Picture the last product you purchased. Hold the image of that product in your mind. Now work backwards. How many decisions did you have to make to complete that purchase? What factors influenced those decisions?
This is consumer behavior. Every purchase a person makes requires asking himself a series of questions and acting on the answers. Some questions are concrete. Can I afford this product? Other questions are abstract. What does buying this product say about me? Some of these questions we answer without even thinking about them, but still we ask. We choose. We move some brands to the top of the list and remove others from the competition for our money. But we rarely look at that process or examine our own behaviors.
I had the privilege of leading 90 members of the ACG Cincinnati chapter through a consumer behavior exercise based upon work that my company, Start Something Bold, had done for a whiskey brand looking to capture a larger share of the millennial market. In addition to conducting in-home interviews and shop-alongs, we asked millennials in key markets to take us on their Whiskey Journey. I recreated this exercise for an ACG Cincinnati meeting to help illustrate what we learned about the behaviors of whiskey consumers and to inspire business leaders to think about their products and the buying experience at their company.
Understanding consumer behavior is not only important for consumer brands; it applies to middle-market B2C and B2B companies.
To guide the audience through the Whiskey Journey, there was a stack of 30 4×6 note cards on the tables, each representing one of the top whiskey brands in the country. One person at the table was the Mapper and the rest were Observers.
The Mapper’s role was to place brands in chronological order of when he first tried that brand and discuss his Whiskey Journey. What happened at each table was, pardon the pun, intoxicating.
Each Whiskey Journey consisted of a series of short stories that added up to one long adventure. Mappers recalled and shared the circumstances surrounding the experience with each brand—where they were, who they were with, their social and financial realities—and they discussed how changes in those circumstances impacted their whiskey-buying choices. In real time, the Observers saw the same patterns emerge as we did after spending time in the field, and they began to understand whiskey consumer behaviors. VEGA Americas Director of Sales Scott Rollman, who participated in the ACG Cincinnati event, summed it up nicely.
The future belongs to companies that have deep insights into their customers’ behaviors and journeys and the ability to position themselves in the right places along the way.
“The Whiskey Journey shined a clear light on how much of a purchasing decision can be based upon the quality of the past experience, memories made around the experience, and the stories that go along with those same experiences. It reinforced for me that whenever VEGA can create a positive experience—through education, purchase and after-sales support—our customers will remember that and our business will benefit,” Rollman said.
I’d be remiss if I did not mention the setting for this activity. That meeting of ACG Cincinnati was held at 1819 Innovation Hub, an incredible space on the University of Cincinnati campus. 1819 is truly state-of-the-art: 100,000 square feet with a makerspace for prototyping, collaboration zones, and an accelerator to help the next generation of entrepreneurs to get their big ideas off the ground. 1819 encourages creative thinking. In that way, it was perfect for asking the audience to try something outside the box.
The evening wrapped up with a blind whiskey sampling that reflected brands common to the Whiskey Journey progression that we discovered in our research. More importantly, the audience got an insight into real consumer behaviors. So often, executives and decision-makers have a consumer blind spot. They have ideas and assumptions about how their current and potential customers behave, but the research to support those theories is thin. It’s all art and no science. Consumers have more choices than ever before and competition for market share is fierce. The future belongs to companies that have deep insights into their customers’ behaviors and journeys and the ability to position themselves in the right places along the way.
The lessons learned from the Whiskey Journey can be applied to any business. Think about your customers. Think about the customers at the company you’re about to acquire. How might understanding consumer behaviors change the way you position products or impact your go-to-market strategy? Take your own Whiskey Journey and find out. Drinks are on me.
Paul Miklautsch is co-founder of Start Something Bold, a product innovation and strategy firm catering to the medical, industrial and consumer markets. He sits on the board of ACG Cincinnati and serves as the chair of the chapter’s Innovation Roundtable.