An imaginary company briefed its field marketing agency to run a sampling campaign to promote its latest snack, which contains nuts, to schoolchildren. A few days later, the agency rushed out branded vans that parked outside schools with teams handing samples to the kids pouring through the gates, who all devoured the snack instantly.
It sounds like the campaign was a big hit. Unfortunately, it was also highly irresponsible. Some children are fatally allergic to nuts yet the teams didn't warn anyone about the potentially deadly ingredient. Furthermore, the Best Practice Guidelines For Responsible Sampling (see box, over), produced by the Direct Marketing Agency (DMA), which includes the Field Marketing Council (FMC), says under-18s are off-limits to field staff unless accompanied by a responsible adult whose consent is required.
This fictitious horror story highlights how agencies have to negotiate their way through a potential legal and ethical minefield to deliver an effective sampling campaign that boosts the client's brand. They need to ensure they are adhering to the law as well as using industry guidelines and common sense.
Alison Williams, chairman of agency FDS Group and the FMC, says: "We brief staff clearly and monitor the work done to ensure that no rules or guidelines are infringed. It is our responsibility to ensure that the consumer is protected, and this is never more important than when children are involved."
Potential hazards include giving sweets to diabetic kids or meat products to vegetarians, so parental consent is essential when sampling to a young target market. "Only when the adult agrees can the tasting go ahead," states Williams.
But it's not just a food issue. Blue Water's field staff were bound by government guidelines in the Stewart Report (a Department of Health document) not to promote mobile phones to under-18s when it conducted a retail sampling campaign for Nokia last year.
The under-18 rule equally applies, as does the law, when sampling alcoholic products. RPM lists Strongbow as a client and although not a member of the FMC, it abides by its guidelines as a matter of course. The agency also liaises with bodies such as the Portman Group, which promotes sensible drinking.
"Much of our alcohol sampling takes place at music events, where under-18s will be present," says RPM managing director Ross Urquhart. Every RPM brand communicator receives a written brief prior to a training day that highlights the importance of not sampling under-18s. If in doubt, they have to ask for identification. "Anyone that samples an under-18 faces instant dismissal, a fact reiterated throughout the training and actively monitored at the live event by our team leaders," adds Urquhart.
PMI managing director Gail Tunesi believes it is impractical to ask for proof of age from every person and worries that it could affect a campaign's effectiveness. She argues that field marketers need to maintain a balance between productivity and responsibility.
Some agencies push the onus back on to consumers. "We create our own policies and procedures but there has to be an element of ownership on the part of the consumer," says Gekko Partners managing director Dan Todaro, whose firm is not a member of the FMC. Todaro believes that by taking a sample the consumer also takes liability, but adds that common sense prevents agencies from handing out samples to kids.
The age challenge also applies when marketing to the elderly. FDS's Williams says: "With roadshows for energy sales we have to be careful not to make the elderly feel they have been bullied into signing. We therefore have a rule of not conducting a sale with anyone who looks 70 or over. If we meet people of this age, we give them a leaflet and ask them to contact us if they wish to proceed."
This caring approach can work in a brand's favour. For last year's Jordans Cereal Roadshow, Loewybe stipulated that field staff had to ask every consumer whether they had a nut allergy before giving out a sample. Loewybe client services director Lynette Baer says: "It created an immediate intimacy with the consumer and made them feel that Jordans cared about them."
Ensuring that field staff are well-trained and informed can help to create this bond and instil confidence in consumers. When sampling cosmetics, field staff need to know whether the product is likely to cause allergies, is perfumed and whether it was tested on animals. When sampling food, field staff must have a food hygiene certificate and the correct equipment to meet health and safety laws such as hygienic wipes, plastic gloves, disposable cups and fridges.
Extensive hygiene training
PMI and client Gourmet Garden, a fresh herb and spice company, had to follow all these requirements when handing out food samples including bruschetta and stir-frys at the 2002 BBC Good Food Show. Staff received extensive health and hygiene training prior to the event, while the stand had to be equipped with freezers and chill facilities.
If health and hygiene precautions are not taken, the risk to consumers - and therefore the brand - could be catastrophic. It is for this reason that clients are becoming more involved in setting the parameters of sampling campaigns.
PMI's Tunesi says: "Our clients UDV, Pepsico, Unilever and Procter & Gamble have a formal tender process and roster agreement within which they set out guidelines for sampling. In turn, the retailers and venue owners also have their own requirements and standards."
It makes good business sense for field marketers to abide by the rules of the game. But whatever the source of regulation, agencies are clear that creativity and campaign impact need not suffer.
SAMPLING GUIDELINES EXPLAINED
The DMA produced the Best Practice Guidelines For Responsible Sampling, with input from the Field Marketing Council, Association of Household Distributors and the Institute of Sales Promotion.
The primary responsibility for a sampling campaign rests with the client, but all DMA members involved in the supply of samples are expected to abide by the guidelines, which were designed to ensure that those involved in sampling act responsibly to ensure the highest standards in practice and consumer protection.
The wide-ranging regulations include key points on packaging, labelling, and sample quality.
Packaging should be legal, protect contents from damage, protect those who have access to the contents, and be environmentally friendly.
Labelling should be clear, exact and give warning of contents, particularly if toxic or dangerous.
Samples must be of good quality and adhere to any rules, such as those relating to tobacco or alcohol.
Field Marketing Council chairman Alison Williams says: "The guidelines cannot be made more specific as there are too many potential scenarios for them to cover, but the very clear message is that when conducting a sampling exercise we are responsible for the wellbeing of consumers, and must make every possible effort to protect them."