Just Because You Sell Coffee Doesn’t Mean You Should Talk To All Coffee Drinkers!

There’s a major issue getting in the way of brand success and it seems to be happening all the time. Big businesses, small businesses … no one’s immune. Yet, almost everyone you ask can tell you the ‘right’ way to do it. So, if everyone knows the ‘right’ way to do it, why does the problem happen so often?

I’m talking about targeting. More specifically, I’m talking about defining the customer your brand serves.

Defining your customer is arguably the most fundamental and important element in the success of any product or service. It’s the foundation of your positioning and the linchpin that directs and connects all your promotional activity. Yet the flaw of poor targeting shows up in most brands that fall short of their potential.

Consider the example in the title. Coffee is a commodity product. You can make it at home, buy it at hundreds of thousands of diners, cafes, bodegas, convenience stores, and a whole host of specialty locations throughout the country. Yet, somehow, brands like Starbucks, Dunkin’, Caribou, Peet’s, Seattle’s Best, and a slew of outstanding local shops in every city and town across the nation manage to succeed by selling a product that is virtually indistinguishable from one place to the next.

How does that happen? What are these companies doing that enables them to succeed when they sell a product that is completely interchangeable with their competitors?

Merve’s vs Starbucks

The answer is simple. They’ve clearly identified the customer they wish to serve, embraced them, and geared everything they do to develop and solidify a relationship with that customer. You don’t need to stand inside Starbucks or Dunkin’ very long to understand they have very different customers. In fact, in the sleepy commuter town I live in, just 20 minutes west of NYC, we have a local coffee shop (Merve’s, named after its owner). It’s located directly across the street from a Starbucks that has become a requirement of every upscale suburb in America. Merve’s gives Starbucks a run for its money.

In many ways Merve’s is just like the Starbucks one-hundred feet away. You can get a wading pool size cup of rich, steaming hot, café latte to enjoy while you work or surf the web over free wifi, just like at Starbucks. (My mother was born and raised in Italy and calling espresso with steamed milk a ‘latte’ is grounds for being disowned.)

But, Merve’s isn’t Starbucks and she doesn’t want to be Starbucks. She knows her customers, greets each one personally. There’s no coffee production line at Merve’s, and did I mention the home-made pastries?

Could Merve’s customers go to Starbucks? They sure can and when they’re not in town I’d bet many of them do, but when they have a choice, Merve’s brand speaks to them better than Starbucks and she does everything she can to keep it that way.

It may be easy to dismiss this example because Merve’s is a small local retail establishment and your company is regional or national or even international. That’s a mistake. The marketing principles that impact Merve’s apply to everyone. In fact, Merve’s is probably more susceptible to these forces than most major brands and companies because Merve’s can’t afford to be wrong.

The Problem Is Target Identification

I asked a question earlier, “if everyone knows the ‘right’ way to do it, why does the problem happen so often?”

Every marketer knows they need to identify the target customer their brand serves. The problem creeps in as they begin to define who that potential customer is. The larger the brand expectations, the more likely it is the problem will rear its ugly head.

But why?

The answer is pretty simple. Most marketers are scared to death to leave any potential customers on the table. High expectations require every revenue dollar the brand can find. Now, the problem isn’t so blatant that marketers have thrown the doors wide open and are intentionally talking with everyone in their market. The problem is more subtle than that. Every junior marketer instinctually recites the phrase “you can’t be everything to everybody.”

The problem comes in when marketers, in an attempt to not be ‘everything to everybody,’ begin defining their customer target in ways that create the illusion of segment-specific targeting but, in reality, are no different than speaking to the entire market.

I call this “pseudo-segmenting,” and it typically takes the form of adding modifiers to the broader audience definition to create the sense of targeting. An example is modifying ‘coffee drinkers’ to ‘taste driven coffee drinkers.’ In the pharmaceutical arena ‘type 2 diabetes patients’ may be modified to ‘uncontrolled type 2 diabetes patients.’ Arguably, there is no discernable difference between the modified groups and the market of coffee drinkers or type 2 diabetes patients in general that will drive unique marketing strategies and promotional execution.

Nearly every iconic brand clearly identifies its core target customer in a way that is highly specific and deeply connected to them, while also making it clear who they are NOT targeting. It’s clear this choice and commitment makes a difference. They remain completely focused on the specific target even if it means pushing away other potential customers.

If you’re a marketer, you’re probably nodding in agreement. Most marketers extol the idea of defining a very clear customer target and, I believe, truly wish to achieve it in their brand’s positioning. In practice, however, few marketers actually ever get there.

Great targeting requires you to purposefully decide who your customers will be and who they won’t be and courageously staying the course as you build brand equity.

I’m not suggesting the decision is easy. In most companies, large and small, loads of barriers get in the way. But, if you want your brand to be a success in a highly competitive market, great targeting, real target customer identification – without compromise – is absolutely required.

Dennis CrowleyComment