A big part of marketing, and of business for that matter, is helping your consumers resolve a want or a need. Yesterday evening I was one such consumer. Let me offer a little background. I live in the outskirts of Minneapolis, where we are in the midst of a massive, multi-year road construction project.  I mention this because the construction has transformed some of our most frequently-traveled multi-lane freeways into single-lane roads teaming with disgruntled commuters, myself included. I had finally gotten home from work after sitting in traffic for over an hour when my wife pointed out that our cat, Oliver, was out of food. After suggesting a number of homespun alternatives (sautéed chicken breasts, fresh tuna, oat bran cereal, milk, fasting, etc.), Oliver’s pleading gaze, coupled with my wife’s furled brow, compelled me to head back into the gridlock to secure a bag of cat food.

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Image Courtesy of Oliver the Cat

Reaching the store many minutes later, I was a man on a mission. I was also a living, breathing marketing experiment. I had a specific problem—I needed cat food—and because I had already forgotten which brand my wife told me to buy, I was a clean slate; let the best brand win.

Convenience, Simplicity, Price

At that point, I was focused on three things: convenience, simplicity, and price. I was in a hurry, so I wanted to find a decent cat food at the right price with as little effort as possible. After some time, I located the cat food aisle, where I was confronted with this daunting spectacle:

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Faced with innumerable possibilities, my consumer instincts took over. Strolling down the length of the aisle, I let my eyes wander from brand to brand. At first, vibrant colors and interesting packaging jumped out. As my brain’s analytical impulses kicked in, discounted pricing offers and compelling brand titles caught my attention. Then I recalled my original intent: convenience, simplicity, and price.

For me at that moment, convenience translated to size and weight. In my disgruntled state, I wanted to find a cat food that seemed light and easy to tote, logic be damned. Because I wanted a clean conscious and a happy wife, simplicity meant finding a “reputable” cat food that would be a healthy choice for Oliver. Remember, simplicity is the avoidance of complication: a guilty conscious and an angry wife are both complicating factors. Finally, I was interested in price. Hey, the economy is a fickle thing, and writing doesn’t pay what it used to (inside joke to all you writers).

Two broad elements played into my final decision to buy—the tangible and the intangible. For anyone well-versed in rudimentary economics, price was the obvious tangible. Given that I was in a hurry and there were so many choices, my eyes gravitated to the brands that offered price discounts or coupons. In this case, simplicity was a hybrid of tangible and intangible: I scanned the packaging looking for statements and symbols that shouted “this is a healthy choice.” Convenience was an even greater intangible: lighter colors and sleek packaging suggested an easy tote.

For those who might think brand packaging doesn’t matter, let me assure you, it does.

Marketing Takeaways

So what does my journey through the cat food aisle have to do with marketing strategy? Here are a few takeaways:

  • Know Each Segment of Your Target Audience – For the purveyors of cat food, this means recognizing that at least one micro segment of their demographic consists of the harried owner running out at the last minute to purchase food for their starving cat. Though this may seem like a potential throwaway demographic, it’s not. The type of highly informal research I conducted when sitting in the cat aisle is likely all the effort I will ever expend when analyzing cat food (sorry, Oliver). If my cat likes the brand I choose, and my wife doesn’t hit me over the head with a broomstick, I’m likely to purchase it again and again (once accepted at home, it becomes a simple, mindless choice for me to make when at the store). Thus, a one-off impulse purchase becomes a premeditated and reoccurring one. This last point gains further relevance when you factor in that I do the shopping in our house (roughly) half of the time.
  • Figure out What Motivates Them (i.e. wants and needs), and Provide It – In my cat food experience, I was looking for convenience, simplicity, and price. The brand that resolved all three of these won my business.
  • If You’re Not Happy with the Results, Tweak and Refine – For all I know, any number of the brands I passed over in the cat food aisle may have been focused on winning over the “I need to dash out at the last minute and buy food for my cat” demographic. If sales are down or you feel like you’re just not connecting with your audience, don’t throw in the towel. Go back to the drawing board, review your analytics data, meditate on the wants and needs of the likely buyers of your product/service (i.e. your target audience), and refine your message accordingly.

Translating to Inbound Marketing Strategy

Switching from consumer to digital strategist, here’s how I would translate some of the key lessons learned in the cat food isle to help businesses create an effective inbound marketing strategy for the digital age.

To stand out in a sea of products and services, your company needs to build an inbound marketing strategy that looks something like this. First, you must establish a mobile-friendly online presence that communicates your brand’s unique value proposition efficiently and effectively. Then you need to create relevant content that resolves the wants and needs of your target audience, optimize it for search engines (SEO), and promote it over social media. You also need to utilize social, local, mobile (SoLoMo) channels and tools to form deeper connections with your audience—connections that will increase sales conversions and foster long-term brand advocacy. Finally, regardless of success or failure, you need to review the data analytics and elicit external (customer) and internal (sales team/CSR) feedback to constantly refine your message and product/service offerings. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Just one man’s perspective from the cat food aisle…