A community is what underpins every firm. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a whole bunch of villages to grow a small food or beverage business.
In several of my recent blog posts and emails, I’ve been focusing on the challenges facing the food and beverage industry at a macro level and what I believe we need to do to address them.
This week I want to switch gears and focus on the small enterprises that are the foundation of our Canadian supply chain.
Over the last few days, I’ve spoken with more than a dozen small food and beverage business owners from across Canada.
They are all, without exception, in some form of pivot, either handling increased output or figuring out which new markets to replace food service with.
As I listened to these business owners, I became increasingly aware that there was something I wasn’t hearing.
And that was the connection these firms have to their “fans”.
Yes, fans. The people who really love their products.
It became clear to me that so many small firms have grown by depending on third parties, distributors, or e-commerce platforms like Amazon. And the result is that many are now disconnected from the people who actually use and love their products.
It makes sense, under normal conditions we work with third parties to shift more volume. That’s the principal of distribution and retail.
But relationships with the end users, the fans, the people who have the product on their shelves or in their fridges and who recommend it to their friends….these are so critical for the success of a small firm in the food and beverage industry. A community is what underpins every firm. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a whole bunch of villages to grow a small food or beverage business.
But the further you are away from your village – in this case, the people who love your product, the harder it becomes to survive a downturn like the one we are in now.
And now that the world has changed, this disconnection from their community is really handicapping firms in their recovery.
While there is significant buzz around e-commerce growth, and the power of going direct to consumer (which I discussed in an earlier blog), I’m still not hearing much about how the digital space can engender this community and connection. The focus appears to be transactional – on shifting units as quickly as possible.
Firms who grow their communities, who tend to their fans, who enable and empower them have the benefit of a groundswell of grassroots support when they get into trouble.
So, let’s spend a moment to focus on the reason you do this in the first place, namely the people who really love what you do. They may well be your biggest asset in either sustaining the new growth your firm is experiencing, or ensuring that the pivot to new markets you are doing right now is truly successful.
They are the way to begin to leverage a market for your products that goes well beyond anything you are connecting with right now. To illustrate what I mean by this, just look at the numbers. Pinterest has over 300 million users and the largest category on Pinterest, counting for over 20% of posts, is food and beverage. Buzzfeed has a Facebook group called Tasty, which has nearly 100 million followers.
Here are three things (not five or ten!) that will help you build your community and some key questions to ask.
1. Build your fan base
There are people out there who are fans of your products. Even for firms who sell entirely in a B2B context, there are always people who actually consume what you make. Do you know who they are? Have you created a virtual home for them on your website or through social media channels? Have you recognized them and given them access to exclusive rewards (merchandise, new products, special lines, etc.) that others don’t get? Are you sharing regular videos about you and your staff to connect them more closely to you and to strengthen the relationship? Are you taking the time to be a brand, to have a personality that goes beyond the shop-window of your website?
People like to buy from people. They like to know the story of the products they love. Particularly in a world that is looking for reassurance (like we all are now), we want to trust the human face of the person who is behind the product. This is a unique opportunity to shine the light on the people who make up your company and allow the outside world to see who you are. Your fans will thank you for it.
2. Ask them for help
If you are struggling, have you reached out and asked your community for help? Have you created incentives or competitions for them to blog or post about your products to their networks? Do they understand the challenges you are facing? Have you been transparent with them about what you need right now? Have you asked them for their ideas? One small company I saw this week asked its community to contact retail outlets directly to request they stock their products. That’s a significantly more effective approach than trying to cold call retailers and a great illustration of how you can get your community to do a lot of the heavy lifting for you.
3. Get really clear on your purpose
A purpose, or the reason you exist beyond profit, is the ultimate community builder. Once people know what you stand for, then it becomes much easier for them to stand with you, particularly in tough times.
While you can build a fan base around your product, most of the firms who are really successful in this space build their fan base around their purpose. Take Dove Soap, for example, perhaps the posterchild of communities. Their “Campaign for Real Beauty” first arrived on our screens and billboards about 15 years ago to launch their new purpose of helping women and girls build self-esteem. This purpose helped completely revitalize a dying cosmetic brand, building a community of over half a million women who were enrolled and spreading its message. Unsurprisingly, Dove’s market share went up 30%.
In the food and beverage industry, we have been helping firms large and small embrace the power of purpose for over a decade and have many examples to inspire you.
Often, we are asked where to start around community building. The simple answer is to start with your purpose. Get clear on why you exist beyond profit. And then start talking about it. Remember the principle of six degrees of separation with you at the centre. Who do you know? Reach out to them, share your purpose and see if it connects with them. If it does, invite them to join your community. Then who do they know? Ask them to reach out and share with their networks.
Our TVs and smartphone screens still dominate today, just as they have in previous downturns, but the large brands know the importance of doubling down on their marketing spend. In the past, that put small firms at a real disadvantage. Today, the rules have changed. The firms with the strongest purpose and the strongest community will be among the most resilient. And that offers a ray of new hope if you are a small food and beverage company struggling to cope with the pandemic. Go find your fans!
By Cher Mereweather, CEO and President, Provision Coalition Inc.
and Jaime Leger, Manager of Marketing and Communications
P.S. – Provision has just launched R-Purpose Micro, an intensive virtual program to help small food and beverage companies find their purpose, find their fans and come out of the pandemic stronger than they went in! Delivered over twelve weeks, with just two hours a week – it will fit into the schedule of the most over-worked small business owner. And because we know cash is tight, it only costs $1,200 and we have financing available. If you want to find your fans and build up your business you can’t afford to pass this one up.