Why viral sensation Little Moons ‘backs impact over efficiency’

How does a brand move on from going viral, in a way that takes its marketing to the next level and fuels sustained growth?

This was the challenge faced by mochi ice cream brand Little Moons, which took off on TikTok in January. The craze among locked-down consumers for its bite-sized ice cream treats spawned 15,000 TikTok videos, generating more than 150 million views. Sales surged by over 2,000%, accelerating the growth strategy by a year.

Yet, while it could have been tempting to dial up spend on social in a bid to capitalise on its status as a viral hit, there were two reasons Little Moons decided to think bigger.

Speaking today (19 October) at the Festival of Marketing: The Year Ahead, marketing director Ross Farquhar explained that while the TikTokers who went mad for Little Moons skewed strongly towards those in their late teens and early 20s, these are not the consumers who typically buy the bulk of ice cream.

Instead, the brand needed to drive awareness with people in their 30s and 40s, who buy ice cream in bigger quantities and do so habitually. This called for a wider media mix.

Our strategy to move into TV and outdoor doesn’t reflect a walking away from digital at all, because TikTok and paid social are still a part of our mix.

Ross Farquhar, Little Moons

“The second answer is more about brand building theory. I don’t subscribe to the idea that you can’t build a brand online. Grace Kite released a study last week suggesting that the ideal mix is 40-50% of your budget should be spent online. However, while you can absolutely buy paid social media against a reach objective, it’s not its core strength necessarily,” said Farquhar.

He pointed out that Little Moons enjoyed success with paid social media when the business was smaller and its distribution was a “bit more uneven”, meaning it could leverage the targeting abilities of paid social.

“But now we’re everywhere – thankfully because of our viral success – you have to weigh up social against broadcast channels in terms of their cost effectiveness in delivering reach and quite often it doesn’t stack up as well as TV or other broadcast media,” he explained.

Farquhar was also keen for the business to avoid becoming preoccupied with its TikTok success. Quoting Seth Godin, he noted that past success is no guarantee of future performance. This approach was drummed into Farquhar during accounting classes at university and was a lesson he learnt while working as a junior brand manager on the return of Cadbury’s Wispa.

“I’ve had a chance to look back on what we did really well there, versus some of the things I might change,” he recalled.

“My reflection is that maybe we spent a little bit too much time focusing on how we recapture the phenomenon that brought Wispa back in the first place on social channels and not quite enough on behaving like a big brand and investing in broadcast channels, which are empirically proven to grow brands once you’ve reached that certain stage of brand development.”

Success, Farquhar believes, is something to learn from and channel into future communications and innovation, rather than resting on your laurels. He argued that marketers should stay future-focused and keep their gaze towards the people they need to influence in order to generate revenue, which often leads to a broader set of channels than just paid social.

Being a self-starter

The brand had done a lot of work to set solid foundations prior to becoming a viral sensation, shaping its purpose and positioning into what Farquhar described as a sharper consumer facing brand platform.

Working with creative agency Lucky Generals, Little Moons developed ‘Ice cream from another world’, a platform designed to introduce new customers to the brand.

Working with media partner Media Hub to invest in reach across its priority markets, Little Moons knew it would need to do things differently to ensure it wasn’t simply outspent by the big boys of the ice cream sector.

“We launched the platform with outdoor media, but we incorporated it with a mural in Camden that really took off on social media. We launched with TV a few weeks ago, but we didn’t buy a typical reach and frequency play. We almost exclusively bought spots in Googlebox and First Dates,” said Farquhar.

“We really backed the idea of impact over efficiency and the belief that was going to lead to effectiveness for a brand of our size and circumstances.”

The Little Moons marketing boss dismissed the idea that the decision to broaden the media mix was a sign digital isn’t enough to drive the brand, pointing to the fact the team had invested in both TV and online video.

Little Moons on the challenge of going viral on TikTok

“It’s fair to say if we had absolutely doubled-down on TikTok specifically as a channel and decided the entire brand’s communication mix was going to be about TikTok, it’s unlikely we could fulfil our ambitions because the pool of people on TikTok, both in terms of their audience make up and share volume, probably wasn’t going to be enough,” Farquhar explained.

“But our strategy to move into TV and outdoor doesn’t reflect a walking away from digital at all, because TikTok and paid social are still a part of our mix. It’s that we’ve added broadcast channels on top of that and part of the investment in film or static also has an investment for the same sort of asset being flighted online. I absolutely subscribe to the idea that online has a really important role to play, but alongside broadcast channels.”

Doing the work upfront helped the marketing function at Little Moons not only cope with viral fame, but build the credibility needed to take the strategy to the next level.

