Why is it that the keys to building customer loyalty are so obvious and yet so few companies do it well? Any consumer can tell you what they want from a retailer, and most of them will also tell you that the majority of companies do a pretty poor job converting customers into passionate fans. I’m not going to repeat all of the obvious keys to running a good business, but I do want to share what I believe is the Fountain of Customer Loyalty in the tea business – identity.

A customer that can identify personally with your product (or better yet, derives identity FROM your product) is golden. This is also a lot easier to accomplish than you might think.

Without getting too deep into psychology, let’s simply agree that our self-image is a construct – a collage of facts, attributes, and preferences that make us who we are. Professors at Berkeley drive Volvos (or these days it would be hybrids I suppose), wear Birkenstocks, have leather elbow patches on their blazers, vote liberal, and read thick, dusty books. Our image of ourselves is much more complex than our stereotypes of others, but without question we identify with specific products and brands. Many of us go one step further and use products or brands to reinforce or communicate our identities.

Some advertising still focuses on the attributes or benefits of a product, but much of the focus has shifted to portraying the TYPE of people that buy a product or the type of lifestyle a product’s customers enjoy. Some teens buy from Abercrombie and Fitch because they want to be like the perfect-bodied, perfect-faced “popular” models that fill the company’s advertising. Other teens would NEVER shop at A&F because they reject the perceived values of the brand.

For most consumers, tea is a commodity product. They are no more likely to identify with their tea than with their dish soap. For these casual tea drinkers, simply tasting your tea may not be enough to make the sale, much less establish loyalty. Your tea may be better, your service may be exceptional, your online or brick-and-mortar store may be absolutely beautiful, but at the end of the day it’s just tea, and not worth the extra effort or attention that is required for a casual consumer to become a loyal customer of a single brand.

The key to changing this dynamic – the path to the Fountain of Customer Loyalty – is targeted information. I’m not referring here to the way that tea is grown and processed, the health benefits, or even the story of your company. All of that is good, but it’s only the first step. The trick is to understand the individual customer and SHOW them how tea fits their personality, their life, and their identity.

One obvious category of customer is the health conscious. There are two types of health-conscious customers – those who see tea as medicine and those who see tea as part of a healthy lifestyle. Those seeking medicine don’t want to buy a rare tea and don’t really care where or how it was produced. They want to know what it will do for them. The Healthy Lifestyle group identifies with the natural beauty and health benefits of tea and find identity in being a tea drinker. Whereas coffee drinkers are often seen as Type-A personalities (driven, aggressive, and stressed), tea drinkers are content, balanced, and kind.

The luxury consumer, on the other hand, wants rare, valuable, and expensive. For these customers, it’s not just about the price, it’s also about the story. “Shincha is the first flush of Japanese Green Tea. It is widely considered to be the finest and most expensive green tea in the world, is only available in the spring, and is rarely exported outside of Japan.” This story appeals to the luxury buyer and is simple enough to remember and share with their friends. After all, what’s the point of buying the most expensive tea in the world if you can’t tell anyone about it? These customers derive satisfaction from being able to experience the best this world has to offer. Tea is a FANTASTIC product for this pursuit because it is far less expensive than most luxury items and is also good for you.

The socially conscious consumer is appalled by the conspicuous consumption of the luxury buyer and is much more interested in issues like environmental sustainability, working conditions, and connection to nature. These customers derive satisfaction from acting out their values. Certifications are great, but telling stories from the source countries and building a brand that is seen as socially and environmentally conscious at its very core is more important than the perfunctory head-nod towards Organic or Fair Trade. Starbucks is the largest buyer of Fair Trade coffee in the world, but because their corporate image is still tied to their rapid growth in the 90’s and the ubiquity of their 11,000+ U.S. locations, many socially conscious consumers are violently anti-Starbucks and prefer to give their business to local coffee shops.

The “Buy Local” crowd is a perfect example of consumers identifying with a company or even deriving identity FROM the products they buy and the companies they buy from. The Buy Local movement is not about price, quality, or service, but rather a romantic vision of community and the perception that big business is impersonal if not maliciously capitalistic.

Other customer types include the experiential, or sensory-driven customer, interested in flavor profiles and nuance, but not in certifications or health benefits. The culturally driven customer may only be interested in teas from one country. Then there are those who simply love to learn. Fascinating tid-bits of information on the legend or history behind a tea will captivate them. A gift buyer may care nothing for ANY of this, and simply wants help picking out a few products that are likely to be appreciated by someone who DOES care about tea.

Each of these customer types (and others) provide powerful opportunities for developing customer loyalty. To effectively capture their attention, imagination, and dollars, you need to be able to quickly recognize their identity and which characteristics of tea are likely to appeal to them. There is a saying (coined by Voltaire and made popular by Jim Collins) that has been bouncing around the corporate world for about 10 years now: “The good is the enemy of the great.” The health benefits, affordable luxury, quality, flavor, history, and social conscience of premium tea are all good stories. On paper, put together, they make tea the power-house beverage and business opportunity that we all love. But in practice, all of these messages become muddled and overwhelming in the mind of the casual consumer who simply sees tea as a commodity product.

To find and capitalize on the Fountain of Customer Loyalty is to master the art of recognizing and engaging each customer with the message that appeals to their preferences, their interests, and their sense of identity. Tea doesn’t need to be all things to all people, but it CAN be an exciting discovery that lines your pockets AND satisfies the customer on a very real and personal level. That is the goal, after all. I’m not selling a leaf or a beverage, but an expe
rience and an identity.