Honing Customer Research


22, Sep 2020. 06:19am

How did a 36-herb tea–a hand-picked blend of herbs packaged in muslin bags and sealed with scrap telephone wire–become Celestial Seasonings, America’s favorite herbal tea company? Perhaps the answer lies in Celestial Seasonings’ unique, early passion for customer research.

Hyper-awareness of customers’ needs, desires, and lifestyles help a company gain market share. Mo Siegel, founder of Celestial Seasonings, says much of his success lies in his insistence that his company listens closely to their customers. Such customer-centric practices have made Celestial Seasonings’ Sleepytime brew the most popular specialty tea in the United States. The company now has over 50 percent of the herbal tea market, and has almost single-handedly popularized herbal tea—previously used primarily for medicinal purposes—as a healthy, flavorful alternative to caffeinated beverages. 

Celestial Seasonings isn’t alone in its pursuit of effective customer research. Chobani Yogurt, founded by Hamdi Ulukaya, gained much of its success through word of mouth and social media. The Chobani billionaire, who turned a $3,000 loan into a yogurt empire, calls himself an ‘anti-CEO’ and thinks other CEOs should do the same. Ulukaya said in a TED talk video that he believes businesses exist to serve customers, not the other way around. When a customer picked up a container of Chobani in 2007, Ulukaya’s direct phone line was on the back of the packaging, so any discerning customer could call the head of the now best-selling Greek yogurt company. 

Ulukaya’s customers helped market the product for him. He intuitively knew what customers wanted: “We aimed at people who never liked yogurt. We couldn’t blame them because what was available was not what the rest of the world was eating.”  Ulukaya created something better in response (source: courses.lumenlearning.com).

Companies can do customer research through quantitative and qualitative primary source methods, and secondary source methods, or research. An area that many businesses often overlook is observational research: direct contact with customers where they live and work. This type of research usually unearths the elusive tacit knowledge: the things people know, but don’t know they know them. The deepest discoveries come from walking in clients’ shoes.

The critical task for food and beverage companies is to pursue thorough, comprehensive customer research. Celestial Seasonings and Chobani have worked to achieve major market share, and continue to do so with their customers’ endorsements. Ulukaya insightfully observes, “Today’s playbook says the CEO reports to the board. However, in my opinion, the CEO reports to the consumer.” 

Take a page from Ulukaya’s book and schedule interviews with customers to learn more about their wants and needs. 25 to 30 customer calls will provide tremendous information and lead to profound insights. Read our article, Growth through Customer Research, to develop a framework for your interviews. Or you can contact us to help plan your project.