American consumers are on a quest for authenticity, and marketers serve it up in advertising that suggests simply making a purchase can make consumers more than what they are: healthier, cleaner, more pure, more whole.
Social critic and author Jeremy Rifkin describes the process as "manufacturing the hyper-real. Goods become less objects and more tools to help facilitate the performance of lived experiences," he laments in The Age of Access (Tarcher/Putnam, 2002).
Natural products retailers, in general, are in a position to capitalize on a "hyper-real" advertising philosophy. As community gatekeepers of health-related products, they control the ebb and flow of information—advertising—and the "tools"—products—people want as they search for improved well-being, the ultimate "lived experience."
An average person might consider a Whole Foods Market the epitome of a "hyper-real" food-shopping experience, where the adage "you are what you eat" morphs into "you are where you shop."
Realistically, though, can a 2,000-square-foot store in rural America achieve a "hyper-real" food-shopping experience? And how can that store effectively communicate this feeling of authenticity and wellness without misleading its customers? Experts say careful planning and a clear understanding of what motivates customers can help retailers create high-quality, cost-effective advertisements that convey an appealing image and, more importantly, help sell products.
Most retailers have dozens of advertising options. Although costly, television probably does the best job conveying the "experience" of the store. But retailers commonly use print ads in local newspapers and publications to reach potential customers with straightforward messages about weekly sales specials, in-store events and hours of operation.
This type of marketing is the reality for any retail business and an important part of a good advertising strategy. But more can be done with print ads.
"It's not like an ad has to be boring because it's black and white and in a newspaper," says Jeff Hilton, president of Integrated Marketing Group in Salt Lake City. "A lot of advertisers use newspapers effectively to reinforce an image they have created in other places or in other communications."
Hilton recommends retailers carry prominent elements of the store "image" into ads. "There are simple, subtle ways to reinforce your philosophy or how you do your business and still feature price," he says.
A tagline or slogan under a company logo is a good example of an image element that may show up everywhere in a campaign. Because the slogan is part of the composite image consumers may hold in their minds when thinking about a store, it must be chosen carefully and repeated often.
Retailers need to understand their customers in order to make smart decisions about the messages they're presenting in their marketing plan. "I think there's a lack of research into the motivations that consumers in a specific geographic area have for shopping in their stores," says Maryellen Molyneaux, president of The Natural Marketing Institute in Harleysville, Pa., referring to smaller-sized natural foods markets.
"If research suggests people come into a store for its broad range of natural and organic products, then that should become part of the store's image message," suggests Molyneaux.
Good advertising is the result of good customer research, which can be as simple as asking shoppers a few questions during checkout about why they shop at the store, Molyneaux says. By engaging customers, store employees also build the idea of "relationship" into the store's composite image.
"We're in an age right now that, when you look at the sources of influence on health and natural products purchase decisions, it's very evident that consumers are looking for people to relate to. They turn to people first. If you understand that, then [advertising] is about building those relationships," she says.
Although an advertisement cannot substitute for a relationship, it can reinforce the idea or image in a customer's mind that a store provides a high level of customer service—a point Integrated Marketing Group's Hilton says is an important difference for specialty retailers.
"What has always differentiated health food retailers from the mass market has been their ability, not only to provide broad product selection and additional service, but also to add value to the product by the image of the store, their philosophy and the value system that they espouse," he says.
Consumers want to shop in a store that believes what they believe, and a store's marketing message should make that connection for them, Hilton says.
For retailers who believe their store provides a more-than-real experience (a "hyper-real" sense of understanding what a customer wants and believes in), there seems to be an opportunity to do more with advertising than just sell products. As Rifkin notes, for today's advertisers, "the image does not represent the product, but rather the product represents the image."
Steve Taormina is president of PixelPort Productions, a digital design and writing company based in Nederland, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 3/p. 64, 66, 68-9
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 3/p. 64
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 3/p. 66