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In a tried-and-true genre of disaster movies, there's a dramatic moment when an asteroid is plummeting toward Earth. Amidst a flurry of intense activity and heroics, the asteroid is redirected at the last possible moment... and tragedy is averted. All is saved.

I've always had the same question about this scenario: Shouldn't the scientists be working sooner to change the asteroid's trajectory—like when it is way out by Neptune? After all, that's when little changes can make a big difference in the end.

I think of the relationship between advertising and shopper marketing in terms of that B-movie analogy.

Advertising helps direct shoppers toward a brand selection long before entering the store; then shopper marketing takes over at the point of arrival. And it's the calibration and balance between advertising and in-store marketing that are essential to success in the retail environment.

The Emergence of Shopper Marketing

It's often said that shopper marketing does its work in the "last three-feet of the sale." This "first moment of truth," as Procter & Gamble's CEO and President A.G. Lafley termed it, is the decision-making point when a shopper selects a brand for the person who will consume it.

In the current economy, there is an emerging, albeit regrettable belief that if shopper marketing is done correctly, advertising may not be needed as much, if at all. So how have some marketers found themselves fixated on shopper marketing?

Shopper marketing has risen in prominence in recent years due largely to Wal-Mart, which ignited a trend years ago that has spread across the face of retailing. Among product marketers, Wal-Mart commands tremendous respect with roughly 1 of every 13 retail dollars passing through one of its US divisions. Getting a product on Wal-Mart's shelves has been heralded as both a triumph and a challenge due to the tough negotiators in Bentonville who can make even the most seasoned product managers reach for the antacids.

Over the years, brands have had to justify their shelf space to countless retailers in slotting fees, promotions, pricing, and ultimately sales. But powerful Wal-Mart has raised the bar by making brands prove their mettle week after week. As a result, brand managers are constantly seeking new ways to enhance and defend every inch of shelf space. And it has caught on with other retailers, ranging from discount stores to grocery chains.

No doubt, shopper marketing is pleasing to retailers because it makes brands work harder on their behalf and provides visual evidence of their effort. But, sadly, those brands that shift budgets to shopper marketing at the expense of brand advertising will find ultimately it costs them in ways that accounting systems do not capture. Worse yet, it may be based upon an incomplete, if not flawed, set of assumptions.

Statistics Don't Lie?

A 2007 study conducted by Deloitte Consulting for the Grocery Marketing Association revealed that the shopper marketing budgets of food companies were increasing at an annual rate of 21 percent, whereas overall marketing was growing at a mere two percent.

The report was prefaced with a remarkable claim that 70 percent of purchasing decisions are made in-store, and 68 percent of in-store purchases are based upon impulse. Those are incredible numbers, to be sure. But despite their inclusion, these statistics did not come from Deloitte. They were derived from research conducted a decade earlier by the Point-of-Purchase Advertising Institute (POPAI)—a leading advocate for shopper marketing. And, over time, it appears that these statistics have been misattributed to Deloitte, taken out of context and likely used for purposes beyond their original intent.

A new report released by OgilvyAction appears to call the POPAI numbers into question. Released earlier this year, the study found that a more modest 39 percent of US consumers wait to make purchase decisions until they are in the store. And only about one-in-ten change their minds about brand choices while at the retailer. These numbers offer sufficient evidence over previous research to reconsider the practice of slashing brand advertising budgets in favor of shopper marketing initiatives.

If one looks beyond these reports, the shift toward shopper marketing doesn't fully consider consumer perception and the speed at which the average consumer typically shops. In the grocery-store channel, for example, the total time spent shopping is an average of 60 minutes per week.

When one considers the variety of tasks that shoppers must perform in this allotted time, efficiency tends to emerge as the primary mode of behavior. And out of efficiency, most shoppers form habitual behaviors and tend to follow repeated patterns in navigating the store.

Shoppers in this autopilot mode account for a significant amount of behavior in the marketplace. And because grocery stores do not frequently change their layout, week-after-week shoppers file past dozens of brands before finding their location in the proper aisle and selecting the brand they seek. It's right where they have found it last week and the week before. Off the shelf it goes, into their basket, and it's on to their next shopping objective.

