How the food and drink sector’s marketing mavens earn customer loyalty

The food and drink sector faces loyalty challenges amid the UK’s cost of living crisis. Marketers should focus on brand story, customer experience and the right distribution model to build a loyal customer base

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The boom in ecommerce has revolutionised the world of food and beverage marketing. And many start-up businesses and dynamic brands are now investing in direct routes to customers.

A lot of food and beverage brands are building a sizeable proportion of their sales through loyal audiences on online platforms. There’s no doubt that this potential to reach people in their own homes was fuelled by Covid lockdowns, and some businesses have faced subsequent issues in maintaining the high sales and loyalty levels that they achieved during the pandemic.

Food and beverage brands have also contended with challenges including cost of living pressures that have caused some shoppers to switch to private label goods. Meanwhile, significant increases in the costs of raw ingredients have squeezed profit margins. 

In this demanding environment, what levers can food and beverage brands pull to help grow and maintain customer loyalty? Three marketing leaders share their experiences and offer advice for businesses in the category.

Jacq Ellis-Jones 
Marketing director at Pip & Nut, a natural nut butter brand 

We’re an all-natural nut brand that started life back in 2013, launching into retail in 2015. We have managed to retain and grow our customer base but that’s not without its challenges. For example, our peanut prices have risen significantly.

Having a clear tone of voice is important for brands. For us, that’s about the product as a natural, plant-based source of protein. That remains at the heart of everything we do.

But at the same time, you need to offer good value for money and prove that your brand is worth paying more for than private label products. Brands can achieve this by giving clear value to the shopper at key recruitment moments. For example, we ran recent Veganuary and Pancake Day promotions and we also run promotions when we launch a new product to drive trials. 

Ecommerce is an important way of growing loyalty because direct-to-consumer (DTC) channels help brands to achieve a greater share of purse. Before lockdown, DTC wasn’t a significant part of our overall mix. But even when you’ve achieved higher levels of product availability in store, DTC is a good way to reward loyal customers with access to products that aren’t necessarily part of the core product range. 

When it comes to building a loyal database, first and foremost you should provide a positive brand experience that helps make the shopper feel connected. That means thinking carefully about the look and feel of the website, and reflecting the brand in the product and delivery experience. For instance, we use zero emissions courier services and delivery boxes that contain exclusive recipes.

Ongoing customer communication is also a useful loyalty tool for brands to adopt because regular emails drive sales. It’s important to focus here on adding value to customers. For example, we provide ‘snack hack’ inspiration with new recipes, alongside deeper levels of storytelling about our farmers, our ingredients and our work on recyclable packaging.

Email marketing is really important for both retaining loyalty and making sure that the shopping experience is as easy as possible.

Olly Dixon 
Co-founder of Something & Nothing, a soda and spritz brand 

The starting point for Something & Nothing [which launched in 2017] was creating a healthier flavour-focused soft drink. We then developed a brand that makes the cans look more like art than a product. Standing out on the shelves is important.

My advice would be that you should look outside of the category that you’re playing in. So, don’t look at other soft drinks because you’ll just end up re-creating what other people have done. Instead, why not look at the fashion or beauty world for inspiration? 

You should also work on a strong distribution model. For example, we target consumers through the right stores, cafes, hotels and bars.

Focusing efforts on retention through subscription is effective. But make your emails different from those of other brands. Connecting with wider culture is one route to achieve this. For instance, our focus is on ‘beauty in the everyday’. We run interviews with artists, makers and thinkers, and we create newsletters that are genuinely interesting to read.

It’s important not to fall into the trap of talking about yourself too much. Focus more on what you’re seeing in the world. People want to be entertained and given moments of joy and inspiration. That’s what keeps email open rates high and people ultimately loyal to the brand. We run a monthly series of neighbourhood guides, focusing on the best cafes, galleries, listening bars, restaurants and stores around the world – some just happen to sell our drinks.

Of course, performance emails around unfulfilled carts and lapsed customers are important too. But treat campaigns more like magazine editorial. For example, we created a Dry January email campaign focused on Blue Monday. But looking at the story of New Order’s Blue Monday and how that record came about.

Instead of offering major discounts to new customers, there’s an opportunity for brands in the food and beverage category to focus on existing customers. For a Dry January promotion, we gave a free case to all of our loyal subscribers.

Vhari Russell 
Founder of The Food Marketing Experts, a food marketing agency 

Launching a product is incredibly hard and expensive, and then you really have to know who your target customer is – to find your people and attract more of them.

But you also need to create a ‘stickiness’ to your product so that it has a high purchase frequency. Whatever the buying cycle is, you must make that as small as possible so that the repeat purchase rate is consistent.

During the pandemic, the focus was on DTC sales but brands now need a blended approach to distribution. But if you don’t have the DTC piece you can’t create the ‘pull’. Retailers will list you if you’re lucky and meet all their criteria but they can’t guarantee you sales. So, it’s about creating that loyal customer base that buys in store as well as online.

It can be a numbers game. We grew the email database for an Italian food brand, Seggiano, and the implications of that were that their orders went up significantly on a month-by-month basis. But it’s really important to make sure that you speak in the right tone of voice, and hit all the nuances and the buying cues. 

You need to keep that funnel of people coming to your newsletter to drive repeat sales and boost the frequency of sales. It’s about keeping things fresh but also giving people a reason to read. We’re all time poor and we all get a ridiculous quantity of emails in our inboxes. Email marketing has to grab your attention and make you want to take action.

Inspiring action can be about providing content such as recipes that help people consume the product, but it can also be about building an understanding of the brand’s integrity. For example, messages around sustainability matter now for certain pockets of customers.

Building an appreciation of this integrity is about conveying reasons to believe in the values of the brand, what’s important and how to use it. And helping people to feel understood as consumers. The brand shouldn’t always be saying ‘buy me, buy me, buy me’ but communicating how the product fits into people’s lives and showing that you’re in a partnership with them.

Above all, it’s powerful to build a relationship in which the customer has bought into the brand and you’ve bought into them as a consumer. 

Key lessons for marketers

Loyalty takeaways for food and beverage marketing leaders

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Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in this article are those of the people interviewed and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Intuit, Mailchimp or any of its cornerstone brands or employees. The primary purpose of this article is to educate and inform. This article does not constitute financial or other professional advice or services.