In the early years, we could not afford professional focus group consulting firms. So we’d walk up and down our office building, knocking on every door and offering other companies’ employees free pizza on their lunch break in exchange for one hour of their time. I noticed how easily influenced the group was by others, how difficult it was to remain unbiased and fresh in that context, and how wasteful the whole experience was. Instead, I started walking into public places— a coffee shop, a supermarket, or the post office— and intercepting one person at a time, asking conflicting open- ended questions to avoid biasing consumers.
To this day, when I meet someone I don’t know who comments on our brand, including sharing that they love KIND, I try to learn from them. I ask, “Why do you love KIND?” I do this not for the compliments but rather to really understand their vantage point. And in the rare instances when someone has the guts to tell me they don’t like our products or are dissatisfied with a particular aspect of the brand, I try to also learn from them and get a deep sense of where they are coming from. Of course you can’t be (and don’t want to be) everything to everyone, but you want to understand what those gaps are. So when we are launching something new, I still try to go down to the post office or supermarket with some samples, share them, and as hard as it is to do, I try to really listen to the feedback.
Another way to learn about your most loyal consumers’ preferences is by forming a kind of focus group in real time. We have an e- commerce membership program called KIND Advantage. You need to buy very high volumes of KIND to be part of it. Those that do, receive unexpected shipments of new prototypes or new finished products from time to time, along with a request for their feedback. Part of what makes this group particularly valuable is that they are putting their money where their mouth is. We are able to learn from actual purchasing behavior of this defined group of loyal consumers. People may be inclined to want to please you by saying they “like” something new you present to them. But they won’t be so nice if they have to pay for it. Consulting our most loyal consumers has an important ancillary benefit: They sense they are a part of our decision- making process and that we appreciate them as leading members of our community. When launching new products, we also pay extra money to create mock- up packages that look finished and contain actual product, and then we place them on store shelves to see if people will pick them up. Inside the product we include a note encouraging them to visit our website and provide us with feedback.
Placing a product on store shelves helps you spot issues with package design that may not have arisen in an office environment. Also, it is invaluable to observe whether a product elicits interest in an actual retail environment. But even that model has its limitations because you may not immediately know if, once sampled, your product will generate loyalty and reorders. You will only fool or disappoint consumers once. But there are tens of millions of consumers to be confused. So if you launch an inferior product and see initial sales, you may be thinking, “Great, this is a hit.” But if your quality standards or brand promise is inconsistent with your original great product, every time you sell that new product to unsuspecting consumers, you may be losing their repeat business. Inconsistency in a brand is like introducing a virus into your brand system; you may have no idea that it is slowly spreading through your brand body, disappointing one consumer after another. If their disappointment is high enough, they may well abandon your brand altogether.