Little Moons Mochi
After going viral on TikTok in January, Little Moons is exploring a wider marketing mix.

Farquhar insisted that if marketers haven’t put in the strategic work, they will find themselves in the boardroom trying to sell people on an idea as the opportunity passes them by. For this reason, it’s crucial for marketers to be self-starters.

“When no one is necessarily asking you to do it you’re doing really rigorous insight digging. You’re building robust plans, you’re selling them. You’re going on the stakeholder tours well before you even need to execute anything, because it’s credibility and effectively cash in the bank that you’re going to have to cash in later on when opportunity does come knocking,” he argued.

Farquhar explained that Little Moons could never have capitalised on TikTok virality had it not had a marketing plan that gave the team a map for how to win with widespread reach, nor could they have kept momentum up with paid advertising had they not already been halfway through developing a brand platform.

Equally, he believes the team could not have gone back to the business and asked for additional investment had there not already been the confidence that marketing would spend it wisely.

Preparing for success

The Little Moons marketing director admitted that getting deep into marketing effectiveness can be a challenge when you’re a small brand with a relatively limited budget.

“I grew up in big blue chip FMCG businesses. I started in Cadbury and worked in Diageo and in those businesses, you don’t quite realise it, but you have so much research and insight surrounding you at all times,” he recalled.

“In the case of brand tracking, I was getting monthly brand tracking and not really thinking about how much it was costing or where it was coming from. It was only when I started working in smaller businesses that I really got to grips with how much that was costing.”

Farquhar’s approach at Little Moons is to make effectiveness part of the conversation with the media agency from the start. This summer that meant running a regional test of the outdoor campaign in West London and partnering with IRI to analyse the short-term sales uplift region by region.

Farquhar explained this was never going to tell the team the whole story, because the campaign wasn’t oriented towards generating a short-term sales uplift, but the analysis gave the business confidence and built the credibility of marketing.

“The second thing I try and do is orient measurement towards outcomes rather than necessarily getting too preoccupied with the evaluation of the assets you’re putting out into the world. Don’t get me wrong, creative evaluation absolutely has a place and if I had more money to spend on research and insight I’d be doing plenty of it,” he said.

“However, I’m also conscious that when you’re in a smaller business that’s growing fast, part of the job is compelling the organisation to keep the faith and believe that the money you’re investing behind marketing is working. The best way of doing that is focusing on the revenue you’re generating, or if that’s not possible, the shift you’re seeing in brand tracking.”

We really backed the idea of impact over efficiency and the belief that was going to lead to effectiveness for a brand of our size.

Ross Farquhar, Little Moons

Farquhar suggested investing in good brand tracking and, ideally, econometrics, to prevent the team getting lost in the variety of metrics it is possible to measure. As the strategy at Little Moons is focused on buying reach as cost effectively as possible, the marketers focus on those relevant metrics, while keeping an eye on everything else.

The brand does a minimum of one dip of brand tracking a year, alongside a “pre-dip” prior any new activity going live. The ice cream brand took a dip of brand tracking just before the summer started to gain a baseline to measure its new activity against. This was followed by another brand tracking assessment over the past few weeks to gauge the impact of the campaign across key measures.

“I would say one or two dips a year is enough, and if you’re planning a specific activity that you want to see the measure of make sure you’re doing something before and after to ensure you’ve got something to refer to,” Farquhar advised.

To date the brand has not seen any negative effects of going viral. In fact, far from being a social media fad, data suggests Little Moons is enjoying strong repeat rates and “really strong loyalty figures”, with the product continuing to resonate with macro trends around low calories, portion control and handheld desserts.

For the remainder of 2021 Little Moons will engage in more in-market activity and pushing out its new chocolate-hazelnut flavour, as well as attempting to make Christmas a milestone for the ice cream category. An advent calendar is coming soon, alongside three limited edition flavours – mince pie, candy cane and nut cracker.

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At the same time, the marketing team is preparing for a “really big 2022”. Farquhar predicts next year will be huge for the brand because, because as “brilliant” as the TikTok success has been, he believes the brand is only scratching the surface of its potential.

He is already briefing his agencies on plans for next year, as Little Moons’s awareness has hit roughly a third of the UK adult population and demand is growing in Germany and France.

“Sometimes the marketer is meant to be the future-focused one, looking to the 12 months-plus time horizon. You have to be optimistic before you enjoy huge amounts of growth and convince the business that investing in capacity is the right thing to do, because things are going to kick off,” Farquhar noted.

“Then once you’re experiencing growth you have to be the person who goes: ‘What could possibly go wrong and what do I need to do to mitigate that?’. For me that’s just about keeping the brand in the public consciousness as much as possible.”

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