When it comes to everyday consumer brands, the average person can easily define their target customers. Think upper-middle-class suburban homeowners: Pottery Barn. Big and tall casual dudes: Duluth Trading Co. Glastonbury wannabes: Hunter. Frazzled families eating on the run between kids’ activities: Subway. Adults concerned with crows’ feet: Estee Lauder.
Target customers aren’t individuals; rather, these “personas” are an aggregation of customers most likely to loyally shop a brand. They aren’t taken for granted, either: a single company will spend millions each year to keep pace with their target customers’ shifting preferences, through research designed to a) know who the customer is right now and b) the ideal mix of product, price, and promotion most likely to get her to open her wallet. This is by careful design to ensure that any investment made to reach said target delivers an experience that delights them, and – if everything works – converts to sales and brand loyalty.
(Apologies to my friends in consumer insights and merchandising for the elementary description of this very real science and art.)
When it comes to a startup, however, that target customer is nascent. Her preferences aren’t yet established, and she has no idea yet what this new brand stands for, why the product is a good fit for her, or why she should consider a purchase.
At this stage, a sharp focus on product, price and promotion matters – immensely – as the persona comes into the frame and engages with your new brand.
It needn’t be complicated to develop a target customer for the new product, and then validate it through basic means. Two sources were instrumental while shaping our initial Alice Riot persona: publicly-available research (thank you, Google) and a survey of our combined networks of women (thanks, Survey Monkey). The insights shaped everything from our initial product line and price point to short- and long-term line extension plans (our “product roadmap” for the future).
Since the launch of our first collection, we’ve altered some of our target’s characteristics, thanks mainly to continued insights gathered through our digital marketing investments: Our price points are competitive. Inclusive size ranges and intersectionality in our styling make a big difference, and we have opportunities to expand our product line in ways that offer greater accessibility for more women. Our website needs to showcase stylized product shots, almost exclusively. And our top market? It’s not even in the U.S.
But take heed, fellow founders, because there is a variable that you’ll need to navigate as you shape that target customer: Your personal inner circle of family and friends.
Many women across our networks do in fact fit our emerging persona. They play a key role as we build traction: They’re our #TeamAliceRiot brand ambassadors, feeding us a steady stream of stylized photos which fuel our social media feed and extend our reach across their own networks. It’s a nice complement to our broader go-to-market strategy.
But I’m talking about the people you know, and may even love, who are the farthest thing from your target. These well-intentioned backers may not share your laser focus on a customer persona; in fact, in their enthusiastic support of your startup, they may mistake themselves as your target customer. And they will tell you – and everyone else – what you should do to change your product, or price points, or even the entire business model so it’s more palatable to their preferences.
There are two simple steps to follow when handling these situations:
First, recognize that these ideas for your business come from a well-intentioned place. These are people who want to support your endeavors; they want to see you succeed. Be grateful.
Second, do NOT indulge them in these moments.
You’re currently testing your business against your emerging persona. You’re making super-tight investments to reach her in ways that will generate sales and (ultimately, hopefully, eventually) turn a profit. If you start now to entertain ideas that take a sharp left off your plan, you may have hard time proving out your hypothesis.
What to do? Tell them instead that you’ll add their ideas to the future product roadmap. Who knows what the future might hold? These could be million-dollar ideas. Just not now.
Our roadmap now has a bevy of ideas that may – or will never – come forward: activewear, tailored shirts, men’s ties and accessories, upholstery. One suggestion that we will pursue in 2019: a simple, floor-length, long-sleeved dress, which meets several of our customer persona criteria, including accessibility for women of more modest cultures.
I made some missteps early on with these suggestions from family and friends. I needed to quickly take my ego out of the equation; I shouldn’t expect them to fully understand our business model, but I can be kind and grateful for their ideas, because I know they’re rooting for us.
And that’s what matters. They just shouldn’t hold their breath for t-shirts.
Kelly Groehler is a veteran corporate brand, reputation and communications consultant with experience that touches nearly every point on the global supply chain, from sourcing to retail. She’s also co-founder and CEO of Alice Riot, a line of women’s apparel that features limited-edition prints by female contemporary artists, and a member of the Public Functionary board of directors.