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A Flavorful Study in Niche Marketing

Let’s pretend for a moment that you’ve just agreed to craft an ambitious cross-media campaign to introduce a line of Russian foods to the American public. And you shake hands on the deal at the very same time that worldwide media attention is focused on Russia’s controversial hosting of the Winter Olympic games.

  • Packaging
  • Collateral
  • Trade show booth
  • Website
  • Social media

This was the situation Soquel, Calif.’s McDill Associates  found itself in after cementing a deal with American-based Russian-food purveyor Popkoff’s. Yet the resulting partnership has proven to be an excellent lesson not only in how to reposition a successful niche product for a mainstream audience, but also in juggling retailer and consumer interests online.

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Dumplings and Pasta, Russian Style

Unless you frequent Eastern European specialty retailers in California, you’re probably missing out on two favorite dishes of many Russian Americans – pelmeni and vareniki. After nearly 50 years of catering exclusively to the Russian diaspora in California, Popkoff’s decided to expand these two dishes to the broader American market.

In January, Reveal Brands, a consultancy working closely with Popkoff’s on the project, approached McDill Associates at the place where many of these relationships begin: the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco.

Initially agreeing to redesign the packaging, McDill quickly expanded their influence to the marketing, and helping to position the products in an American marketplace already choked with prepared meals. This would be quickly followed by photography, trade-show booths and collateral, social media, the works.

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A Global Redesign

Before they did anything else, McDill Associates needed to gauge American feelings toward Russian products and culture, particularly food. The results were extremely positive, says McDill President & CEO Melissa McDill. “Ethnic inspired foods are very popular right now, so we knew that was right on trend and that was a good direction.”

Next, they had to figure out how to let distributors and consumers know what these two much-loved Russian foods actually were. (Note to readers: You’ll probably want to read the following paragraph on a full stomach.)

After much discussion, they came up with the phrase “Russian inspired dumplings” for both products, which are further described as “savory [chicken] stuffed pouches” on the pelmeni packaging. The vareniki is described as “flavorful [mushroom & veggie] stuffed pirogies.” Of all that wording, “Russian inspired” was probably the phrase that required the most discussion.

Reveal Brands’ Chuck Spencer and Jake White spoke candidly with Popkoff’s CEO, Alex Meseonznik, about the possible ramifications of any negative Russian current events in the media during the launch of a new Russian food in the American marketplace, says McDill.

No one knew how Russia’s controversial legislation in the run-up to the Sochi games might influence the American market’s view of the country. The phrase “Russian inspired” seemed a good compromise for Popkoff’s products, especially considering how favorably Russian culture and ethnic influences had tested in the marketing research.

Though the company wanted to keep the red-and-gold color scheme of its original packaging, everything else was up for grabs. Except for the bearded man on the package. “They wanted to keep him,” says McDill. “But he was actually in more of a traditional military uniform [see below], so we really encouraged them to make him more chef-like.” The original photo-realistic image became more of a stylized illustration, his officer’s cap replaced by an amorphous chef’s hat, and his uniform with a traditional chef’s coat.

Adding to the global nature of the product, the packaging was printed by a company in Israel, necessitating a lot of late nights for the McDill team.

“When we were proofing and sending off products we had to take turns here – who was going to stay up in the middle of the night to answer questions and respond to any file differences, or anything that they needed to change,” McDill explains. “They were using a new technology to print prototype packaging, allowing the client to see realistic formed packaging proofs usable for trade shows and retailer introductions.”

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Ladies and Gentlemen: Popkoff’s!

The design and branding agency has handled a number of food packaging in the Asian and Hispanic marketplaces, but this was the first time they’d cracked Eastern Europe.

And as they prepared to introduce the “Russian-inspired” products at U.S. trade shows, Russia grabbed headlines again, this time in Crimea. Fortunately, having a good product well packaged and promoted is what really counts when it comes to success in the food market.

In May, the Popkoff’s products debuted at the National Restaurant Association trade show, the launch site for most food offerings in the U.S.

McDill Associates created eye-catching booths, as well as collateral inviting attendees to several cooking demonstrations by celebrity chef Penny Davidi in which the vareniki and pelmeni were the featured ingredients. Even those who couldn’t attend the demos walked away with nicely printed recipe cards featuring lush photographs of the delicacies.

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The B2B-B2C Troika
The final piece of the Popkoff’s cross-media campaign kicked off in June, and is by far the most nuanced of all the components: social media.

Popkoff’s is concentrating on Twitter and Facebook, with McDill handling all the postings. Currently that consists of tweets and photo posts from various trade shows, and Facebook links to different vareniki and pelmeni recipes on the company’s website. (The agency designed the look and feel of all the visual elements on the website, but it’s being maintained by another company.)

But, says McDill, “we’re feeling the need for many of our clients to get heavier into video and animation to really drive interest. We’re producing animated visuals we call ‘excite’ videos. They’re short, playful, recipe-based videos for food companies to excite, inspire and entice consumers to use clients’ products in various types of recipes.”

As far as Popkoff’s goes, “We have yet to heavily promote it to consumers because the products are not in stores yet,” she points out, estimating they won’t be until September. At the same time, “We’re finding that people really need to have a social media presence, even when they just launch products – for their retailer buyers. This is really to make sure retailers and those interested in the product can see a personality being developed for it, so once they do carry it, it’s already there.”

Though the client has told them they view the campaign as a big success so far, what McDill describes is a bit like being in the eye of a hurricane. They’ve gotten through the hectic pre-launch work and are now waiting until Popkoff’s products become available in America’s restaurants and supermarkets. In other words, they’re on the cusp of switching gears from B2B to B2C, and much of that switch will take place on social media.

“Ultimately, especially in the food segment, retailers are your gatekeepers,” says McDill. “You really have to make sure you’re speaking to their interests… .But social media is so focused on consumers, the ROI can be hard to define. If we get 100 likes, how many of those will turn into actual retail sales? Our job is to figure that out and balance the marketing strategies, including social media, so all elements of the program deliver results.”

And if they have to nibble a vareniki or two for inspiration in the meantime, so much the better.

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Author: Aaron Berman

A former writer and editor for USA Today, Aaron Berman is also the editor of PaperSpecs, and covered the newspaper industry for the Newspaper Association of America’s monthly magazine, Presstime.

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