Successful Strategies from Brands That Are Growing Into New Markets, Part III: How to Build Your Fanbase
Welcome back to our series on considerations for brands expanding into new markets. Read part 1 and part 2 here. You’re a beloved Northwest brand ready to try your luck in a new regional market. You’ve carefully chosen your destination and timed your expansion. There’s only one problem: Where are the fans? As much as we believe every Portland- and Seattle-based food and beverage brand deserves a spot on national supermarket shelves, what makes a local brand successful is often the same thing that keeps it cloistered in its territory: You can only get it here. Local brands are part of a culture; they’re intrinsically linked to regional pride. Case in point: Isn’t it hard to believe that people outside of the Northwest don’t get Tim’s chips, VISO, or Secret Aardvark sauce? Well, those same folks would scoff at us for never having tried Vernors soda, pimento cheese, or a Runza. Building a fanbase in a new market can feel like starting over from scratch. How do you find the balance between introducing your unfamiliar products to a fresh group of consumers, and conveying the charm and confidence essential to national sales? Daunting as it may seem, several Northwest-born brands have made the leap without sacrificing any Northwest charm in the process. With that in mind, here are a few tips for growing a line of fans outside the door—before they even know where to line up.
1. Initiate National PR Well Ahead of Your Launch
Also known as the “Coming Soon” strategy. Nothing creates fan buzz quite like anticipation, and smart brands know how to whip impatient consumers into a frenzy far ahead of opening day. In Colorado, where Trader Joe’s seems like it would fit in perfectly with the state’s population of crunchy hikers and organic cowboys, the grocer has taken its sweet time opening its first locations. First murmured about in January 2012, the inaugural four TJ’s locations are finally opening more than two years later, around this Valentine’s Day—thanks to a perfect storm of state liquor regulations, construction delays, and more than a little PR-savviness. In the meantime, Coloradans have only gained cult-like enthusiasm for TJ’s, joining thousands-strong Facebook pages, and even writing musical odes to the store. Sixteen-hundred miles away, Sonic pulled a similar stunt in New Jersey. After running TV commercials in the area for several years, the first Sonic drive-ins started appearing in north Jersey in 2009, drawing crowds big enough to slow down the flow of traffic through the early hours of the morning.
2. Invest Locally in Your New Market
When you open shop in a new market, you’re joining a community of local businesses and consumers. Taking this community seriously is often the difference between regional expansions that thrive and those that never get close to taking off. To build these grassroots connections, think like a credit union: Show customers that when they buy from you, they’re investing in their local community. For a nearby example, take a look at supermarket chains like New Seasons and Green Zebra, both of which have won over the hearts of Portland’s sometimes-fickle neighborhoods. As they expand throughout the metro area, both have backed small-scale community involvement efforts, such as school donations, gift cards and products for fundraisers, and in-store promotion for local events. Green Zebra was even able to spin a decision to cancel a new location into a positive story for the community, when it bowed out of its plans for the Woodstock neighborhood:
We originally chose the Woodstock neighborhood to open a Green Zebra Grocery because it was underserved with regard to natural, organic and local foods and because we love the Woodstock community. However, our friends at New Seasons Market recently announced their intention to open a 25,000-square-foot store in downtown Woodstock. We are thrilled for the neighborhood to be getting their very own New Seasons Market (long overdue), and we don’t think there is a need for a store our size when there will be a New Seasons Market just a few blocks away.
Sounds more like a neighborhood organization than a grocery chain, doesn’t it?
3. Prime (Tease) the Market
Market testing methods double as PR opportunities: Pop-up shops, supermarket samples, and local event appearances don’t just provide insight into the viability of your product in a new market; they plant the seeds of future visibility. Think exclusive, time-sensitive, and scarce—like the new tech product or app still in beta and open by invitation only. Beyond product teases, social media promotion and networking come into play when priming a new market. Start conversations with other local brands and tastemakers, join regional business forums and conferences, and scope out the up-and-coming neighborhoods with the potential to amplify your brand’s hipness quotient to Williamsburg (or Northeast Portland) levels.
4. Turn Distribution Limitations into PR Advantages
Distribution is to the food and beverage industry what crust is to pizza: Without it, everything else would fall apart like a hot, gooey mess. Still, many newly expanding regional brands face undeniable distribution challenges, from product shortages to energy and warehousing costs. The good news is that you can use these headaches to increase your brand’s appeal in a new market. When distribution hurdles lead to scarcity, consumer demand rises, temporarily boosting the perceived value of your product. Call it cache, mythology, or the cool factor: Scarcity is the key to building it. If you foresee distribution limitations in your expansion’s life cycle, chart your shortages early in your PR plan and reap the benefits of having what everyone wants, but no one is able to get. In the 1960’s and 70’s, when Coors was only available in Western states, people east of the Rockies would bring and/or smuggle the beer back to their home markets, where the now-national brand was still a novelty. Andy recalls hearing real-life Smokey and the Bandit-esque stories of truckers hauling Coors from Colorado to Saint Louis, and airline pilots stashing six-packs in airplane storage containers. By the time Coors started distributing nationally in 1986, the brand had generated so much folklore that it was able to grow at the fastest rate ever seen in the industry, quickly becoming the third-largest beer brand in the U.S. In the 90’s, I had my own mini-Coors experience, venturing out of Nebraska to seek out New Belgium’s Fat Tire beer in Fort Collins, and schlepping it back to Lincoln. (Rumor had it, Fat Tire would never be sold because of the Colorado/Nebraska football rivalries.) Today, New Belgium is still expanding across the country, with Ohio recently announced as the 33rd state to carry its brews. All I can say to the other 17: Hang in there, buddies. And beer isn’t the only regional product to inspire fanatical pursuit—Burgerville, last mentioned in part 2, is so sought-after by non-Oregonians (and former Oregonians) that the restaurant has begun selling its secret sauce in its online store. So now, you can eat the entire jar with a spoon spread it on your own burgers, burritos and fries from the nonjudgmental comfort of your own home.
5. Reward the Fans Who Were There First
It’s impossible to understate the importance of word-of-mouth, especially for the food and beverage industry. The regional ambassadors and early risk-takers are the at the foundation of your success in a new market, so thank them accordingly. Loyalty programs, fan appreciation events, contests and social media campaigns are all powerful ways to involve your dedicated fan base and build goodwill around your brand. Keep these considerations in mind, and the foreign, un-dampened lands outside of Pacific Northwest are yours for the conquering. Come back soon for the fourth and final installment in this series, on how to keep your brand relevant in a market that doesn’t know—or care about—the meaning of “Made in the Northwest.”