Category Archive: Marketing

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National Restaurant Show 2012

Tomorrow I will be flying to Chicago to participate in the premier restaurant industry exposition, the National Restaurant Show. I attended my first NRA in 1973, and recall my awe at the sheer size and scope of the this event, as well as better understanding the extent of the industry. Additionally, that was the year that the industry’s DNA merged with mine, and I was initiated as an acolyte into the foodservice industry. For life.

Back in the day, the NRA was more of a regional selling show than a national expo of the industry. Restaurant owners from throughout the midwest and eastern US would pack their cars and head to Chicago to see new products, talk to their suppliers, and book orders for the summer. It was pure excitement to meet someone from far outside the normal drawing area…say from California or Arizona. Or even Hawaii!

Working a booth was selling, not just telling. What an exciting weekend that was talking to independent restaurant owners, sampling them on your product, and reciting what today would be called “your elevator pitch” on why they should book your product over the others up and down the aisle. And closing the sale by writing a genuine order to be fulfilled after the show on a pre-approved delivery date and price. It was selling in its purest form; a process that provided a firm foundation for my career of “carrying the bag”

The NRA was also a time to meet your counterparts from other territories (and companies), and to bond with them over gallons of beer at the clubs and bars up and down Rush Street. We worked incredibly hard, but played just as hard. Your boss would gain newfound respect for those who could “answer the bell” and show up for their shift with bright eyes and bubbling enthusiasm, even after partying until 4am. (Those who couldn’t, of course, would never be seen again.)

Over the many years since, we’ve seen our industry — as with all business — evolve into an emphasis on building brand and customer relationships; broader, more consultative selling methods; and a smooth, cool professionalism during the show…and after. Its almost as if, as I matured, the industry matured with me. And in a way, that’s in fact the case. Those involved in the early days of foodservice can attest that as distribution supply chain became more developed, and brands and marketing became more focused, so too the industry evolved to utilize the tools offered.

So as I prepare to attend my 39th consecutive National Restaurant Show, I will be packing my iPad along with my suits, and activating my NRA APP on my iPhone to take full advantage of the technology available to facilitate appointments, control random encounters, and maximize my networking. I will be an “army of one”, ready to enter the battle for a share of my client’s (and prospect’s) time. But as I bump into compatriots from my earlier days, I’ll recall with fondness when the NRA was different. Not better…just different.

Wishing all of you a successful show.


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Shine a Light on your Agency

Dedicated readers of TRMusings know that I recently conducted a social media workshop at the Foodservice Sales & Marketing Association (FSMA) Top2Top Conference.  Attendees from sales agency (food broker) community came together with their principal clients, the food manufacturers, to discuss industry issues and to network.  As part of my research to prep for my session, I entered the scheduled participants names into LinkedIn to see who had profiles and who did not.  I discovered that nearly eighty percent of the manufacturers had active profiles; but less than forty percent of the sales agency attendees were active on LinkedIn.  The gap did not surprise me as much as its relative size.  It told me that despite the fact that “relationship selling” is the primary business of sales agencies, they were under-utilizing the tools and technology available.  Tools that could positively impact their business.

The focus of my workshop was to highlight some of the new social media tools, and advise participants on how to apply them to grow their revenues.  This post will be an extension of that session, but focused only on how a food sales agency can “Shine a Light” on its organization, and communicate its capabilities and strengths to its manufacturer principals (and prospective principals).

The majority of food sales agencies are small businesses, many operating for decades in their respective markets.  Yet the face-to-face methods of relationship selling and business development from years past are simply are not present in today’s hyper-active environment.  Broker-owners, therefore, must work harder to establish and maintain relationships with a broader array of contacts within their manufacturing sector clientele.

During my thirty-plus years as a food company sales and marketing executive, there were typically a number of opportunities throughout each year to personally interface with my broker organization owners and their key executives: conferences, meetings, business reviews, etc.  My broker rosters were not simply a list of company names, but represented individuals with whom I had personal relationships, and whose company capabilities I knew intimately.

But that was then.  Today, executives — and even manufacturer field representatives — are captive to reduced budgets, increased demands, and complex strategic initiatives.  Despite the need for a closer understanding of the broker organizations representing their brands within the 50 key markets in the US, most manufacturing executives do not have the same opportunities to interface with their broker sales partners as before.  So agency executives must take the initiative, or it won’t happen.

LinkedIn provides an excellent set of tools for sales agencies to highlight their capabilities, key staff, and major account relationships.  Properly developed and used, even a small broker organization can establish and expand their visibility to their key manufacturer principals by not only linking their networks, but by posting relevant content to showcase their market and industry expertise.  When needed, they can reach out directly to their principal’s key executive via LinkedIn “InMail”.  (Based on personal experience, I have found that a LinkedIn message is often addressed with more immediate attention and gravitas than a standard email.  Seriously.)

