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Growth How a Toronto startup is changing the product sampling game

Pictured from left to right: Brittany Ugolini, Chris Livadas and Marie Chevrier and Rochelle Béchard of Toronto-based Sampler.

Tyler Handley/Sampler

THE CHALLENGE

How do you revolutionize the established way of doing things? Marie Chevrier founded Toronto-based Sampler to change the way companies encourage people to try their products.

We've all encountered groups of enthusiastic young people in colourful T-shirts handing out product samples and Ms. Chevrier knew that these traditional brand sampling techniques were wasteful. There is no way to tell whether the samples are going to people in the brand's target market, and, more importantly, there is no way to garner reliable feedback from recipients. She developed Sampler's software to provide targeted and measurable ways to distribute samples and to get information about the people who want to sample particular products.

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However, she realizes that this is a radical change. "In the old model, a company might hire an agency to distribute 50,000 or 100,000 samples in high traffic areas or at events, focussing more on quantity than quality," she explains. "We need to completely change the way that people think about samples. We want them to realize that sampling online can help them gather more data about their customers."

But changing the established ways of doing things in large organizations is usually hard and time-consuming. How is she going about doing it?

THE BACKGROUND

Ms. Chevrier learned how important brand sampling is for consumer packaged goods companies while working as a consultant for brands in the baby and food industries and at a global advertising agency.

She left the agency in 2012 to take up a position as Entrepreneur in Residence at the New York City office of Rocket Internet, a network of international internet-based, consumer-facing companies. While there, she worked with a social gifting company and started to think about the potential that could come from combining social media with brand sampling. She returned to Toronto in Aug. 2013, ready to implement her ideas.

Ms. Chevrier knew that she wanted to put sampling online, but she recognized that she needed to guard against "freebie hunters." The key was leveraging the communities that brands had already built on Facebook.

"We wanted to base our solution on Facebook from the beginning," Ms. Chevrier recounts. "If we install our application onto the Facebook Fan Page of a brand, we can encourage people who are fans of that brand to request a sample or to share samples with Facebook friends that fit the target market -- for example, female and living in a particular geographic area."

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The application is intended to empower those who already love a brand to become brand ambassadors and ask their friends if they're interested in a free sample. Friends have to buy in – they have to link to the brand's Facebook page – to get one. This way each sample is sent to someone in the target market, and each sample has a social footprint.

Ms. Chevrier says this is much more precise than handing out samples on a street corner and allows the impact of sampling to be measured. "The sampling strategy also becomes the brand's social media strategy, because it lets the company communicate with an increasing number of Facebook fans."

The solution sounded great in theory, but how could Ms. Chevrier get the clients to show that it is also great in practice? Organizations can be slow to change, especially when it comes to marketing activities that are central to important product introductions.

THE SOLUTION

Sampler was launched in 2013 with an underlying philosophy of working with innovative clients and staying flexible and nimble to be able to respond to their needs quickly.

"When you're reinventing the way that something important is done, there are no rules or models to follow, and there is no one theory about what the best solution should be," she says. "In order to build a solution that your clients will buy, you need to learn from working with those who encounter repeatedly the problem you are trying to solve, and you need to stay flexible and nimble so you can change and adapt as needed."

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Accordingly, Ms. Chevrier identifies companies who have been first movers in their area and are always thinking ahead. Not only are such clients unafraid to experiment, they also tend to make decisions quickly. "You can spend months and months courting a company which will ultimately be reluctant to do something new," she says.

She has found that pioneering companies want to help her out. "They want the best possible product, so they want to provide insights on what we could do better; for example, in terms of layout design and or providing the best user experience. We listen closely to them. Some of our clients have been in the industry for a really long time. They have been our most valuable assets."

From the outset Ms. Chevrier has valued open communication between product and sales teams and only implements a feature when there is a client who will pay for it. Not only does this strategy provide cash to build the technology, it also ensures that features will be useful and used. Further, in order for Sampler to respond to client needs without delay, the company must be nimble in developing their technology. This means that it is important for the company to have technological capabilities in-house, rather than outsourcing them, so that new features can be implemented quickly.

THE RESULT

Ms. Chevrier reports that the first year of operation has been very encouraging. The company already has 25 paid clients from the U.S. These clients span six consumer packaged goods categories and spend a significant percentage of their marketing budgets on product sampling. Last month, Sampler received $645,000 in financing from MaRS' Investment Accelerator Fund, Export Development Canada, and Ryerson Futures, and the funds will be invested in developing technology, as well as sales and marketing teams, and the opening of a New York office later this year.

Becky Reuber is a professor of strategic management in the Rotman School of Management of the University of Toronto.

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This is the latest in a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They now appear every Tuesday on the Report on Small Business website.

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