• Rob Stevens

Occasion Based Marketing: Intercepting the Consumer on the Path to Purchase

I recently came across an article describing how Heineken is trying to gain competitive advantage over imported and craft beers by taking an occasion based approach to understanding and influencing consumer purchase and consumption. They have identified “touch points” along the path to purchase where they can influence selection decisions recognizing that the purchase drives frame of reference and sometimes even the channel vary by occasion. These occasions aren’t just the obvious ones like Christmas, which they describe as “events.” According to Shawn Fitzgerald, head of shopper intelligence for Heineken, occasions are "year round but definable” and in this case include:

  • Relaxing at Home

  • Casual Gathering

  • Winding Down After Work

  • Watching Sports with Friends

  • Meal Compliment

In the process of defining occasion-based opportunities, they also consider how purchase and consumption dynamics differ by consumer segments (ex. Millennial vs. Gen X). But, they immerse themselves in the dynamics of the occasion that these different demographic, attitudinal, and behavioral segments experience. This understanding allows them to tailor communication by channel primarily at the point of purchase and through store circulars which seem pretty retro in the digital age of social media. “Print isn’t dead” according to Fitzgerald, but the key is in influencing the drivers of purchase that are most relevant for a particular occasion and these clearly differ by occasion.

Some brands, like Butterball, are largely defined by a particular occasion but in the case of Heineken, their imported heritage and relatively low price relative to more artisan craft beers allows them to play evenly in multiple occasions. What varies by occasion is the salience of particular benefits like price which is more of a driver for an occasion like relaxing at home versus a casual gathering of friends. In the former case a base level of quality is the ante while price is the driver that tips the purchase decision toward a particular brand. In the latter, price is relatively less important and image and breadth of appeal drive purchase.

Like so many marketing truisms this seems almost obvious to the point that I can hear my daughters voice in my head saying, “Duh.” Still, when I look at my history in brand management most of the focus was on depth of understanding the nuanced nature of the target as if they brought the same orientation and criteria to every situation. I can recall target definitions like “oatmeal enthusiasts” driving communication efforts as if there were really a big group of these and they operated with the same criteria across occasions. Turns out there weren’t and they didn’t. The drivers differed by occasion in terms of weekend versus weekday and kids versus adults. Maybe another “duh” but it is only obvious in hindsight because occasion did not drive communication of salient benefits so much as create a background setting for communicating the same message reinforcing the same benefits across occasions.

Years ago I had an economics professor that said, “All social theory seems obvious in retrospect,” as if somehow stating a theory explicitly is merely describing what is already an intuitive given and adds nothing to the discipline. Much of consumer marketing theory seems to fall into the same category and yet it can drive a very different set of implications and different ways to influence behavior. Sometimes the difference between “duh” and “aha” is a fine line.