My Story: It Started With Listening to Customers
- by Andi Whiskey
It started in 2013.
September 2013, I was running a smaller content agency in Raleigh, NC, focused on web and graphic design with a partner out of Calgary, Canada.
It Started With Listening to What Was Trending
On the side, I was exploring new skills to expand our service offerings. I was listening to the chatter on the internet from our clients and potential clients about what new services were in higher demand. One of them was social media management, back when the idea of that as a service was still fairly new. Another of those skills I was learning was blog writing, particularly for Pinterest-style DIY articles as Pinterest was taking off.
And another of those skills that was just on my radar was e-commerce marketing. I had only ever run service businesses since I was 16 years old, and had never worked retail in my life, so this new idea of online retail, e-commerce, that was really taking off for small businesses was something I felt like I needed to learn. I didn't know where to start, though, so I started playing with the idea of starting my own little online store to learn the process from the inside out.
All of these things led me towards a path I could not see coming.
A Google + Success Story No One Ever Expected
On the one hand, Google+ had just launched. I was dipping my toe into social media management, so instead of trying to join the craziness of Facebook and Instagram, I thought I'd put all my effort into learning the brand new platform, to see if I could be one of the best at it.
Well it worked. I personally gained 6,000+ people in my "circles" in a matter of months, and landed myself some clients to help them grow the same. I started posting to my circles about marketing tips and other things I was up to.
DIYing My First Brand
On the other hand, I landed a client that asked for a bunch of bath and body DIY articles for their Pinterest. This was just a for-fun project for me, so I started to learn how to make some basic natural body care products from home, and created blogs about them for the client.
At one point, I created a Coffee & Stout Soap using coffee and beer, and I was so excited about the idea that I posted the final photos to my Google+ page.
Immediately, a handful of the hipster-early-adopter-Google+ers commented, "Can I buy that from you?"
My response... "Yes, I will take your money."
Here was my opportunity to start an e-commerce store to learn how to do that, in order to hopefully turn around and land e-commerce marketing clients because I could show them I knew how to do it from my own work.
So I dug through some domains I owned for various reasons, and pulled out a random one I had that was unused: whiskeyinkandlace.com.
(Because I drink a lot of whiskey, have a lot of ink, and wear a lot of lace. Look, buying domains was weird back in the day, and I owned hundreds for no reason).
The First Sale And The First Ask
I slammed together a Wordpress Woocommerce site, and October 31, 2013, I made my first two sales of Coffee & Stout Soap. (One of the sales was to my own parents. My dad, garage home brewer that he is, to this day, still raves about that soap).
And no one tells you the pure rush of dopamine you will get when you make your first online sale. It's insane. And as the serial entrepreneur that I am, it was all I needed to become addicted.
So I went straight back to Google+ and asked my circles, "I have a lot of body products knowledge, so what would you guys want me to make you?"
All of these nerdy early-adopters of a now-dead social media platform chimed in with, "Beard oil!"
I had never heard of such a thing, so I asked more questions. "What do you want it to do for you? What kind of scents would you like?"
"Moisturize. Beards get itchy underneath."
"Orange and clove."
"Woody, like maybe cedarwood."
"Pine and mint sounds good."
And so was born my first 3 beard oil scents for Whiskey, Ink, & Lace: The Pirate, The Lumberjack, and The Outlaw, respectively.
I initially sent out free samples to the people who had chimed in with requests, and when I got their thumbs up and feedback back, I adjusted anything that needed it, and launched my first bottles of beard oil.
In the Beard Business Now
Things took off. So much faster than I expected.
I did happen to launch right in the middle of OND, so that was probably a small boon to business. But after a Valentine's Day rush, too, I knew I had something.
By April 2014, I had to turn around to all of my marketing clients, and send out an email that basically said, "I'm sorry, I'm no longer offering marketing services," because I was too busy making soap and beard oil.
And I had up to 24,000 followers for my brand on Google+... Who knew. A bummer that that took me nowhere, but alas...
I hired my first employees in May 2014, and things continued to sky rocket. In 2014, we did $125,000 in e-commerce sales. And I would attribute it all to that pattern and precedent I set for the business: asking consumers what they wanted, and listening to their feedback.
That year, I launched an additional 30 more SKUs. Every single SKU came about because of a customer message or comment asking, "Do you make..." or "Could you make..."
Don't get me wrong... I went a little overboard. By 2017, we had 500 SKUs under 6 different brand names. Would I recommend that? Nope.
But in the process, there was a lot that I learned from how I had started this business. And a lot of it is what I now work hard to implement in our marketing for clients.
What I Learned From Asking Customers First
- Asking Gives You Confidence in Your Product. I never had to wonder if this new product I was launching would sell or not. If you keep an open feedback loop with customers, you always know you have at least one customer baked in, and if you have one customer, you can find 2. And if you have 2, you can find 4.
Asking Gives You The Reason They Buy, So You Can Find More Customers. I intuitively learned that if the first customer told me they wanted X product because of Y, I could go out to other potential customers and tell them, "You're going to love X product because of Y." And it worked! Craft your product descriptions and the way you talk about your products in your marketing using the words customers use when they talk to you about your brand.
- Listening Helps You Fail Quicker. Listening has to include hearing the negative feedback. If you're constantly asking for feedback, and actually listening to what they're saying, then when a product has a flaw, you can catch it sooner and adjust, without wasting a ton of money on it.
