More Businesses Turning to Free Samples to Drum Up Business


“Try it, you’ll like it!”

Whether it’s samples of food offered at a grocery store, or a complimentary mouthwash from your dentist, free samples are a great way for businesses to connect with an audience and get their product into the hands of potential customers. With this in mind, many businesses aren’t waiting for the customer to come to them--they’re taking their products on the road, offering free samples from branded vehicles on  multi-city product tours.

At Oogavé, president Gannon Merrell says that since his organic soda company began giving out free samples all over Colorado from their 1977 Ford Ranchero flatbed in January, they’ve seen an increase in Facebook fans and brand awareness.

“It's nearly impossible to make a name for yourself through traditional means without million of dollars to spend on marketing,” Merrell says. “By sampling Oogavé to as many people as possible in person, we ensure that consumers get the most compelling information about the product, which would be hard to convey through ads or billboards.”

Merrell says the company has far less invested in a mobile campaign like this than they would in a more-traditional ad campaign. The company spent just $8,500 to purchase the vehicle, have it wrapped to feature the company logo and build the company’s 12-headed soda fountain they affectionately call “Medusa.” The company spends around $200 a month on gas driving to and from events all over the state.

“We don't have a massive marketing budget so when we spend money on promotions we need to be sure that we're connecting with the right audience,” says Merrell. “We see the sampling opportunity as an opportunity to create new customers so the more they engage in and experience our brand, the more likely they are to seek it out in the grocery store. If you see a four-pack of Oogavé sodas on the grocery shelf alongside all the other soda options, you may not put it in your shopping cart.  But once you've tried it, you'll go looking for it.

"And with advertising budgets stretched thin, many companies may turn to “free samples” as a way to get more of a consumer response, says  Luke Kachersky, project coordinator for Fordham University’s Center for Positive Marketing, a marketing research center.

“People are so indoctrinated into the marketing and advertising culture; the first response when they see something free is ‘What’ s the catch?’ ‘What do they want from me?,’” says Kachersky. “But when they do get something that’s actually free because a company believes in the product, it has an incredibly positive effect on the brand that’s doing the giving.”

When a brand gives something away for free, Kachersky says it shows that the brand has customers’ best interest at heart, and believes in its own competency. The risk to a brand if a consumer doesn’t like their product is also minimal, according to Kachersky.

“If you have a bad experience, you will just say, ‘Oh, that’s why it’s free,’ and move on,” says Kachersky.

Free samples allow consumers to have a direct experience, Kachersky says, which is the main decision point consumers use when making a purchase. While a consumer may learn that a product is good from a friend, or see an ad they enjoy, the consumer who has had an actual experience with the brand will be the one to “pull the trigger” when it comes to pick it up off the shelf.

Free samples can also generate positive brand awareness--even if the samples aren’t of the product for sale. At Sungevity, a solar power corporation, CEO Patrick Crane says his company has had success driving throughout the Northeast giving out ice pops kept frozen by a solar-powered refrigerated truck.

“Giving someone an ice pop on a sweltering hot summer day is the purest form of brand engagement,” says Crane, whose trucks will be on the road for seven weeks this summer, hitting five states and giving out tens of thousands of ice pops. The results so far are good with a measurable increase in consumers finding the company on Facebook, and requesting quotes for Sungevity’s products.

Sungevity’s cool treat is right on the mark, says Kachersky; seasonality plays a big part in whether or not a campaign like this will be successful.

“You don’t give out a free snow shovel in summer, no one will see the value in that,” says Kachersky. “Giving out ice cream in the summer, however, is perfect. Consumers will see tremendous value in something that will cool them off and provide them with something they want.”

Another way mobile promotions can ensure success is to ensure there is a retailer nearby that sells the product, Kachersky says. If a consumer likes what they’ve sampled, they should be able to find the product on shelves in the vicinity so they can make a purchase.

At Kim & Scott’s Gourmet Pretzels, owners Kim and Scott Holstein make sure to have their mobile sample stations set up when consumers are looking for little bags of goodies—at Halloween. The duo travels nationwide each year and say they spend about $125 per stop giving out samples.

When people stop by the pretzel stations, they’re also given a coupon to purchase the product and literature directing customers to the company website, and Facebook and Twitter pages.

Handouts are also great to include with a free sample, says Kachersky, because that’s where customers learn about the brand. Good things to include on any postcards or flyers would be the company’s history, information about the brand’s positioning and values and ingredients used in the products.

And as more companies look for ways to stretch their advertising dollars, Kachersky says we shouldn’t be surprised to see bigger companies getting in on the driving-promotion act. One such company, Save-A-Lot, recently hit the road for a 10-city summer tour, providing food to local food banks, handing out gift cards, and, of course, free samples.

The cost for their campaign? Save-A-Lot budgeted less than $1,000 for gas to travel more than $4,000 miles.