P&G goes viral with test of Innovation Locations

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Procter & Gamble Co. is testing a new way to build buzz for brands before they're launched with kiosks nestled alongside Sunglass Huts and department stores in suburban shopping malls.

Innovation Location interactive kiosks have opened in two malls in Ohio in recent months showcasing products in test market or limited distribution that have not yet rolled out to grocery stores or mass merchandisers. The kiosks use interactive touch-screen computers and pitches from sales clerks to promote products.

"We're planning on expanding [to more sites] with the point of gaining some real-life consumer learning," a spokeswoman said.

Central to the concept is targeting "early adopters" who will talk up new products to friends prior to a national launch, the spokeswoman said.

JUST IMAGINE

Signs and video displays at the kiosks carry the slogan: "Imagine what's next!" and encourage consumers to "tell your friends." Kiosks promote up to four brands at a time. They are currently highlighting three brands in test market -- Impress plastic wrap, Spire nutraceutical beverages and Crisco CookSmart, a canola oil blended with cholesterol-lowering soy extracts. A fourth brand featured at the kiosks, ThermaCare heat wraps, was rolled into limited national distribution earlier this year via the Web, toll-free ordering and health professionals.

Innovation Location, developed by P&G's North American Market Development Organization, is the latest tactic in a movement P&G executives call "diffusion marketing," which utilizes word of mouth, endorsements from influential third parties, e-mail "viral marketing" and sampling programs to support and partially supplant conventional media advertising.

Viral or diffusion marketing, which involves finding and leveraging the power of influential consumers, is of increasing interest to marketers, said Pete Blackshaw, former P&G interactive brand manager and president of Planetfeedback.com.

Earlier this year, he helped launch a Viral Consumer Consortium as a roundtable for marketers to discuss the emerging practice.

"Most marketers have just scratched the surface of this," said Mr. Blackshaw, who added, "this is the sweet spot of the new marketing."

Products appear in Innovation Location kiosks as early as six to 12 months before national launch at retail, with new products expected to rotate in every month or two.

P&G sells featured products at the kiosks via vending machines or sales clerks who provide product details.

FROM A VENDING MACHINE

One visitor to a Cincinnati kiosk expressed amused surprise at being able to buy Crisco oil from a mall vending machine. A female shopper who stopped to make a repeat purchase of Impress wrap found the product was out of stock, but a clerk directed her to the InnovationLocation.com Web site and a toll-free number.

Besides offering online ordering, InnovationLocation.com lets consumers e-mail product information to friends.

Consumers who buy products at Innovation Locations are invited to join an Innovators' Club, which entitles them to 5% discounts on purchases at the kiosks and helps establish a consumer database for future P&G launches. Club members get a bar-coded membership card that shows Innovation Location's Web address and toll-free number. They're also asked if they're willing to participate in market research by phone, mail, Web or in-person mall interviews.

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