Top 5 Observations from NRA 2014

It seems like we JUST finished the rush of finalizing layouts, getting graphics and collateral out to the printer and distributing pre-show e-blasts. Hard to believe the National Restaurant Association (NRA) Show in Chicago concluded more than a month ago!

A visit to NRA is always a great learning experience for me. Not only do I get to connect with my clients, seeing them in action and getting to know their engineers, chefs, product managers and others on the team that I don’t always get the opportunity to see, but I also get to scope out the industry as a whole. What are the competitors up to? When’s that educational session? What’s new in booth designs? Where are those gelato samples again (and again… and again)?

Of all that I took in during NRA this year, here are my top five observations:

1) Everyone loves the word “innovation.”

And I mean everyone. We’re guilty of using this word in our clients’ marketing, too. Sometimes because our clients want to use the word to keep up with or outshine competitors touting their own innovations. Sometimes because what we’re promoting really is a breakthrough in the industry. We’ve known that this word has been fairly trendy for a while now, but after walking the floor and seeing the word “innovation” plastered throughout virtually every booth, I am more motivated than ever to find new and exciting ways of communicating these new and exciting developments to prospects. (Maybe we’ll just say, “New and exciting!” Or maybe not….)

2) “Apples to Apples” is not a fun game.

I’m not going to show my cards and call out the specific product category I was focused on, but within this category, it was really interesting to see how each manufacturer chose to market its product.

When it comes down to it, products within the same category achieve the same end goal—ice machines make ice. Combi ovens cook food. Fryers fry. Faucets deliver water. And so on. Obviously some are better at different aspects and some have unique features, but for a prospective customer, each product option is a potential solution to their need.

In my review of how these similar products marketed themselves, it got a bit confusing. In many cases, true differentiators were buried in an effort to promote other features just for the “cool” factor. Some manufacturers put a major focus on something everyone else offered as well, while others didn’t mention it at all. And, surprisingly, most were using very similar phrasing to promote features and benefits, despite having different capabilities.

It occurred to me how overwhelming it must be as an attendee looking to purchase one of these products—what a frustrating experience trying to compare options apples to apples.

Of course, I understand this is by design for some marketers, but my recommendation is this: If you have a great product to offer, spend time articulating your true differentiators, but also help prospects make the comparison and truly understand why your offering is better or different. It’s a win-win: You make your customer’s job easier, and you come out ahead.

3) The educational sessions are underrated.

I’ll admit that in previous years I wasn’t even aware that there were educational sessions happening in the classrooms surrounding the exhibit hall. This year, though, several of us reviewed the course list in advance of the show and planned on attending those sessions most relevant to our clients. I was able to attend a few throughout my two days in Chicago, and it was time well spent.

4) iPads are the new booth backdrop.

I love looking at all the booths throughout NRA. It’s amazing what some brands can do with a few hundred square feet.

One of my favorite, yet very doable, trends was the integration of the iPad into displays—either affixed to equipment or structures, or in the hands of the sales team fielding visitors. They can be used in so many ways—from interactive presentations and games to informational slideshows. Definitely something I’ll be keeping in mind for next year’s show.

5) And finally, all of the gelato samples can be found in the North building.

You’re welcome!

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