So why aren’t more agency executives using LinkedIn to enhance their executive relationships while polishing their brand?  Lack of knowledge about its purpose and use is one reason, which I hope I addressed for those who attended my workshop.  But unfortunately that group represented only a fraction of the agency world.  Word-of-mouth suggestion from within the industry and peer-pressure, combined with the general buzz about LinkedIn within our industry may — over time — make an impact.  The succession of younger managers rising to more responsible positions within the agencies will also have an impact.  Regardless, I’m confident it will evolve.

In the meantime, with minimal effort and virtually no cost, agencies can significantly raise their visibility using LinkedIn.  Why not separate yourself from other brokers in your market, and polish your organization’s brand while you’re at it?  Here’s a few ideas on where and how to start:

  1. Establish a LinkedIn Committee.  Assemble a few interested parties on your staff and ask them to serve on a team to research and outline a process to establish and manage your LinkedIn strategy.  Include a mix of responsibility levels to gain a broader perspective.
  2. Create a Company Page.  LinkedIn now has “Company Pages” where you can highlight your organization’s mission and values, and link the capabilities and background for all your key staff.  This article “5 Tips for Using LinkedIn Company Pages” will help you get started.
  3. Review and Expand Executive Profiles.  Each of your key staff members should have a complete profile on LinkedIn.  Have the team review them and use the information in “5 Simple Steps to Improving Your LinkedIn Visibility” to your organization to the next level.
  4. Find Key Contacts.  Search LinkedIn for the key targets you want to add to your network.  Start with your regional managers and principal’s staff you know, and work out from there.  Ask for a LinkedIn introduction to those you don’t know, or simply send an invitation on your own to the target individual.  Always customize the message accompanying your LinkedIn invitation (i.e. “As your foodservice sales agency in Cincinnati I would like to connect our professional networks.”)  Most should respond even though they may not know you personally.
  5. Post Relevant Content. On your profile’s home page, there is a box at the top marked “share an update”.  Post short commentary, links to relevant articles, or thoughts about industry events.  Post several times per week if you can, to further raise your visibility with your network.  It only takes a few minutes per day to manage once you establish the habit.  Be professional and active, and your efforts will pay dividends in elevating your position as a “thought leader”.
  6. Participate in Groups.  There are literally hundreds of LinkedIn groups dedicated to the foodservice industry (FSMA has one, for example).  Click “groups” on the header and browse.  Join.  Participate by making comments to subjects under discussion; post new discussions on industry subjects ; respond to commentary.  These activities will further “polish your reputation” and brand.
  7. Use Available Tools to Manage.  There are LinkedIn APPS for your smartphone, web dashboards, and email notifications to keep the data stream organized.  (Outline your notification preferences in your profile.)  The process can be simplified using the available technology.

In my opinion, there is no more important social media activity you can undertake short term (especially in today’s volatile environment!) than establish a LinkedIn strategy for your agency.  In addition to the above links, there is a plethora of information on the web on how to maximize your participation in LinkedIn.  Quoting Seth Godin, “Kick fear’s ass and SHIP IT.”

What are you waiting for?  An engraved invitation?

PS: This just in: An excellent article from Open Forum on How to Get More Business with Linked In.  Click it.

RIM Shot

In addition to my work in the food business, I am also engaged in technology and social media, and their application in the foodservice channel. As such, I keep up with the tech blogs and feeds.  This morning I read a blog by Alex Goldfayn writing in Mashable Business, outlining the 7 Marketing Lessons from RIM’s Failures he identified from analyzing the rapid decline of RIM/Blackberry in the smartphone marketplace.

These lessons, however, are not unique to RIM, or to the tech business. I found them to resonate with foodservice channel challenges as well, and decided to reflect on how they might be applied in our industry.

1. Make Great Products
Great products solve so many challenges. Invest in the best food technologists and industry marketing analysts who understand the target segment and its customers. Follow the consumer trends. Understand flavors. Watch leading-edge chefs and their culinary art. Even if you make products for quick service, or the non-commercial markets, there will be ideas that you’ll discover by knowing everything that is happening throughout the channel. Study the supply chain mechanics, looking for opportunities to create competitive advantage thru service or packaging.  And peel back the layers of your product category and discover what drives it, then develop innovative products that fulfill those needs…with a difference.  Never stop.

