the last mile

The “last mile” is usually thought of as a supply chain challenge: how to best deliver products the final leg to individual customers.

Yet the last mile is also a marketing challenge. The last mile for you is the first mile for your consumers. The shelf is where many consumers discover your product, and where most purchase decisions are made. How your product appear on that shelf (either physical or virtual) matters.

In the real world, our products never look as amazing as they do in our offices. In the real world, our products sit on dusty Kroger bottom shelves or cluttered e-commerce stores next to thousands of other products vying for attention.

This dynamic is what propelled Apple to build Apple flagship stores. The Mac will always look better in an Apple Store than a Circuit City.

We can’t all build our own flagships like Apple, but we can think more creatively about the last mile so that we don’t get lost in the clutter. When the Cranium board game first launched, it bypassed the usual channels, Toys R Us and Target. Instead, Cranium launched in Starbucks. Starbucks wasn’t a board game retailer, but it had Cranium’s target audience already queueing for lattes. As a result, Cranium didn’t fade on a cluttered shelf next to all of the other game launches that year. Starbucks as a distribution partner literally put Cranium on the map.

When I helped launch the Method brand in the UK, I came across a web grocer called Ocado. Ocado is not the largest retailer in the UK, but it excels in helping brands with the critical “last mile” to reach consumers. Many brands overlooked Ocado because of its size. Yet Ocado offered what traditional retail couldn’t. Because it had no physical stores, the Ocado assortment was not limited by shelf space. Because it had no physical promotion sites, it could tailor and feature products to the right consumers at the right time.

Method often had a tough time breaking through the clutter at larger retailers. So we over-invested in Ocado. We took the time to learn what Ocado could offer, and wound up with even greater exposure on Ocado than some of our biggest CPG competitors.

I learned that we need to be just as creative in the last mile of our products and ideas as we are in the first.

If you’re interested in more on “the last mile”, I gave the following 30 min talk at the Ocado Supplier Conference a couple years ago (the first 12 min is the story of Method, so tab ahead if you’re in a hurry).

  1. Sandy Adam says

    It seems to me that companies need to start engaging their customers earlier in the product innovation/development stages. your drawing made me immediately think of outdated ‘spray and pray’ marketing tactics. (in a good way *wink*) But clearly, there’s still a lot of companies sitting around behind closed doors thinking they have the next best thing, only to find out their customers didn’t even need it.

  2. Kathleen Hooker says

    We often find ourselves thinking about how our product appears in its natural “home setting.” That is to say, how the brand appears in the place where people would see it most. In the case of our brand, PURELL(R) Instant Hand Sanitizer, how it might look in a hospital vs. the classroom vs. the home. I admire what Method has done for stopping power at store shelf and for staying power in its home setting using simplicity of design.

    Kathleen Hooker
    Global PURELL(R) Marketing Director

  3. Bruce Levinson says

    Successful brand owners ensure their primary packaging works in the retail reality, their merchandising breaks through and secondary placements and adjacencies are considered – but it’s also retailers themselves who are helping to drive innovation success, like Starbucks deciding to sell Cranium. The left panel of your cartoon reminds me a local wine shop that does this by shelving wines by flavor-profile (juicy, bold, fresh, fizzy or sweet….) rather than typical map of the world. It helps the shopper get right to what they want – and discover what’s new. Now, that’s worth toasting!

  4. Rose Carlson says

    We do need creativity in how to make things stand out – real creativity, not just shiny new graphics on the same paper box. Some of the products I work on are for single unit sale, and the multi-pack cartons they sit in on the store shelf have a stand up display feature, which looks great on a table in the office. The problem is, I have seen this maybe a dozen times actually being used in the final selling destination. More often, this is ripped entirely off the package – it takes up space, and that space is better used for the retailer if they can place more shelving and increase their sku’s.

    I agree with Sandy’s comment that companies need to engage customers early in the process; but finding the balance between too late and too early can be tricky. Concepts and prototypes of identical products often receive vastly different reactions, and premature engagements with customers can result much wasted effort and rework later in the lifecycle of projects.

  5. Simon Rees says

    Sometimes, of course, we don’t want to stand out. We want our stuff to look very similar to the stuff the customer is looking for – and thereby get sales on the back of our competitor’s marketing budget. The bee orchid is a great example in nature, but there are tons more. In marketing, virgin cola springs to mind (in the UK).

  6. Ruth Fidino says

    The last mile is the sometimes the forgotten mile for internal initiatives. We work so hard on the product and we think about the rollout but it often follows the exact same pattern as the last zillion company initiatives. I gotta do some thinking.

  7. Mark Barden says

    Simon makes a great point. But if the goal is stand out and not mimickry (be clear on that before you start) then looking outside the category is key. consumers don’t think in terms of categories. saying “this is really breakthrough in wine/soap etc” is really missing the point and limiting the thinking. the original colorful iMacs were inspired by looking at the candy busines. Yorkie chocolate’s beer can packaging, by asking what packaging men love most and going there. Given that packaging is essentially ‘house media’ its surprising how often it fails to project any kind of message at all. Your packaging is a billboard. Now how do you think about it?

  8. Kim Lopez-walters says

    Even as innovators we tend to start at the “tactics we already know” instead of really listening to the consumers and their pain points at the point of purchase. Many systems fail in the last mile, even those with retailers who are leary of new or risky ideas. If we maneuvered with the same curiosity and deliberate learning in the last mile as we do with the concept stage and adjust as we go, I think more new ideas and creativity would emerge. Question is always how to manage new ideas with the risk and uncertainty for those who are not as close to the idea. I always think it is too bad we can’t give our 30 second elevator pitch to consumers right there at shelf sometimes…hmmm maybe the beginnings of a new idea!

  9. JoAnn Hines says

    It’s amazing how many products get launched without truly understanding the consumers wants and needs.

    They get caught up in the “creative” aspects that are considered aesthetically appealing forgetting about the consumers expectations.

    I’ve seen many packaging launches that have invested incredible amounts of R&D or development dollars simply to fail at retail because the consumers hated the packaging.

  10. says

    Hi all,

    Many thanks for all of the great insights this week. I love how the discussion stretched to so many of the challenges of the last mile, from packaging as “house media” to the role of consumer wants and needs to the motivations of retailers.

    This week’s cartoon goes to Kim. I love how she frames the opportunity to use the “same curiosity and deliberate learning in the last mile as we do in the concept stage”. I also think she puts her finger on the real issue: managing the risk for those not as close to the idea. Product development is often “survival of the safest”, which is particularly acute the further you go from the source of the idea.

    All the best,


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