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The Customer Is Always Powerful

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We met last week with Sally Greenberg, the new head of the National Consumers League to discuss some ideas about how we could inform and mobilize consumers around issues of social responsibility. It was nice to hear that Sally has been a loyal Honest Tea consumer and even convinced the liquor store near her office to carry Honest Tea. As we talked, our conversation helped me realize just how critical active consumers have been to Honest Tea's success.

The first chain to carry our teas in 1998 was Fresh Fields in the D.C. region (the 17 stores were later converted to Whole Foods locations and are still Honest Tea's strongest performing stores). We delivered 15,000 bottles directly to the Fresh Fields warehouse, and they in turn sent the bottles to the stockrooms of the stores, which eventually got around to putting the bottles on the shelves.

As we quickly developed a loyal following, our two Net Impact MBA interns and I took to visiting the stores as much as seven times per month. We alerted the stores whenever Honest Tea was out of stock, but there was no way the interns and I could check every store as often as we would have liked. Thankfully, our consumers insisted on being able to buy Honest Tea, and they politely (mostly) nagged the stores to bring out more Honest Tea from the stockroom. This pattern of behavior eventually led to the stores keeping more adequate inventories of Honest Tea in stock.

This support was especially important because often there would be a salesperson from a competing beverage distributor who would spot the empty space on the shelf and take the opportunity to restock it with a different beverage. But our vocal consumers trained the store personnel to protect our shelfspace.

As we started to develop additional distribution, we created a form that consumers could bring to stores to help them purchase Honest Tea. Often, we would meet with managers of college and office cafeterias who would say they had received requests for organic or Fair Trade offerings but that they were obligated to work with Coke or Pepsi because they had a contract. We always pushed them on this logic: Was the contract intended to prevent the cafeteria from providing their customers with what they want? Are Coke and Pepsi prohibiting you from selling healthier, organic drinks to your customers? Sometimes this logic actually worked. And then of course there were cases where the senior person in the company or the president of the college would tell the manager that he or she had to carry Honest Tea, and it was done.

But the most responsive buyers are always the ones running smaller stores, where consumers feel more comfortable making requests and often have a personal relationship with the buyer. Once things catch on with the smaller stores, the larger chains start to pay attention. And we were always delighted to receive a call from a larger chain that invited us to a meeting because it had received a request for Honest Tea from a consumer via email or the store suggestion box.

The bigger stores have very little incentive to take on new products, but they are more responsive to consumer request than I had thought they would be. There's no question that Honest Tea, or for that matter, most emerging brands, wouldn't exist without active and engaged consumers.

As we wrapped up our conversation with Sally, we discussed donating bottles of Honest Tea for the National Consumers League's annual dinner. Then Sally said, "Well, I'll have to check with the catering folks at the hotel -- sometimes they have rules about which types of beverages they can serve." And I had to remind her, Remember who the customer is! You are paying money to the hotel for your event. You have every right to insist that your money be used to create the experience you desire."

Sometimes even the most thoughtful consumers can forget how much power they possess.

Last updated: Sep 9, 2008

SETH GOLDMAN | Columnist | Co-founder of Honest Tea

Seth Goldman is the President and TeaEO of Honest Tea, the company he co-founded in 1998 with Professor Barry Nalebuff of the Yale School of Management. He's preparing the September release of a graphic novel titled Mission in a Bottle.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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