying strategy or the executional tactics they utilize. And that might confuse things a bit.

But I still beg to differ, because core practitioners across the industry have settled on a basic definition, one that acknowledges a fundamental principle making any discussion of the discipline's tactical scope a moot point. I hope the slats in my soapbox don't crack if I again tout the Institute's definition of shopper marketing:

A cross-functional discipline designed to improve business performance by using actionable insights to connect with shoppers and influence behavior along the path to purchase.

At the Institute, we've always stressed that the most definitive element of shopper marketing is the one implied by its very name: an unwavering focus on the "shopper." That's what makes it different from consumer promotion, trade promotion or customer marketing, all of which place their emphasis on either the brand (and its objectives) or the retailer (and its demands). And that's why shopper marketing has always involved more than the physical store, and why it's been moving naturally toward one-to-one communication.

I'm also going to disagree with the idea that we're lacking in best practices. I'd politely suggest that the annual Shopper Marketing Effie Awards has done a great job showcasing exemplary work since 2011 (and we're delighted to again be partnering on the program with Effie Worldwide this year). Visit if you'd like some evidence.

If you really do believe that shopper marketing has been confined to the brick-and-mortar store, or if you think it focuses solely on mass promotions, then you haven't been watching the marketplace very closely. And you certainly haven't been attending the Institute's professional development courses, or browsing our website, or reading this magazine. In fact, it would only take a short walk through the exhibit hall at this month's Path to Purchase Expo to learn just how mistaken you've been. If you need a guide, let us know.

Shopper marketing isn't dead. It hasn't really been reborn, either. But it does continue to evolve, as it has since the Institute launched in 2003, by following shoppers wherever they go. If you don't believe me, stop by P2PX this month and we'll be happy to prove it to you.


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