Your Food Business Isn’t About You
You started up this business creating a product or line of products that speak to you. Maybe it’s your grandmother’s secret cookie recipe, maybe it’s your uncle’s famous salsa, or maybe your business is simply based on your love for feeding people. You love your company and you love your products. What could possibly go wrong?
Though passion is a big piece of what makes a successful entrepreneur, too often in the food industry entrepreneurs can’t see past their own love for the product. Unfortunately, that can be the biggest mistake they make. A smart entrepreneur looks at his/her product line not through their own eyes, but through the eyes of their target customer because, ultimately, you’re not the one buying your product day in and day out. If you want to build a successful business, you need to have products that other people will buy again and again.
Your target consumers – the people who frequent the stores or locations where your products are sold and who purchase similar items – are the ones you need to have in mind for every business decision you make. It doesn’t matter if you like the flavor of New Product A – it matters if they do. It doesn’t matter if you’d be ok spending $XX on Product B – it matters if that price point makes sense to them. And it doesn’t matter if you like to spend time marketing your business on Facebook – if your target audience isn’t on Facebook then you’re wasting your time.
Your key role in your business is to know and understand what your target customers need, what motivates them, and why they buy what they do. This requires that customer research not be a one-time checklist item that you do as you’re staring your business, but an ongoing and critical role in your business as customers can and do evolve constantly.
How do you determine who your target customers are and what they want? For those businesses that can afford it, hiring market research teams can be money very well spent. If that’s outside of your current budget, it’s still possible to do market research. Start by listening – really listening – to the complaints and compliments your business receives. These can come from a variety of sources; calls/emails direct to your company, on your social media pages, when interacting with you face-to-face at events. While it can be tempting to write these off, especially the complaints, this is where your customers are telling you exactly what they want and need so you best listen up.
You can also learn a lot about your customers by keeping track of the types of questions they ask. Are you getting a lot of questions about the ingredients you use, for example? If so, how can you make this information clearer and easier for your customers to find? If you notice that the same questions come up again and again, that’s a flag that you should consider making changes.
Lastly, you can also gain a tremendous amount of information from watching how consumers shop. Known as ethnographic research, this entails discretely watching customers to see what types of factors go into their decision making. Do you find that your target customers compare the nutritional analyses of different products in the supermarket before they put a particular item in their cart? Does it look like your target consumers are shopping by price – i.e., do they have coupons in their hand or do they compare the price points of similar products before making a decision? Watching how customers shop can give you tremendous insight into the decision making process those customers engage in before buying a product. That’s all information you can use to help revise your product line, your flavor profile, your packaging, your price point, your marketing messaging, etc. so that yours is the product that customers pick up next time, and the time after that, and the time after that.
Jennifer Lewis is the founder of Small Food Business, a website focused on providing resources and information to food entrepreneurs. The site includes hundreds of articles specific to the food industry, a podcast series which includes interviews with industry experts, white papers, and a community forum amongst other things. In addition to being a professionally trained pastry chef and having worked in the food industry from more than 20 years, Jennifer also holds an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.