Building the Next Generation of Consumers thru the Brand Experience

My three boys have never enjoyed grocery shopping with me, and quite frankly, nor have I enjoyed taking them to the grocery store with me.  So imagine my surprise when, after a recent trip to the newly opened Whole Foods Market in our neighborhood, they commented on what a “cool store” it is.  I was even more surprised to hear them say, “can we come”, the next time I announced I was going to Whole Foods.

Whole Foods Market was established in 1978 by a 25-year-old college dropout John Mackey and his 21-year-old girlfriend Rene Lawson who borrowed $45,000 from family and friends to open a small natural foods store in Austin, Texas under the name SaferWay (a spoof of Safeway). Two years later, John Mackey partnered with Craig Weller and Mark Skiles to merge SaferWay with their Clarksville Natural Grocery, resulting in the opening of the original Whole Foods Market on September 1980. At 12,500 square feet and with a staff of 19, the store was quite large in comparison to the standard health food store of the time. Today Whole Foods is the largest natural food chain in the US, with 304 stores and growing every day.

It’s not just my kids who ask to go to Whole Foods. All my friends are having the same experience with their children.  And in fact, I bump into somebody I know, with their kids in tow, every time I go there. What has happened here? Well, it turns out, that Whole Foods has turned the once mind-numbing task of grocery shopping into a really enjoyable experience. It’s like an outing, an event. There is appetizing food everywhere you look, displayed in a light-filled, so-clean-you-can-eat-off-the-floor store with beautifully designed aisles, signs, freezers and checkout lanes. But that still doesn’t explain why my kids want to go there does it? Then I figured it out.  It’s the food sampling.  They sample kid-friendly food like ice cream, energy bars, corn chips, local milk etc.  And the staff doing the sampling are engaging, friendly and knowledgeable and interact with the kids.

Whole Foods have very cleverly figured out how to capture their target market long before they become customers, by strengthening the role of the brand experience at the key touch point!

Can brands in other product categories also do this? Can a car manufacturer build brand loyalty among 12 year olds?  Or how about insurance companies?  For example, can Geico’s cute little gecko, befriend young children so that when they buy their first car, they automatically think of Geico for their insurance?  And I don’t mean a collateral brand awareness created by the unintended exposure the brand gets among this age group, but truly targeted marketing. Of course there is a fine line between exploitation and marketing to children that needs to be carefully navigated, but perhaps there is a real opportunity here. When mom and dad buy a new car, perhaps the dealership should give a toy version to the 8 year-old son, or a cool branded t-shirt to the teenage daughter?

There is certainly merit in establishing a relationship with the target consumer before they have purchasing power. I know that when I moved out of home and started my own grocery shopping, I automatically bought the same brands of food, drinks, paper goods etc. that my mom did. It really didn’t occur to me to try the other brands. But when it came to non-grocery items, like buying my first car or furniture or gardening tools, I made my own choices.  Possibly because I didn’t have any real interaction with these brands as a child.  After all, I wasn’t actually driving my mom’s car, just sitting it.

So perhaps certain categories lend themselves to this pre-marketing strategy better than others.  Home Depot is a good example.  They sell Home Depot branded toy tools, which I bought for my boys.  I have a pretty good feeling that they will grow up to be loyal Home Depot customers.