2. Build on Strengths Instead of Improving on Weaknesses
Everyone in business in the late 80‘s learned the Japanese word “Kaizen”: The concept of “changing for the better”, or “continuous improvement” as a product or process philosophy. A slightly different angle on that concept is embodied in the idea that a brand can overcome weaknesses by focusing on its strengths: products, services, techniques, process, approaches, relationships, etc. As an organization, if you concentrate on weaknesses, your strengths can wither and die. By relentlessly concentrating on your strengths, weaknesses will be pushed to the background and die, due to lack of nourishment.
In the food industry, continuously examining your products for opportunities to improve them should be routine. Exploring ways to take your best products and identify how to increase sustainable practices, reduce excess packaging, or improve BOH prep process will keep you ahead of your competition. Sit back and “harvest” your sales and you’ll quickly find them gone.

3. Gravity Pushes Backwards
You can count on your competition to aggressively innovate. And they’ll pass you quickly if you stop doing what gave you your original success. A personal episode will illustrate. As a sales executive at Fred’s Frozen Foods in the 80‘s, we had invested, developed and were the leading supplier of mozzarella sticks to the mid-scale segment. We were happily harvesting our profits, without exploring product, service, or packaging improvements. A small company by the name of Anchor Foods had followed us into the market, but we ignored them as upstarts incapable of competing. We were wrong. And by the time we realized it, they had taken not only the lead in volume, but had pushed us out of our primary distribution agreements as well.
Gravity always pushes backwards in business. Consistent and aggressive innovation is required not only to attain success, but to sustain it.

4. Know Precisely Who Your Customer Is
In the food business, no matter what you have convinced yourself, your customer is the consumer. The consumer is the patron at the restaurant, school, hospital, or food-away-from-home location. Distributors and “end-users” are important steps in the supply chain, but they are only the MEANS to reach that consumer. Whatever your segment, know who they ultimately serve, and that will guide you to not only the right product, but will help you uncover how to market your product throughout the stops along the supply chain. Branding, product positioning, messaging, packaging, and final product specifications and flavor will be completely different depending on the consumers you target.
So identify your customers as precisely as possible, and synchronize your marketing efforts throughout the supply chain to reach out to them.

5. Executives Set the Marketing Tone
Ben Franklin (and others) said, “A fish stinks from its head”. The reverse is also true. Leadership begins at the top. The CEO can set the tone, and if the team is properly engaged, they will follow. Watch Steve Jobs introduce the original iPad and listen how everyone who followed him on stage used exactly the same words. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos follows that rule. And I’ve seen examples in new product introductions in the food industry as well.
In our industry, this factor becomes especially important in “prepping” your field sales partners (brokers and distributors) to embrace the concept and language of your product when they sell it in the field. Since they have likely NOT been part of the kick-off, it falls to the field and formal training to make this connection. And of course, a video (or even written) message from the corporate head or CEO can help “fix” the key words and action phrases,  and elevate the process.  The goal, of course, is to have everyone adopt the “language of the product” as a part of its branding. It protects and defines the brand, and can transcend the product itself over time.  The coup will be when you first hear a customer use that language in describing your product.

6. Avoid Unforced Errors
Most marketing problems are self-made and entirely avoidable. I’ll be the first to admit that I have a few of examples of “unforced errors” stuffed away in my career closet. For proof, think of the recent Netflix gaff, the HP announcement that they were getting out of the PC business, and of most of what RIM has done since the introduction of the iPhone. In the food arena, P& G’s struggles to close the deal on the sale of the Pringles brand to Diamond Foods won’t do that brand any long term service.
Never outsmart yourself, and always be acutely aware of the possibility of unforced errors. In fact, keep your eyes open for them so as to identify them quickly. When they happen, address them immediately and there’s a good chance you can make them appear as if they never happened. But ignore or ruminate over them too long, and they will spread like a nasty virus. And you don’t want that.

7. Keep Talking to Your Customers
Number four in this list was “know precisely who your customer is”. If you don’t know, find out. And once you discover who they are, establish platforms and opportunities to have a “conversation” with them. Note I didn’t say “communicate to them”, but “have a conversation with them”. We are in an age of hyper-connection with consumers. Use the terrific tools available in social media to have on-going conversations with your customers. Listen, respond, track, and analyze who they are and what makes them tick. Uncover what they like and don’t like about your brand/product. Focus groups and research can be used to validate what you learn from social media, but don’t use the formalized research methods as your only tool. Sometimes it can send you down the wrong path.  Just ask me about “UFOs”…
So if you’re not talking directly to your customers, you’re just guessing from a conference room.  And that’s not the way to succeed in the long run.

In summary, I suppose I make these steps appear much easier to initiate and execute than they actually are.  Following them takes diligence, focus, and tenacity. Observe and learn from those who have gone before you, and set your course.

Hey, if it was easy, they wouldn’t need you, would they?

Google + what?