- Asking Helps Customers Feel Invested In Your Brand, Which Makes Them Lifetime Advocates. To this day, 2023, 10 years later, I have customers buying our products that provided feedback on our products back in 2013 and 2014. They feel like they've had a part in our business growing, so they've grown with us since the very start. Give your customers a piece of your brand by asking for their feedback, and they'll invest back into your brand with their money.
So What Does This Matter To Your Alcohol Brand?
Thanks to the three-tier system in the alcohol world, alcohol brands are more disconnected from their end consumer than any other industry. That's why I get up on this soapbox every week, encouraging wine & spirits brands to open up those feedback loops with their customers.
Distributors, brand reps, and your point of contact at those big box retailers might pass along what they think consumers are saying about your brand, but don't play telephone with the most important people in your business: your customers.
Show your customers you value them. Ask them yourself. Talk to them yourself. Listen to and learn from them yourself.
Bonus Note: Branding Doesn't Matter If Your Customers Don't Care About Your Product
If you noticed in my story, I never developed a "brand" by business standards before launching a product. I had a free domain that sounded kinda cool, and I slapped together a web site. I later built out brand guidelines and the like, but I'll always play devil's advocate and argue that your business' idea of your brand doesn't matter. Your customers' idea of your brand does.
The brand I created was about the customer enough that they saw themselves in it and bought for that reason. I was just holding up the mirror. They didn't buy because I hired a branding agency for $XXX,XXX to build out a beautiful PDF and Drive folder full of brand assets with mockups of my new fancy logo on colorful tote bags and fake merch. They bought because I had a product they saw themselves enjoying. They saw it fitting into their life because of the open conversation they were having with the brand about their needs. They were the ones that created the brand. I just empowered them to do it by starting the conversations and manufacturing the products.
Don't get me wrong. You need a solid brand. A brand is providing your marketing team better tools to do their jobs. But your brand should be more about your customers than yourself, plain and simple.
Bonus Note No. 2: You Are Not Your Brand's Demographic
I feel strongly about this because I sort of lucked into the position. My brand started out making products that I couldn't possibly have a desire to purchase. Beard oil? Don't need it. (Sure, I use it as hair oil, but that's beside the point).
That helped me truly be able to get out of my own way of making a product for myself, and focus on creating something for the customers, and marketing to them.
I had a client, the president of a spirits brand company, tell me once, "I sit at the center of the key demographic of our brand," when trying to explain to me how they thought their consumers would behave. That's the worst thing you can tell your marketing team, because it severely hinders us from being able to do our jobs. It's also just not possible. If we're going to use your key demographic to go out and find more customers for your brand, I can tell you right now that other presidents of spirits brands aren't going to be your main customer. And your main customer isn't going to share the needs, desires, and aspirations of the president of a spirits brand. So how are we supposed to find more customers for your brand with that directive?
That may seem like a silly example. But a lot of brands get stuck facing inward with all of their marketing strategy and language, talking amongst themselves, listening to their own ideas, and in the end, create a marketing strategy that appeals to people who work at an alcohol brand company, not people who buy alcohol.
You can share values and ideas with your customers. That's a beautiful meeting place between brands and their end consumer. But you are not your key demographic because you don't go out to a store to buy your product. You don't go online to shop for your product. You don't browse social media to learn more about your product. You may have once, but not now. Now your behavior and your psychology in those moments is no longer like your customer's. So now you have to stop thinking like yourself, and start thinking like your customer... by talking to them.
Not Sure Where to Start? Twist & Tailor Can Help
Twist & Tailor runs End Consumer Insights Audits for wine & spirits brands where we take your brand, and audit all of your marketing efforts, current customers, and marketing strategy, looking for: cohesion, clarity, and consumer-focused perspective.
If you're interested, let's talk! Schedule a free consultation and we'll discuss options for how to tackle this.
Final Note: Where is Whiskey, Ink, & Lace now?
It's been quite the journey. I'll share more on the story in the future. Let's just say I built it up as what I feel was a huge success. At one point, I had a warehouse in WA and a warehouse in TN, and the opened a barbershop to be the in-person experience with our product, and everything was cruising.
In 2019, our most profitable year ever, I had a moment of clarity where I saw our profit margins and realized that I still wasn't feeling as fulfilled in the business as I should have with that success. So I took an opportunity that I had and I shut down the business at the beginning of 2020. I was supposed to sell it, but the timing ended up wrong... pandemic and all. So I sunset it instead.
That's when I started Twist & Tailor.
I am grateful that as a serial entrepreneur, I can make decisions like that based on my own personal needs, instead of being wrapped up in ideas of what I should or shouldn't be doing.
That being said, for 2 years, I had customers sliding into my personal accounts' DMs and emailing me begging for product. They offered to buy anything I had left, and some even offered to pay for the formulas so they could find someone else to make it for them. They missed my products and made that clear.
And after 2 years off, I realized I missed my customers. I had built a really great relationship with them over all those years, and I missed it. So one day, just out of curiosity, I posted to the brand's instagram page, just a photo of one of our branded shot glasses with whiskey in it.
It blew up. I was getting comments, messages, emails. So I decided I was ready to bring the brand back. That first month we relaunched, we saw $10k in sales out of the gate, all return customers that had been waiting literally years for us to come back.
I recently got this email from a customer from Australia who's been buying from us since 2014:
And this is why I do it. I love my brand because of them.
So we're back now, building new relationships, rekindling old ones, and continuing to make beards around the globe a little better.