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Trade Show Bob
The Consumer Conundrum
recently attended the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) trade show in Atlanta, GA. This show is huge, covering two entire halls at the Georgia World Congress Center. The exhibits are huge also – and feature a ton of well-known consumer brands. Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Dr Pepper, Coors, Miller, Budweiser, Monster, Red Bull, Hershey, Nestle, Mars M&M's, Jack Links, Slim Jim, Marlboro, RJ Reynolds, Hostess, Tastykake, Little Debbie, and hundreds of other well known, lesser known, and unknown brands were present.

Many of the famous brands brought along their equally famous brand icons. The Budweiser Clydesdales were there, as was Twinkie the Kid (thankfully resurrected from the dead) and many others. Their exhibit investments were equally impressive, many companies occupying massive exhibits, employing tons of technology, and staging dazzling effects to attract the attention of the show's visitors. But here's the rub.

Many of these exhibitors were simply relying on their "B to C" (business to consumer) branding and messaging, instead of focusing on the "B to B" (business to business) benefits their companies offered to the buyers in attendance at this particular show. It's akin to Apple telling its retailers how cool the latest iPhone is without informing them how they could make money by selling it.

In fact, it can become downright easy to bring along the existing advertising placards and point of sale displays – "3 pack for $1.99" – for the latest snack cake line, hand out samples of the product for people to eat, and feel like you've had a good show because you gave out 5,000 samples. I can visualize how some of these post-show report meetings must go...

Exhibit Manager: "Wow, boss, we're really tired. We gave out 5,000 snack cakes. It was a great show."
Boss: "That's outstanding. It sounds like we nailed it this year."
Exhibit Manager: "Yeah, our biggest competitor wasn't nearly that busy. Its people were always talking to somebody, and not serving food."
Boss: "Cool. By the way, how many deals did we close?"
Exhibit Manager: "Huh?"
Many exhibitors are seduced by this "dark side" into believing that creating buzz around our existing branding will be enough to carry us to success. But it usually isn't. As one savvy marketing director told me at NACS, "We change our message for every show, depending on our key audience's needs."

The key point she made was that the audience walking this particular show, at this particular time, is unique, and is trying to leverage opportunities that will help them solve their current problems and bring them more success. As such, consumer branding carries little value.

A good example of this was found at the White Wave/International Delight exhibit. The company makes of coffee creamer products, and its exhibit graphics read "Build a Better Coffee Bar." It announced to visitors that the company could show/teach them how to do just that – by using its products, of course.

The exhibit's interior signage explained the process, simply and succinctly stating, (1) you must "Make It Fast," (2) you must "Make It Fresh," and (3) you must "Make It Mine" through consumer customization options. That's how you "Build a Better Coffee Bar."

The exhibit focused on the coffee buying experience that buyers were interested in developing, and provided the thought leadership and guidance to help booth visitors grow their profits by adopting best practices. The company didn't just give out coffee samples to everyone who walked by the exhibit, though many of the other exhibitors did exactly that.

So how do you put this best practice to use at your next trade show? Here are a few tips to making sure your exhibit experience is more than just a recreation of your B to C promotional campaigns, and actually fits the audience you're trying to attract at the show.

Understand your audience. Regardless of your industry, you must understand who is attending the particular show at which you're exhibiting. Otherwise, it's impossible to craft a compelling campaign that speaks to their wants and needs.
Understand why they're there. Are they at the show to taste the latest flavors? To increase their sales? To grow their profits? To increase production? To lower production costs? To find alternate suppliers? To forge new relationships? Or something else? Even if you understand your audience, you can't truly cater to their desires if you don't know their motivations for attending the show.
Understand your brand. What is your story relative to that of your competition? What is your story relative to this particular audience? What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Understand the amount of equity your brand carries. What preconceptions exist? Will they work for you in a positive way, or work against you?
Understand your competition. How much is there? What are competitors known for among your target audience?
Understand your advantages. A clear understanding of your points of difference is an important communication tool, and is essential if you wish to differentiate yourself from the other exhibits lining the aisles.
Be obvious. Don't get too cute. If you have something new, say "new." You can assure your message will be delivered if it's big and obvious.
It's easy to approach all trade shows with a cost-efficient, cookie-cutter approach. But sometimes to achieve excellence, you have to make sure your message resonates like a beacon with your target audience, delivers something of value, and promotes your product in a B to B manner your clients and prospects can appreciate.
Bob Milam, independent industry consultant, is a former EXHIBITOR Editorial Advisory Board member and a past All-Star Award winner, and a current EXHIBITOR Conference advisory board and faculty member. tradeshowbob@gmail.com
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