Weetabix sampling takes bite out of the competition

Sampling program in which more than one-quarter of non-users reported buying a breakfast cereal after being given the chance to try it, proves mature brands can benefit from sampling in much the same way as new products, says a spokesman for...

Sampling program in which more than one-quarter of non-users reported buying a breakfast cereal after being given the chance to try it, proves mature brands can benefit from sampling in much the same way as new products, says a spokesman for the cereal maker.

John Stalker, general manager of Thornhill, Ont.-based Weetabix of Canada, says 28% of Weetabix non-users reported in a survey they bought the cereal after they got 12 Weetabix whole wheat biscuits as part of a co-operative sampling program.

Would buy in future

A further 17% said they would ‘definitely’ or ‘very likely’ buy Weetabix in the future.

Stalker says although he takes the response to the ‘intent to purchase’ question with a grain of salt – a significant proportion of consumers will say they intend to buy a product, and, then, for whatever reason, do not – he was impressed with the rate of immediate conversion.

‘I nearly fell off my perch,’ he says.

Weetabix was one of about a dozen non-competing brands distributed last year to about 100,000 consumers as part of an ongoing co-operative sampling program known as HomePac.

HomePacs are offered free by 20 daily newspapers across Canada to subscribers who agree to pay for their subscriptions in advance through the newspaper office rather than during weekly collections.

Major newspapers participating in the program include The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Citizen, The London Free Press, The Kingston Whig-Standard, The Peterborough Examiner and Hamilton’s The Spectator in Ontario; Le Journal and The Gazette in Montreal; The Halifax Chronicle-Herald and The Mail-Star in Halifax; The Vancouver Sun and The Province in Vancouver; The Calgary Herald and The Edmonton Journal in Alberta, and The Star-Phoenix in Saskatoon.

Winnipeg is the only major Canadian market in which the program does not operate.


Readers who subscribe using the prepayment program are mailed a certificate for the HomePac, which they redeem at a participating local retailer.

The products are packaged in a heat-sealed, tamper-proof plastic bag, printed with the HomePac name.

Stalker says he believes his company’s participation in the HomePac program was successful for several reasons.

First, although Weetabix is an established brand in Canada – it has been distributed here since the mid-1960s and made here since 1979 – the brand has less than a half-share of the Canadian cereal market.

(Stalker calls Weetabix ‘probably the best-known, least-tried cereal out there.’)

Potential convert

As such, virtually everyone reached by a sampling program would be a non-user, and, therefore, a potential convert.

Second, the company had conducted research that suggested there was considerable confusion in the consumer’s mind about the nature of Weetabix.

‘[Canadian consumers] are used to flakes and rings and things like that,’ Stalker says.

‘When you are asking them to try something for the first time, and there is not a `cord of familiarity,’ there is some risk involved in trying it,’ he says.

Stalker says the HomePac program allowed the company to assume that risk on the consumer’s behalf.

‘I have given them the product for free,’ he says. ‘It’s not going to cost them anything except for the milk they consume it with,’ he says.

And, finally, the large sample size – half the contents of a full-sized box – provided consumers sufficient value to overcome their objections to trying something new.

‘If we had put in a two-biscuit pack, I think the likelihood of them chucking it out would have been much higher,’ Stalker says.

‘But, because the value of that package at retail is $1.75, they are not going to throw it out,’ he says.

Stalker says by providing 12 biscuits, or six eating occasions, it also meant more people in a family could try the product, or, if they did not like it, pass it on to someone else.

For Weetabix, sampling is just one element of the company’s efforts to reposition the cereal from ‘a high fibre wholewheat biscuit’ to ‘a deliciously different family cereal.’

Packaging changed

The company has changed the format of its packaging from horizontal to vertical, to echo the format of other cereal boxes, and has commissioned television, print, point-of-purchase and transit advertising, as well as cents-off coupons, to get the Weetabix name in front of as many consumers as possible.

Stalker says the sampling element, which constitutes about 10% of the Weetabix marketing budget, is intended to move consumers from familiarity to trial, and to stimulate buying by the lapsed or light frequency user.

‘Even in your user group, you have heavy users, medium users and light users,’ he says. ‘Maybe you are going to kick somebody from one group into the next.’

Lou Rishchynski, director of selective sampling at Toronto-based Samplex, the company that operates HomePac, among other co-operative sampling programs, says sampling achieves what advertising and promotion can only hope to achieve – trial of a product.

‘You can have the best advertising in the world, but the bottom line is, it’s not necessarily going to get people to buy your product,’ Rishchynski says.

Since participating in the HomePac program – a relatively small program by sampling standards – Weetabix has become involved in several other sampling ventures, including a national back-to-school promotion with Eaton’s department store.

Although Stalker admits that companies take a risk by sampling their product, since not everyone who tries it will like it, he sees that as a cost of participation.

‘You can’t expect that just because you put a sample in their hands, they are going to convert to your product,’ he says.

‘All you can hope is that you get your day in court.’