With consumer perceptions of the economy about as bleak as a winter weather forecast in the Midwest, it’s no wonder marketers are embracing any and all methods to reach consumers. As social media outreach and interactive marketing evolves and innovates, some brands continue to use more traditional consumer outreach.

Chicago-based foodservice research and consulting firm Technomic Inc. released seven trends for U.S. restaurants in 2012, one of which noted that “shell-shocked consumers are in no mood to take risks, but novel flavors still tingle their taste buds.” For the restaurant industry, Technomic recommends comfort foods with a twist or innovation in familiar formats, such as sandwiches, pizza and pasta.

In the beverage industry, we’ve seen innovations from familiar brands that have reached out through sampling. On a recent evening trip to the grocery store, I was offered to take part in a taste challenge featuring Diageo’s new Guinness Black Lager. In addition to the trial, which compared the new beer to a well-known premium import brand, the challenge also provided the opportunity to highlight that Guinness Black Lager was on sale at the time.

Following the September launch of its new Amstel Wheat Bier, Heineken USA, White Plains, N.Y., planned consumer sampling events in select on-premise locations in the seven cities where the brand is initially available. The events allowed the company to introduce consumers in upscale bars and pubs in New York City, Boston, Providence, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Chicago and San Francisco to the draft-only innovation from Amstel. During the events, Amstel Wheat was served in authentic European wheat beer glassware that highlights the beer’s golden color and aroma, the company says. Draft availability of Amstel Wheat is planned to expand nationally during the next year in anticipation of the brand’s retail release slated for next fall, it says.

Beer is not the only category that has leveraged sampling; this month’s cover story on ZICO Beverages LLC notes the coconut water company’s outreach to athletes at marathon, half-marathon and triathlon finish lines. Used in part to inform athletes about coconut water, the company reports that awareness has grown and athletes now are specifically requesting its newest ZICO Chocolate coconut water at events.

This month’s article about the coffee category on page 10 highlights Seattle’s Best Coffee’s Level System packaging that was launched by the Starbucks Corp. subsidiary nationally early this year. To help launch the product, Seattle’s Best employed a consumer trial in which shoppers found their “Level” and then tasted their “Level” via a sampling program, explains Jenny McCabe, director of communication and public relations for the brand. A company study revealed that more than 80 percent of the respondents intended to purchase their Level of Seattle’s Best Coffee in the future, which is a stronger purchase intent score than the coffee category’s average of 70 percent, she explains. The system also was chosen as one of Beverage Industry’s Best Packages of 2011.