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Fight digital fatigue in the aisles and along the path.

In the smart and quirky cable television show, Portlandia, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein perform a sketch in which Fred gets caught in a technology loop — he moves from photos of puppies on his laptop to text messages on his phone, then there’s the Netflix queue to reorder, another text, email, DVR, Facebook, Tumblr and back through each again.

He can’t help himself. Carrie tries to save Fred by showing him a picture of himself in high school, before he even owned a computer. It’s a happier, simpler time, full of personal connection. Of course, this fails. He’s pulled into the loop and shuts down, literally, like a machine.

It’s a sharp example of how we consume media, our growing addictions to technology, the lack of relevance in content and how it all can contribute to fatigue in the digital world.

Now, let’s take this further to the consumer world. Let’s use Fred. He’s seeing search ads on Google, a brand post on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. He just signed up for Pinterest, saw a recipe for chocolate cake, more pictures of dogs and a new scent for Axe deodorant, which he read about in a shopping blog. Fred uses an online circular for a coupon.

Meanwhile, he receives a text alert for a deal on tools at Ace Hardware. He ignores it, but plays his Pandora app, sees a display ad for Best Buy, geo-locating him to the nearest store for cents off on a CD. But he doesn’t use CDs anymore.

He heads to the grocery store, and Checkpoints offers points for P&G, but not Axe. A QR code begs him to scan. A touchscreen begs him to touch. A motion-sensor video plays on an endcap TV. Another text alert: It’s Groupon, Living Social and Saving Star. He checks his brand and retailer apps. He checks his digital shopping list; he shuts down.

You get the idea. Shoppers are inundated with tools and bombarded by messaging. It’s causing shopper fatigue. But it’s how we live, and if we, as marketers, are going to break through this fatigue, it’s more crucial than ever to determine what the shopper is looking for and then craft a specific message at all intersecting points.

Doing so is complex, of course, but three things marketers can do right now are: Increase our focus on shopper research; prioritize our targets; and resist the temptation of bright, shiny objects.

Better Shopper Research. The difference between shopper research and consumer research is all in the questions we ask — and currently we’re not digging deep enough at the retail level. A consumer insight is a reflection of attitudes or beliefs that can be used to influence or change consumer behavior. Such knowledge is category- and brand-neutral.

Shopper insights go one step further and connect in the store. It’s research of a specific shopper in a specific channel in a specific store at a specific time. A true shopper insight uncovers how shoppers are feeling and behaving once they’re along the path-to-purchase.

It’s important to do ethnographies and shopalongs (both in person as well as virtually) for key retailers. There are also path-to-purchase studies that look at what shoppers do before they go to the store or
how they behave when they’re inside the store. Shoppers receive so many brand messages at any given time that zeroing in on that deeper understanding of what they need to know right then could alleviate their fatigue.

One example of a retailer effectively breaking shopper fatigue is Dollar General. The Nashville-based chain of more than 10,000 stores is committed to providing its shoppers with convenience and exceptional value across a number of categories and formats. This has not only resonated with shoppers during the recession but has fueled profitable growth for the retailer.

This growth has been achieved by a number of varying factors but none has been more important than Dollar General’s deep understanding of who its shoppers are and building a marketing model around them. Amongst their shopper segments the differences are finite, but important nonetheless.

By knowing who their shoppers are — and more important, who they are not — Dollar General is able to control and ensure that everything in their stores and along the path-to-purchase is relevant for those households. Think about it: If you are a household making a combined income of $45,000 and the majority of communications you receive are for premium brands, wouldn’t you tend to “tune them out”? Of course you would.

This is where Dollar General gets it right: Every item carried, every communication in-store and every touchpoint along the path is with its “core” shopper in mind — not some “aspirational” shopper. With an 11.2 percent increase of total sales for the third quarter of 2011 versus a year ago, it appears the proof is in the (affordable) pudding.

Prioritize Targets. The saying “break through the clutter” once referred only to the aisle — the proliferation of products, displays and messages — but now that fatigue has expanded out over the entire path-to-purchase, not unlike Fred’s online experience.

At some point on the path, you’re a consumer, subconsciously receiving a plethora of brand messages. Take vitamins, for example: There are many brands and they all feed us messages in many ways over time. Then you go to the medicine cabinet and you’re out of vitamins. Immediately, you switch from consumer to shopper mode. Now it’s up to the brands and the retailer to speak to you in a way that addresses your particular need.

Maybe you’re a shopper who wants only natural, pure ingredients, so you will look for a brand like Nature Made that speaks of its scientific process or a store like Walgreens with its commitment to being the first choice in health and wellness for its shoppers.

Or, maybe you’re a shopper who only cares about price. While scientific approach, potency and purity are a part of the message for Nature Made, you’re also looking for a retailer that’s strong on price. Maybe an “everyday low price” offer is tweaked into the message and played up at Walmart.

To break through, a brand needs to know what’s motivating that shopper in that retailer, in that channel, at that time. The catch is in time and funding — no brand can do this for all of their retailers, so they must prioritize.

Beware the Shiny Object. Most marketers are exploring mobile microsites, QR codes and Groupon offers. These are shiny objects that glisten so brightly because of the popularity or coolness factors associated with them. Too often, once we start to “leverage” them they are no longer what they were originally intended to be, and our shoppers move on because “it’s not worth it anymore.”

It’s as simple as thinking about your own personal Facebook experience just a short two or three years ago. Back then, it was all about seeing what your old college friends were up to, how many children they had and what your high school ex’s spouse looked like. Fast-forward to this morning’s posts and it’s all about Farmville, an offer on Living Social and another Susan G. Komen program. Facebook is not what it used to be. It’s become just another way to be bombarded by brands and messaging.

So, when it comes to determining whether your proposed program will add to shopper fatigue, it’s worth considering whether the communication is there for a reason or just for the sake of being there. The latter is a cardinal sin of aiding shopper fatigue.

With all of these new technologies at our disposal, we may think we’re making it easier for shoppers, but in fact we are often making it harder. It’s time to embrace the difference between making a sale and contributing to shopper fatigue.

DUSTIN LEHNER is vice president of shopper marketing at Catapult Marketing and has led initiatives for Chiquita Brands, Mars Inc., Kikkoman, Fresh Express and Diageo. He may be reached at JENNIFER BUTCHER is a managing director at Catapult. She leads shopper marketing strategy for multiple brands, and has over 10 years experience in brand, retail, and shopper marketing. She may be reached at:

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