Brandfire turns to digital to keep up shopper marketing

The agency has taken a hit on in-store programs, but its VP of digital says different platforms offer opportunities to adapt.


“We had to stop one shopper marketing campaign, which was reliant on concerts and ticket giveaways. We were developing a landing page and had to put the brakes on it.”

That’s Ira Kates, VP of digital at Markham’s Brandfire Group. And it’s a story that’s become all too common among agencies as COVID-19 wreaks havoc on Canada’s economy.

According to Kates, both the brand development and shopper marketing sides of Brandfire’s business have taken a big hit and the agency has been actively working with some of its vendors to try to adapt, redo or remix creative where it can.

But there is still work to be done, as Kates says brands “are coming to agencies asking, ‘what can I do now? I can’t just stand still. I have to focus on what comes next.’”

Kates says Brandfire is keeping busy by working with clients on building websites, guidelines or new brands, but also looking at what aspects flow well in terms of digital shopper marketing: how to approach ecommerce platforms, optimizing digital signage and how a digital atmosphere can be as supportive and welcoming as a physical one.

He says that in this pandemic environment, there is still an opportunity to emphasize the purchase of one product instead of another and that Brandfire’s work with media partners allows it to make sure brand messages are seen in both digital and physical grocery stores, even if consumers are taking fewer trips during a typical week.

“We have been fairly lucky, as our clients have been understanding about different ideas,” Kates says. “When offices started closing, and all the ambiguity started happening, we started thinking about adaptive solutions to ‘shift and juke’ instead of turning off.”

Kates cites Egg Farmers of Ontario as an example brand it’s been working with in this way. People are still buying eggs, and Brandfire wanted to allay the boredom of being at home, closing the gap socially among families by sharing egg decorations and dyeing recipes through Zoom and Google Hangouts ahead of the Easter weekend.

“We did quick work to bring up more media to try to make sure our message was seen, which was positive, especially in an era with lots of anxiety,” Kates says. Brandfire focused heavily on social and search, bringing video on YouTube forward because of increased viewership with more people at home. He says the campaign, in part, was also meant to educate consumers as to just how local these products are and how rigorous the Ontario supply chain is, assuaging fears about shortages. The fact that it takes between five and seven days for an egg to get from chicken to shelf also helps shoppers who may not be making as many sojourns to the store be confident of the product’s freshness.

“Food has been impacted by COVID-19, but the innovation aspect has not stopped us from going out to find new business,” Kates says. Brandfire has some confectionery clients and is active in the ready-to-drink space, working with brands like Canada Dry and Motts Clamato.

In this era of physical distancing, Kates says agencies have to figure out how they are going to get people to really taste beverages, and to convey the nuttiness of a chocolate, or the Canadiana flavour of a ready-to-drink Caesar with messaging, and to reinforce these messages without sampling.

“If you want to sample, you will have to think of different ways for customers to interact with a product and think of how we use the modern age of technology to harness the senses,” Kates says. That could mean, for example, a brand telling the story of how single source cocoa beans make the best chocolate on a podcast. Or, it could also mean offering a virtual tour of places that are closed to public visitations, such as hotels, theme parks and retirement facilities.

It’s incumbent on brands to handle quick internet campaigns, Kates says, and new technology like AR filters will become a big part of suggestions and recommendations to clients. Brandfire is able to stay the course during the downturn, Kates says, because of its breadth of offerings, although he cautions that “we generally try not to tell anyone to go all in on anything,” even if e-commerce is booming right now.