Snuffing Out Brand Misperceptions With Mr. James

Customer Insight, Customer Relations.

Building customer engagement by starting a conversation can yield some unforeseen insights. Such as when customers are just plain wrong and you have to adjust!

In a recent blog post, I shared how my grandfather had sought out customer engagement to grow his small town country store. It was all face to face within his small community, and those who opted in found the exchange with Mr. James McKie was genuine and the response was immediate.

His customer base was not shy and certainly expressed some unusual comments and requests. For example, customers wanted to buy single cigarettes out of a pack during the Great Depression, since many people could not afford a whole pack. Two cents apiece or three for a nickel was the pricing. Sounds like a good reason for them to quit smoking to me, but it happened every day. Any “gentleman” who had just won big in one of the Saturday afternoon dice games would ask Mr. James to keep their winnings in the store safe. It was a different time and place than we can imagine!

Customer perception is business reality.

The strangest request I ever heard related to a particular high-volume item and its packaging. The store sold snuff. Lots of snuff, and not the kind dressed up with menthol and other flavors. It came packaged in brown bottles which you can see for sale in flea markets and junk shops alongside the glass conductors from old utility poles. Each brown bottle had different markings, like small dots, on its bottom based on where the bottle had been made.

Mr. James’ customers noticed the differences in the bottles and equated the different patterns of raised dots with differences in quality. The snuff was identical from one bottle to the next, but customers decided otherwise. The sales rep from the snuff maker shook his head as he repeatedly failed to convince an audience that trusted its own perceptions and experience.

Some dippers swore by the three diagonal dots, while others liked a dot in each corner plus one in the center. The merchant had no control over where the bottles were shipped, so there was never a guarantee a particular dot pattern would show up in any case.

The market had made up its mind and acted. What to do? Mr. James decided to acknowledge the reality of incorrect consumer opinion. He changed the way snuff was displayed to make it easier for customers to find their “flavor” in the fixture. For special customers, he fished out the rarer dot patterns from new shipments. And the customers were happy, and my grandfather sold lots of snuff.

Not a glamorous story perhaps, but it illustrates the power of listening to your audience and then doing what it takes to honor their conclusion. Even if they are mistaken.

Is snuffing out misperceptions always possible? Or necessary?

Today, with the power and spread of the internet and social media, mistaken assumptions and misinformation can go viral and spread across the world, causing real impact on business. In an extreme case of misinformation, a company may turn to a public relations or reputation management firm for help. But whatever the situation, listening to and understanding your customers is the best way to snuff out misinformation before it gets out of control. Or like Mr. James, to know when to take the lead from your customers and reexamine how you do business.

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