Travel. Store trips. Product discovery. Sampling.
These aspects of the consumer experience—and lifeblood for new brands—were all compromised to some degree by the COVID pandemic over the past year. But as the country gradually reopens, staycations become vacations, brands and retail stores get back to the work of inspiring purchases instead of simply meeting needs, and consumers are set free once again to seek out new experiences, an enterprising tech startup out of Denver has a plan to stitch them all together.
“We’re thinking about the future of sampling,” explained Edward Hu of Showplace, in an interview with WGB.
Showplace is a technology platform enabling brands to make product placements in vacation rental homes, like Airbnb and VRBO, with the idea that customers who encounter these products while traveling are as likely to bring home a positive experience with them as they’ll bring home photos. While this is already proving a promising channel for marketers of everything from mattresses to personal-care products, Hu said he sees potential for grocery stores to get in further on this unique form of experience-based influencer marketing, which he said can spark visits from inspired and desirable shoppers and gain hard-won attention in a world that’s been distracted for more than a year.
For brands both in and out of traditional channels of trade, the pandemic made direct-to-consumer both a strategy and a necessity, sources note. Showplace is among numerous technologies with ideas on bridging the gap. Some, like WeStock, specialize in helping brands “crowdstock,” or turn their online buzz into data that can be presented to retailers. On the other side, firms such as Analog Commerce are specialists in getting existing brands to open direct-to-consumer channels. That too became a reality in the pandemic as supply chain congestion, demand and foot traffic patterns changed.
Created by a co-founder of Pillow, a service helping residents list apartments as short-term rentals following its acquisition by Expedia in 2018, Showplace taps into the opportunity to turn rental homes into media for brands, accentuating the power of the sample and product discovery, Hu said. It works as a kind of matchmaker between brands and so-called “superhosts,” or owners of well-reviewed rental properties—often, with high-end kitchens. Once renters and brands connect with one another, they communicate over the marketing activation and associated social campaigns through Showplace, while the company manages the shopper incentives and other deliverables through QR codes and trackable links. Ideally, this all results in positive brand buzz, new sales and new customers.
Showplace partners with about 3,000 property owners welcoming about 1 million guests a year. The composition of this audience changed amid COVID, Hu noted, with many fewer international guests but more nuclear families and close friends comfortable traveling together.
This “IRL” experiential marketing gives brands the opportunity to stand out that was curtailed as more traditional channels like events and nonessential retail destinations were compromised by COVID—and at the right moments, Hu said: For example, when a thirsty guest reaches for a drink in a refrigerator, or goes into their nightly routine in the case of personal care products.
Tying those products to the experiences of traveling with friends and family also creates a powerful “halo” effect for brands, Hu said.
Showplace is also expanding to places where customers are experiencing larger habitual change that a new brand can accompany, like military bases and college campuses, he added.
“We want to try to capture the person at the right moment, where they may be making a life change. Maybe they just moved into this new building, maybe just enlisted, or they just went to college,” Hu said. “These are the kinds of touchpoints where we think people will change their buying behavior, because now they’re becoming a brand-new person. They don’t use the products that they used to use. And they're looking for new products.”
Although Hu said the company is still “noodling” with a strategy for retailers, Showplace is open to any number of possibilities. One is to leverage other emerging technologies—like blockchain couponing—in creating exclusive offers redeemable at particular retailers only.
“Strategic grocers can become the portal where a brand can opt into,” Hu said. “The touchpoint could be a home environment where we can create a collection of products—and entire cart-type shopping experience, where the consumer can learn about healthy eating, or wings for the big game, or whatever it might be, scan something, go into the Walmart and then come back to the Airbnb to prepare everything.”