Opportunities for marketers in the baby care category remain sizable, according to a recent report by Nielsen, which polled online respondents in 60 countries who have made a baby care purchase in the past five years.
"Consumers are deeply invested in these categories and they are highly discriminating about the products they buy for their children," says Liz Buchanan, director, global professional services at Nielsen. "However, to achieve a competitive advantage in a space dominated by one [of] a few major brands, a deep understanding of what's driving product choice is critical."
The Nielsen study attempts to offer some insight into why consumers select one baby food or diaper brand over another and to determine what motivates brand-switching behavior.
Making things even more competitive for marketers in the category, the number of births in North America and Europe, where 87% of baby food and 66% of baby formula sales come from, are declining. So global marketers of those products need to begin looking to try to stimulate sales in more developing areas like Latin America, the Middle East and Africa.
One interesting factoid is that as more mothers continue to rejoin the workforce after giving birth, the desire to buy more baby food and formula has grown based on their convenience.
What are some ways to stimulate sales in developed countries? One way, the survey finds, is to offer baby food in pouches, which is growing in popularity, rather than in traditional glass bottles. In the U.S., which is the largest market for the sale of baby food pouches, sales grew by 7% in 2014 over the previous year.
"The popularity of pouches is largely driven by their ease and flexibility," Buchanan says. "Pouches provide convenient, portable nutrition that's extremely compatible with consumers' on-the-go lifestyles, and they promote self-feeding and independence."
Organic baby foods are also growing in popularity, with global sales increasing by 26% over the past two years, while non-organic products have declined by 6%. Again, North America is the largest market for the sale of organic baby foods, accounting for 72% of global sales.
Another finding from the survey important for baby care marketers to know is that parents of newborns are not the only ones brands must convince to buy their products – they also need to prove their worth to family and friends of the parents.
When it comes to advice about the best baby foods and formula to buy, 44% of the respondents in the survey said they go to family and friends. And 38% said they made their buying decisions based on the recommendations of family and friends.
"Marketers [must] prove their value not only to the shopper but to a broader network of trusted sources," Buchanan says. "Product endorsements from doctors, hospitals and healthcare professionals can hold tremendous clout with parents."
The report finds that while TV commercials globally are an important source of information, their influence on decision-making is "notably lower." While one-third of consumers say they learned about baby foods through a TV ad, only 23% say those ads influenced purchasing. In North America, the percentage was 20%, lower than the global average.
Another interesting finding is that parenting magazines scored lower than TV ads as both a source for learning about baby foods (22%) and influencing purchases (14%). Parenting websites, baby blogs and social media also scored much lower than TV commercials in both areas, as did newspaper and radio ads.
The most important three attributes for baby food and formula brands globally are trust, nutrition and safe ingredients. However in North America and Europe, price also plays a sizable role in what brands and products baby parents buy. In fact, in North America, 36% of respondents say price is the most important factor when deciding to buy a baby food product. In Europe, that percentage is 34% of respondents.
Nielsen's Buchanan says pricing trumps the other attributes because, "in North America and Europe, the baby care industry is highly regulated so consumers have come to expect the baby foods they buy will be safe and nutritious." She adds that because product choice is more ample in North America and Europe, pricing does become more of a factor.
The survey finds that brand loyalty for baby products is fleeting. Many parents will switch brands based on comments by friends, family or health care professionals, and also because of price. Also, in North America, 14% of respondents say they would switch baby food brands based on information seen in a TV commercial.
Much like in the baby food area, diaper sales are also growing faster in developing countries. And the patterns of relying on the opinions of friends and family, much as they do for baby food, is similar for diaper purchases.
However, TV commercials seem to play a bit more of an important role in motivating parents to buy diapers than they do baby food.
Some 35% of respondents say they learned about diapers through a TV ad and more would be influenced to purchase by a TV ad. Buchanan says this is because "in general, the risk associated with choosing the wrong diaper is much lower than it can be for baby food, so the opinions of healthcare experts aren't relied upon as heavily."
In-store activity is particularly important in North America, where 31% of respondents say they learned about diapers by seeing them on store shelves. That's 6% above the global average. Again, parenting websites, baby blogs and all other forms of advertising score lower than TV ads as a source of information and motivation to buy.
And price of diapers was also a major priority, much as it is for baby food, although functionality outweighs price. Says Buchanan, "If the less expensive product fails to deliver on basic expectations of leakage protection, gentleness, comfort and absorption, consumers will not likely buy it again."
Nielsen conducted the survey between Feb. 23 and March 13, 2015. Other information in the report included purchasing data from Nielsen's Retail Measurement Services database for the 12 months ending December 2012, 2013 and 2014.
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