Natural Foods Merchandiser

Whats the Big Idea? Building a Core Story

Selling Smart

I live in a small town. There are three places to buy De Cecco imported Italian pasta. When I buy a box at the Italian deli, I think, ?Ah, Italy.? When I buy it at the local food co-op, I think, ?Ah, community.? When I buy this same box of pasta at the local supermarket, I think, ?Ah, a convenient assortment of natural and conventional products at a reasonable price with accessible parking relatively close to my home, and if I want to sneak some processed potato chips in a stack into my otherwise natural diet I can, because they carry them along with this imported Italian pasta.? Usually I purchase the product at the co-op because a sense of community matters most to me.

What?s the point? Shopping for food and health products is an experience that extends beyond the cash register, and different stores can create dramatically different experiences in both practical and psychological terms. If you can create a unique and valuable experience for your customers around a ?big idea,? you will be able to differentiate your store from competitors, build customer loyalty and drive home your unique value proposition.

The key marketing concept here is positioning. Cognitively, it is comfortable for people to define objects and experiences with one inclusive and one exclusive variable. The inclusive variable says what something is and the exclusive variable says what it is not. Consider which of these seems more inviting: ?The natural products store with the best restaurant/deli in town? or ?the natural products store.? The differentiator is what grabs your attention. Even if you are the only natural products store in town, you are stronger in consumers? minds if you are positioned with a big idea or strong point of difference.

Dane King of Your Health Inc. in Puyallup, Wash., has established his health food store as the pre-eminent source in his area for expertise about nutrition. He has done this by offering classes to his shoppers and by sponsoring a series of appearances by health and nutrition experts.

Phillip and Margaret Nabors, owners of Mustard Seed Market & Cafe in Solon, Ohio, have cultivated a natural products store environment that is all about a commitment to prepared food excellence, including an open kitchen where shoppers can see all aspects of the food prep. The store has engaged ?food artists? who lovingly prepare small batches of unique foods. The culture of food inspires shoppers.

The Nabors and King have achieved significant business success by defining themselves clearly in terms of a single core idea. So how can you too build a big idea that wins friends and influences people?

Decide who you want to be. Slow down. You are taking time for the ?vision thing? from which sustainable success is going to flow.

You may be the entrepreneur who invents the next big retail concept, such as ?Nothing But Tempeh? or ?Trading Cart Spaces? (once you have purchased all of your groceries, you must switch shopping carts with someone else and take home his or her purchases). Or you may decide that you don?t want a radical new concept; you want to emphasize the one strength of your existing operation that matters most.

Whatever you choose, you must validate your market position with your customers. Convene a group of them and ask:

  • What do you most like about this store?
  • How do you feel when you are in here?
  • What kind of environment would be most appealing to you as a place to purchase food?
  • Would you shop in a store called Trading Cart Spaces?

You can set up a little focus group over a free lunch, or you can just have heartfelt conversations on the store floor. The key is to ask open-ended questions, including some ideas that only might be possible, and to be truly open to listening to answers that may lie outside of your expectation.

After an in-store survey, a naturals co-op in the upper Midwest found that what its regular customers valued most was the store?s commitment to local, independent farmers. The store chose to define itself with the message ?local color,? accompanied by lush pictures of local produce and the farm families that grew it. The position won significantly increased sales as well as local media coverage.

Evaluate your competitive set. There are several obvious marketing positions for natural products stores, including trust, expertise, exquisite food, fitness and convenience. But it may be difficult for more than one company in a given location to excel at the same thing. If store A already proclaims it is ?your trusted source for natural products,? it may be difficult for store B to excel by advertising ?you can trust us too!? Try to find a core story that will both resonate with your customers and be unique to your local market.

Be that thing. Since a brand is an operational commitment to your customers, you must ensure that you conform to the big idea you want to sell. The Midwestern co-op that was aligning itself with the concept of ?local? made sure that local products were given preference in its official purchasing policy, and it featured new local arrivals in a bi-weekly e-mail alert sent to members. Another option is to create a farm committee to bring new products to market and smooth the logistics of delivery and merchandising.

A store that positions itself on luscious food would need to pay particular attention to beautiful visual merchandising and sampling. A store that emphasizes its expertise in natural health may want an information desk where a nutrition expert is available at all times.

If you truly want to resonate with your consumers and rise above the clutter of retail store advertising, you must resist the temptation to add to the message. Don?t try to be ?the trusted source for natural, local, high-quality, good-tasting products at a reasonable price.? Your customers will be confused. After all, you want them to be able to easily tell their friends, ?You have to try Simple Simon?s—they have the best local produce in the state.?

Make it count. Otherwise, your operational promise will be broken.

Tell your customers. Once you are living and breathing your big idea, you should remind your customers about it constantly. Vitamin Cottage of Lakewood, Colo., prides itself on its family ownership and feeling. The chain displays pictures of founder Margaret Isely in prominent positions near the front of each store.

In addition to in-store signage, other ways to promote your big idea include a commitment statement on receipts, gift certificates or logo wear; or a series of featured topics in your store newsletter or on your Web site.

Tell the world. Now, you will want to tell the world by creating and promoting a brand statement. This statement should not be what you are, but rather what you mean to people. Consider the successful consumer brand statements of today, including ?Just Do It,? ?Drivers Wanted,? ?The Best a Man Can Get.? These statements work best when they carry the feeling of the big idea without stating explicitly what the product category is. Thus, if your store is really focused on fresh food, you will find more success in showing a picture of fresh food along with the single word ?FRESH? than you will if you state flatly and explicitly ?The Natural Products Store that Carries the Freshest Food.?

Of course, the process of establishing and promoting a big idea is usually not a one-time exercise. Consumers change, competitors change, expectations change. Carrying natural and organic products was a big enough idea once upon a time (?a food store that carries granola!?). Even a market position that depends upon the family that owns and operates the business must change the way in which this concept is presented to consumers so that it will continue to resonate. If you take the exercise seriously, however, a big idea can take you very, very far.

Sherwood Badger Smith is a marketing and strategy consultant based in Traverse City, Mich. Reach him at [email protected]

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 11/p. 16, 20

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