Today, we are exploring how Trader Joe’s became a rapidly successful content marketing case study by virtue of its raving fans-authentic influencers who prolifically produce user-generated content that requires little to no content marketing spend on the part of the company itself. Many of our clients ask, “Why is content marketing important?” The case study we explore today of a well-loved grocery store reveals the power of genuine, bottom-up viral content marketing to grow a brand. Before we dive into the content marketing case study, let’s answer an important question: What is user-generated content?
What is User-Generated Content?
- User-generated content is any type of content (such as blog posts, social media posts, videos, podcast episodes, articles, and downloadables) created by users or consumers of a system, product, or service and distributed publicly for mass consumption.
- User-generated content is a powerful driver for positive brand promotion because people listen to those who they know, like, and trust. When fans create their own content to rave about a brand, the impact can be extraordinarily wide-reaching.
- User-generated content can save companies millions of dollars on traditional advertising and marketing thanks to its trustworthiness and viral content marketing effects.
- No only limited to its impacts on sales, user-generated content can inspire customer engagement as well as employee engagement. Customers want to feel like they can go onto a site, use it for how it’s needed and be able to do it all smoothly.
Trader Joe’s User-Generated Content: A Content Marketing Case Study
Since its founding, Trader Joe’s has been viewed by its patrons as a neighborhood grocery store. The uniquely cheerful and knowledgeable staff, and the variety of foods not found at typical grocery stores, create a unique shopping experience for a growing population of knowledge- and health-hungry clients. And although large organizations like Walmart and Kroger strive to create a similar experience in various ways (e.g., smaller stores, organic food sections, international food sections, etc.), it’s challenging to replicate the experience that has produced Trader Joe’s massive cult following. Today, we will explore how crowdsourced and branded content marketing contributed to the massive rise in Trader Joe’s popularity since 2013.
Trader Joe’s is a fascinating case study for content marketing because they do not use marketing campaigns traditional to the food and grocery sector (e.g., frequent shoppers cards, coupons, billboard ads, social media campaigns, etc.) to attract their customers. Their selection is much more limited than other grocers’, and their advertising spend is extraordinarily minimal. Instead of traditional approaches to customer growth, Trader Joe’s started building their fanbase through weekly, cheeky “fearless flyer” ads that feature their favorite recipes linked to products available at the store that week. Fearless flyers follow a straight-forward content “recipe” (forgive the pun), embedding product advertising within the highly utilitarian and practical format of cooking and baking recipes. The model of efficiency and suave evident in TJ’s limited marketing allows them to focus resources on maximizing their assets–two critical assets in particular: people and food. By building intimate, friendly experiences for customers and employees, and limiting their stock to high-quality products that don’t force the consumer into a state of overwhelmed decision-making, Trader Joe’s has cultivated a loyal base of fans who rave about the brand.
As a result, Trader Joe’s cult-like following of fans generate a significant amount of content for the company. For example, one Twitter user described the “yummy, healthy Trader Joe’s items” on her shopping list to her more than 39,000 followers. Do a quick search for “Trader Joe’s Haul” on YouTube, and you can spend hours watching massive influencers (some with 500k+ followers) walk you through their week’s grocery finds:
The Relationship Between User-Generated Content and the Net Promoter Score
Astonishingly, Trader Joe’s has no official social media accounts, relying instead on influencers to brag, share, and post their recipes, grocery hauls, and reviews. User-generated content like this enables TJ’s to harness the power of what Frederick F. Reichheld calls “The One Number You Need to Grow”: the Net-Promoter Score. In his widely popular article on this topic–the one reprinted in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Strategic Marketing—Reichheld argues that “in most industries, there is a strong correlation between a company’s growth rate and the percentage of its customers who are ‘promoters’–that is, those who say they are extremely likely to recommend the company to a friend or colleague” (162). Public engagement drives promotion, which enables an organization to commit its resources to internal process improvement rather than external advertising. Content marketing, then, is in the hands of the consumers who believe in the brand and feel a genuine desire to promote it.
Increasing Value-Added Profit through User-Generated Content
When organizations gain genuine promotion from their users, they can more rapidly achieve value-added profit. Trader Joe’s reliance on user-generated content supports their commitment to Lean process improvement, which is a systems engineering methodology known originally as the Toyota Production System and focuses on increasing value-added profit by reducing waste. Numerous companies, hospitals and educators from around the world flock to Toyota locations every year to learn their secrets of manufacturing efficiency. Kaizen, a Japanese word that means “change for better,” is featured as a core value on Trader Joe’s website. The idea is to do more with less by eliminating waste (or muda), not overburdening people and not creating uneven production levels. Lean-thinking is at the heart of much of the activities at Trader Joe’s, like SKU number reductions to eliminate overwhelming shoppers with too many similar products. Or like re-thinking advertising spend as more and more users become fans who rave… and rave and rave.
Even employees of Trader Joe’s add to the brand’s high level of engagement and bottom-up promotion. Employees seem to love Trader Joe’s thanks to fair wages, benefits, attitudes and a high level of respect for employees. TJ’s commitment to livable wages and respect for people allows them to attract a highly talented pool of artsy, creative and out-going young people who possess a wealth of intellectual talent, but may be struggling to establish long-term career positions directly out of college. Trader Joe’s builds upon the intellectual capacity of its workforce, encouraging their talented employees to develop an in-depth experiential knowledge of every product in the store. Joe Coulumbe, Founder of Trader Joe’s, frequently remarks on how SKU reduction efforts enable his staff to know more about their products than even those products’ vendors. Coulumbe’s vision requires a huge amount of mental capacity and investigative ability from employees. By building a brand that aligns with employees’ values of minimalism, creativity, health, and fair sourcing, TJ’s catalyzes brand promotion not only from its customers, but also from its internal stakeholders.
To grow its employees’ knowledge base, Trader Joe’s places a large emphasis on training and continuous improvement. However, training does not spend a significant amount of time on actual skill-based learning, but instead on the iteration of company values. College educated creatives have the capacity to learn skills relatively easily, so the company spends more time on preparing employees on how to portray the brand and create a positive experience for customers. The focus on soft skills and company vision inspires employees to generate a ‘friendly neighborhood grocery store’ feel. Additionally, Trader Joe’s encourages its employees to partake in the food that they sell. Because many of the employees are creatives, they find unique ways to experiment with the food. That often inspires them to pass their learnings and recommendations on to customers. Investing is knowledge-generation internally, in other words, plays an integral role in improving the customer experience. Customers turn to TJ’s staff not only to perform the mundane tasks expected of any grocery store (i.e. scan and bag my items quickly), but also to engage them in menu preparation, produce selection, wine pairing, floral arrangements, and smart local beer recs. (To learn more about TJ’s inspired cultivation of brand experience–from hiding stuffed animals around the store to delighting customers with random acts of generosity, like handing out free chocolate bars to customers who seem to deserve a pick-me-up–read this article on 14 Tasty Secrets of Trader Joe’s Employees).
So what are the key content marketing take-aways of this exploration of a fun, quirky brand like Trader Joe’s? Here they are:
Key Take-Aways on the Potential of User-Generated Content
- An organization’s health and potential for growth can be measured by the authenticity and impact of its user-generated content.
- User-generated content drives brand promotion both internally through employee engagement as well as externally through customer engagement.
- Engagement is sparked by increases in knowledge. Organizations that prioritize the knowledgeability of their employees will create inspired fanbases who trust in the credibility and authenticity of the brand or organizational mission.
- Companies can collaborate with raving fans to sponsor user-generated content that positively promotes their brands from the artistic viewpoints of users.
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