You might not know this, but in order for a spirit to legally be called "straight bourbon" in the United States, it must be made from at least 51 percent corn and aged in brand-new charred oak barrels for at least two years.
So when Peter Wright started the Barrel House Distilling Company, a maker of hand-crafted spirits in Lexington, Kentucky, he knew it would be at least that long before his flagship bourbon product would be ready to sell. In order to sustain the distillery while the bourbon aged, Peter whipped up batches of moonshine and vodka - products that could be brought to market much faster.
The problem was balancing the short-term need for revenue with creating a long-term identity for the brand. One of his partners floated the idea of forgetting about bourbon altogether and producing only moonshine and vodka, but Wright didn't want the brand to become synonymous with lower-end beverages. Ultimately, they hit upon the connecting theme that defined their ideal customers: people interested in craft beverages who sought quality as well as an unusual experience.
"The craft distillery segment creates a certain expectation from customers," he says. "Even with our moonshine, we focus on quality."
Indeed they did, and customers responded positively. One reviewer lauded the moonshine by noting, "Rather than using fermented corn mash, they distill with their grind and get a great corn taste that is very smooth."
Refocusing to find the target customer
Barrel House emphasized their unique approach to engaging customers by becoming a founding member of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour. This initiative from the Kentucky Distillers' Association provided a way for people to get a firsthand look at the art and science of crafting bourbon, the state's signature spirit. So even when Barrel House's primary offerings were vodka and moonshine, the tour helped set them apart in the eyes of customers as a distinctive, high-quality purveyor.
How to identify and target ideal customers was a spirited topic of discussion at "Power to the Small", a panel discussion sponsored by Windstream, a provider of advanced network communications and technology solutions for medium and small businesses. Wright and the other panelists said this is a much more difficult exercise than many entrepreneurs realize, and it's easy to be pulled off course. To remain focused, they recommended the following:
Create buyer personas. Matt Sharp, who operates Causely, a Lexington, Kentucky tech startup that manages and promotes small business' philanthropic efforts, advocates imagining the personas of your business's ideal customers. These fictional, general representations of the customers who make most sense for your business provide a clear image of how you should go about developing products and services.
By looking closely at which people were engaging with Causely most enthusiastically, Sharp realized his ideal customer correlated with two "M-words": mothers and Millennials. Both of these groups are more likely to embrace causes than other parts of the population, and so they became a shorthand for his buyer persona. When Sharp is producing marketing materials or imagery, he always does a check to see if it will resonate with "the Ms", which makes the material more effective.
Go to their influencers. By identifying ideal clients, Sharp also can determine to whose opinion his clients listen. Just as a sporting goods company would hire a famous athlete as a spokesperson because their customers like and respect him or her, Sharp reaches out to bloggers and groups that have influence with the moms and Millennials who make up his ideal customers.
In a time when people feel overwhelmed by advertising, Sharp says his customers are more likely to take stock in something they hear from a trusted source. So, by cultivating a relationship with those sources and winning their trust, they communicate information about Causely with more impact than Sharp could himself.
Develop a customer-focused mission statement. Chase Hillenmeyer, who runs a 175-year-old landscaping business in Lexington, says creating a strong mission statement, which reflects the needs of customers, constantly reminds employees of just who they are serving and the company's true goals.
"Our mission statement is: We deliver first-class outdoor solutions, so you can focus on life's priorities," he says. "What that really means to us is that we take care of their problems."
Something interesting and positive happens when you identify your ideal customers: Your relationship with them becomes more intimate, and you regularly find better and deeper ways to make an authentic connection. Overall, finding your best audience and making them care about your company can be one of the best things you can do for your company's long-term wellbeing.