That's not to say that shoppers are beyond influence in the grocery aisle—far from it. End caps, displays, vignettes, lighting, video, flooring, and other merchandising elements can effectively break through to the shopper's awareness. But shopper routine and velocity work against noticing a new product on the shelf without the support of advertising to leverage the benefits of in-store merchandising.

What About Our Metaphorical Friend, the Asteroid?

Long before the point of impact, advertising is essential to setting consumers on the right trajectory prior to their arrival at the store. Moreover, advertising is important because it can communicate aspects of brands more effectively than shopper marketing—particularly the brand's core values and emotion-based reasons to believe in the brand.

If a brand fails to connect with consumers emotionally, it's missing a big piece of its potential to differentiate itself. This speaks to advertising's strength—the ability to engage consumers emotionally. And fostering emotional engagement takes time and effort beyond just making a product conspicuous on the store's shelf.

Here is a checklist of five things to consider in balance with best shopper-marketing initiatives:

1. Before developing strategy, conduct an attitude, awareness and usage study (AAU)

Perhaps second in importance only to segmentation as a foundational resource for marketing strategy, an AAU study reveals the drivers of purchase consideration for the category, as well as the equities, qualities, and values associated with your brand and competitors' brands.

An AAU study can inform you of the challenges facing your brand in communication as well as product offerings.

2. Use creative development research to increase the effectiveness of your efforts

Using consumer insights as a basis for developing advertising is nothing new, but a broader perspective that includes shopper marketing is advisable in the current economic climate. How extendable is an ad campaign if it is taken into the retail space? What does it look like? What are the opportunities to enhance recognition at the shelf level? How can you transform advertising awareness and intention into recognition and selection at the store?

Be sure to incorporate consumer insights and feedback in the development of advertising and shopper marketing alike.

3. Don't over-rely on Net Promoter Score (NPS)

Anytime someone touts that they've uncovered the single best predictor of marketing success, it conjures up visions of Ouija Boards and tea leaves. NPS has been the hot item in recent years and has laid claim as "the ultimate question."

However, an article published in the October 2008 issue of "Quirk's Marketing Research Review" calls into question NPS and its validity as the prime prognosticator of customer loyalty. Authored by Bob E. Hayes, PhD, the article (pdf) provides a thoughtful and well-sourced indictment of NPS. Consider this: Many consumers may think and speak favorably of your brand, yet change brands anyway.

So if NPS isn't the answer, what is? Admittedly there's no single "killer" indicator, but an AAU study, followed by qualitative research, can help diagnose the degree to which customers who favor your brand may defect and the underlying reasons why.

4. You need both branding and promotional advertising

Promotions or offer-based advertising is effective only among consumers who are willing to include your brand as one worth considering. If consumers don't know your brand or don't believe that it is right for them, then price-based appeals are unlikely to be effective on anyone other than the low-price shopper segment—a segment that tends not to be brand loyal anyway.

For most consumers, brand-based advertising works to open their minds and hearts to including your brand in their consideration set.

5. Are you getting sufficient share of voice?

Sure, the economy has slowed. But in the current economic climate, marketing executives are advised to take a look around at the brands they admire as well as the competitors' brands they fear. Are they continuing to both advertise and employ good shopper marketing practices? Are they behaving aggressively in a market climate while their competitors are retreating?

In these times, being efficient with every dollar is important. But efficiency alone cannot overcome a competitor who is equally efficient and is also outspending you. Now, more than ever, it's a matter of having a vision for your brand and understanding the role that advertising can play in its success.

* * *

What is your vision? Do you advertise your brand only when things are going well? Or, perhaps, advertising is reserved only for brands that have earned it. Opportunities do exist in a down economy. And some brands have the foresight to recognize the slow economy as an opportunity to increase market share and gain momentum over competitors that behave timidly.

For brands that envision opportunity, they have at least one thing in common: They believe that advertising is used most effectively as a catalyst—not treated like a consequence. And shopper marketing works best when it has the support of advertising to help set consumers on the right course.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mitch McCasland (mmccasland@moroch.com) is director of insight and brand strategy at Moroch Partners (www.moroch.com) and a leading advocate of using customer insights and competitive intelligence as a basis for brand strategy, advertising, and new product design.