If you’ve ever taken a product off a shelf in the supermarket, and then been accosted by someone other than security asking you, politely, to put it back, then you’ve possibly run into Tessa Stuart running one of her in-store research sessions. I featured her best selling book “Packed” in one of my Bank Holiday reading lists. It’s definitely one of my must-read recommendations for any food or drink business.
Tessa was very generous with her time and shared some of her perspectives on what it takes to make it with a new brand or product in food or drink. Always great to learn from the expertise and experience of others, and Tessa has plenty of both.
About Tessa Stuart
Tessa, you’ve worked with many brands in food and drink over the years. For people who don’t know you, could you describe what it is you do with brands?
I am a “shopper stalker“. I work with food brands to make sure that their products on the supermarket shelves attract shoppers’ attention and are bought. On a typical project I will go into a well-known supermarket, and talk to 40 or 50 shoppers about why they buy my client’s products, what they think of the range, and of the competition.
In a world where every inch of supermarket shelf has to earn a return for the retailer, my clients need to know how to make their products fly off the shelf into shoppers’ baskets. I take those learnings back to them, so they can then adjust the packaging, or the price, or any unfamiliar ingredients. They can understand how their customers shop and also gauge reaction to new products before they launch.
How did you get started in the food industry?
I worked in a conventional market research agency running focus groups for clients like Nestlé and Cadbury. I wanted to go freelance when I had children.
I thought that there might be a better way of doing research, in store, being there as people buy, to get real insight into how people actually shop. Innocent drinks allowed me to try this approach out; they loved it.
The evolving food and drink market
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in food and drink sales in the last five years?
I’d say the extent to which new young food brands can make inroads into the food sales of the big corporations. With their quick to market approach, intuitive understanding of digital media, and the range of vegan and vegetarian products that appeal to a different generation, these young start-ups have their sights firmly on what customers want and need. Big corporations find it increasingly hard to innovate at speed.
Storytelling and food and drink brands
How do you think the role of storytelling has changed for food and drink brands in recent times?
I think that the rise of personalities like Ella Mills at Deliciously Ella shows how very important storytelling can be in creating a brand. Everything from recipe books, food products, a deli and an app, fuelled by her huge Instagram following.
The crunch point for your story: choosing to buy
From your experiences, how much of a brand’s story do consumers engage with at the point of sale, so from the actual product packaging? How important is it to consumers in their purchase decision, particularly if they’ve never tried the brand or product before?
The most important thing that a brand needs to inspire in the shopper is a sense of confidence. The consumer is taking a huge risk to buy a new product, and they need to feel as good about it as they possibly can.
Storytelling on the shelf is quite tricky. I’m currently working with Charlie Bigham’s, a high-quality pre-prepared meal brand. Shoppers talk about “Charlie’s food” and say to me “ his food is good” so they are clearly relating to a person.
Wahaca meal kits, another client of mine, set themselves apart in terms of the graphics of the branding. It implies that they are a different sort of Mexican street food, so the storytelling can appear even in the font and words of the food branding on pack.
The best storytellers of the moment
Which brands do you think are doing storytelling particularly well at the moment?
Deliciously Ella does a great job. I think increasingly brands need to be part of events, festivals and pop-ups so that they stand for more than just being a packet on the shelf. They need to align themselves with events that match their own values and be part of bigger movements. Ugly Drinks, a new flavoured water, are pulling back the curtain on the sugar levels and inflated promises of carbonated drinks, telling “the Ugly truth.”
Imitating tone of voice: the “innocent” effect
I wanted to ask you about innocent, as they were so highly copied at the time they launched in terms of tone of voice. Do you still see people trying to be them today, or what’s the latest thing everyone wants to be?
I see a lot of brands trying to do innocent’s tone of voice. It’s a mistake. Brands need to find their own unique tone of voice, not ape someone else’s, and decide on their own sets of values and what they care about.
Grabbing attention on shelf
If there were a key thing you would suggest that brands really think about to grab people’s attention on the shelf, that has a positive impact, what would they be?
I would suggest finding a colour or a very distinctive logo that customers can remember as the visual equity of the brand. We remember colour and shape before we remember brand names. Think of red Coca-Cola or the shape of the Heinz beans logo.
What small business owners often forget
What’s a key question that brands often forget to ask customers during the development of their products?
Artisan food brand founders are often too close to their product and make it too big or too expensive for customers because they want to cram it full of really high-quality ingredients. By the time the retailer and the distributor have added their margin onto the price, this means that the brand, especially if it’s premium, can actually be too expensive for many consumers.
My advice is to think very carefully about the size and the ingredients in your product. Of course you need to make a living. But consumers need to be able to afford to buy you on a regular basis.
Successful food and drink brands and the Big Four
In your view can brands be successful without a major listing in one of the major supermarkets?
Most brands I know obsess about getting a listing! I don’t think there’s anyone sizeable without one; it gives you great credibility and visibility. Direct to consumer is a hassle. Supermarkets are convenient, for brands and customers. We’d all love to be doing our shop at individual artisan producers, but who has the time?
Plus as a small producer selling direct, you’re always putting something into the delivery cost. At the supermarket, the customer is the delivery method.
But I would say for any new brand, get onto Ocado as soon as you can. It gives you the national reach and visibility. Just do your homework on all the costs involved before you dive in. There’s always plenty of conversation on this on the Food Hub on Facebook.
Stories, social media and getting listed
In your view, why do brands need a story?
If you have an ambition to get listed by a major retailer, then they need a story. They need to be able to see how this is something their customers can’t get already. Your story, your kind of customer, your Instagram following, they all help them to work out who you’re for.
They know the kinds of customers they have, and what meets their needs. They can see if there’s a gap, and what sort of risk they’re taking by giving your brand shelf space.
Plenty of food for thought and many of Tessa’s points would hold true in any industry. If you haven’t read her books, then I highly recommend both Packed and Flying Off the Shelves. I think these are must-reads for any food entrepreneur before they even get going. A little advance knowledge of what you’re going to face is never a bad thing.
What did I miss? What’s the question you would have asked Tessa?