Nearly everyone would agree that the newest business tools available are concentrated within the social media spectrum.  But which ones should you use, and where do you start?

FSMA (Foodservice Sales and Marketing Association) has asked me to conduct a workshop at their February Top2Top Conference on just that subject.  Creating ways to develop your brand, generate leads, and assist operators by using social media tools is the subject of the workshop:

Its a funny thing when someone calls you an expert…you don’t necessarily need to know ALL the answers, you just need to know more than most other people. That’s how it is with social media tools. Setting up and properly using Facebook for Business, Google+ Business Pages, LinkedIn Company Profiles, and Twitter Business mocroblogs can be a minefield if you let it, but you don’t need to know everything before you start.  Just the important things.

If you are a foodservice sales agency or manufacturer you should consider attending the FSMA Top2Top meeting and sitting in on my workshop.   We will be not only be reviewing the primary tools in use for foodservice, but will also be providing an extensive list of resources for you to undertake the effort when you get back.

If you don’t plan to attend, just email me through the Foodservice University website and I’ll send you a copy of the resource list and a link to the slides, after the conference wrap-up.

So if you’re intrigued by the newest social media tools, but need some help implementing them for your business, then check in with the TRMusings blog from time to time as I drop tidbits on their application to foodservice, along with other industry-related comments and recommendations.

See you (or not) in Florida!

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Simplify the journey

You know those wooden maze games we used to have as kids? The ones where a steel ball would roll thru a maze full of holes, and you’d use knobs on the side to avoid having it fall into the holes along the way and ending the game?

I think this children’s game might represent an apt metaphor for business (and government) during our current never-ending recession.

The landscape of everything we deal with seems to be constantly shifting and changing. To avoid falling into the hole on our way forward, we are constantly twisting the knobs to control the little ball on its journey. But often, we over-compensate, and the ball ends up in the hole anyway. We regroup, and head down the maze again, only to make a similar mistake further on and drop into the hole again.

Some businesses are learning along the way. A report today in QSR Magazine states that many restaurant chains have adjusted their operations significantly to deal with current traffic and consumer demands; so much so that they are better prepared to deal with a further downturn if it comes. If it doesn’t, they will reap even better benefits as the economy improves. They have learned to control the ball on its journey.

Part of this reaction is also encapsulated in a Chris Brogan blog earlier this week entitled Salt and Pepper. In it, Brogan posits that sometimes simpler is better. Coming back to basics will produce a better overall result. Companies who understand this have been able to adjust their offerings and internal operations to create their “new normal”, and to survive this downturn.

So what is the message? Wild reactions to crisis will produce equally wild results, but often in the wrong direction. Slow and steady…keep it simple…don’t over-react to outside factors. Be deliberate in keeping the ball on its course and you’ll make it through the maze.

The 4 P’s of Marketing…outdated?

The vaunted Four P’s of Marketing — product, place, price, and promotion – that we all learned in business school to describe the marketing mix, was coined when I was in grad school in the last century (the 60‘s, to be exact).

Despite the fact that references to “The Four P’s” can still be found in textbooks, webinars, and business school discussions…in this day of social media and internet engagement, are they outdated as marketing model components?

In the world of the web, the first P (Product) doesn’t automatically engage, except as a solution to a problem or issue a prospect has. You must communicate your product attributes in terms of solutions rather than features. The days of fancy brochures and graphically stunning packaging is so last century. Marketing on the web means creating valuable information about how you can solve a prospect’s challenges, and that means NOT talking about your products. Its more about telling stories, and demonstrating solutions.

Likewise, the Second P (Promotion) usually refers to advertising campaigns which attempt to “target” a specific market (and presumably the prospects found there), within a fixed range of time.

However, there is a big difference between a planned effort toward sustained brand development (Twitter posts, Google+ streams, YouTube channels, blogs, webinars, electronic white papers, etc) and a one-off Facebook game to prompt prospects to “LIKE” you. For too many companies, “social media” is a box on the marketing department’s check list of things to do (Tradeshows? Check. Direct Mail? Check. Magazine ads? Check. Social media? Check.)  Brand development is a journey, not a destination.

And the last two P’s (Place and Price) imply singular steps to drive prospects toward the purchase step. Of course, a sale remains the ultimate goal of marketing; but I would suggest that a long-term relationship resulting in a series of sales is preferred. And properly developed, that is what a finely-tuned web strategy can help you achieve.
So what did we ultimately end up with? The handy nemonic “4 P’s” become:

  • Product = SOLUTIONS
  • Promotion = ENGAGEMENT
  • Place/Price = RELATIONSHIP

SER? Not so nemonic. But more appropriate to today’s web marketing, and prospect communications.