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Case Study: How a Mom-and-Pop Operation Turned Itself Into a Cult Brand

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Company: Coconut Bliss
Contact: Larry Kaplowitz, co-founder
Location: Eugene, Ore.
Industry: Food, B2C
Annual revenue: $5,000,000
Number of employees: 11

Quick Read

Has the world of marketing come full circle? As social media turns what we consider to be "traditional" on its end by empowering the people and endorsing two-way conversations over broadcast messaging, more brands are realizing the importance of methods employed long before the days of mass media, mass messaging, and mass efficiencies—that is, straightforward, one-to-one relationship-building.

In fact, a recent study from IBM, which interviewed more than 1,500 CEOs, general managers, and senior public-sector leaders from 60 countries and 33 industries, found that the majority of company leaders (88%) view deeper customer relationships as the most important dimension of realizing their business strategies in the next five years.

Perhaps it's time for big business to take a page from the little guys—such as Eugene, Ore.-based Coconut Bliss. Its grassroots, customer-focused efforts have enabled the company to establish a nationwide presence in just a few short years, while nurturing an incredibly strong and genuine passion among customers that could never have been achieved through ad impressions.


Challenge

Coconut Bliss is a certified-organic, vegan, and kosher frozen-dessert product made with coconut milk, agave syrup, and other certified-fair-trade ingredients.

Co-founders Luna and Larry Kaplowitz originally developed the treat to meet their own dietary needs but quickly found that friends and family around them were also quite keen on the product.

And it wasn't just vegans and those with food sensitivities who couldn't get enough—environment and sustainable-food advocates (Eugene has many of them) also appreciated the dessert that had a smaller carbon footprint than its dairy- and soy-based competition.

It didn't take long for the Kaplowitzes to recognize the potential of their little venture to become a lifestyle product that symbolized the values and culture of those people—their people.

"We wanted to stimulate that feeling and build on that excitement," said Larry. "From the start, we wanted to be an expression of where we live and what we do—an expression of our community. We wanted our product, our brand, and our marketing to all embody that."

Campaign

As a result, almost all of the company's marketing initiatives to date have been based on leveraging that enthusiasm and creating advocates to spread the word and help the company grow. Those activities have included the following:

  • Tasting parties: In the beginning, Coconut Bliss was a true garage entrepreneurship, with product being sold out of the couple's home and through local house parties that hosted some 300-400 people and enabled guests to personally meet and chat with the owners while sampling the various Bliss flavors.

    That worked to establish strong connections and loyalties among locals and helped land the product on the shelves of area natural-food stores.
  • Event sponsorships: Beginning in western Oregon and then expanding into the neighboring areas of Northern California and Washington state, the company began sponsoring booths at festivals and other events that catered to the target demographic.

    Along with product samples, the company handed out fliers that urged attendees to ask their local stores to begin carrying Coconut Bliss products.

    "The stores would become open to ordering because multiple people were going in and asking for our product. This made it easy for us to enter and get established in [new markets]," Larry explained.
  • Advocate assistance: In addition to spurring store requests at events, the company offered downloadable petition forms on its website for fans to present to their local store managers. It also asked that they submit the store names via email so that the company could help things move along by contacting those stores directly.
  • In-store relationship-building: Luna and Larry made a concerted effort to build relationships with store staff where their product was carried.

    They personally delivered the product and conducted in-store tastings themselves, always ensuring that store employees received plenty of samples. They also struck up conversations with those folks, not just with the shoppers, and offered them branded T-shirts.

    "We wanted to make them feel important, since these were the people who would be advocating our product right at the point of purchase," Larry said.
  • Personal response: Even as the company added staff, Larry took the time to personally answer every inbound email, and he kept his responses honest and real to avoid that forced corporate feel.

    "Any contact from anyone is important to us, and we take every inbound message very seriously. We extended that 'family and friends' perspective to everyone," said Larry. "When you show more respect for them, they ultimately have more respect for you and your product."
  • Social-media engagement: As it emerged, social media became an ideal fit with the company's relationship-marketing approach and its efforts to leverage the passion of its customers.

    Rather than promote the business and product, Coconut Bliss staff used Twitter, Facebook, and the company blog to converse with fans, promote other environmentally friendly businesses, and launch contests that would help bolster brand awareness.
  • A Night of Bliss: To show gratitude to its customers, fans, and the local businesses that supported the company from the start, Coconut Bliss hosted a gala event and involved local businesses and artisans to raise funds for a few local nonprofits also in attendance.

    The event also had a national component; the company asked fans to send in their artwork, songs, and poetry expressing what Coconut Bliss means to them.

    It then chose one winner from each state to receive a tasting party complete with tasting kits decorated with the various fan-submitted artwork and prose.

Results

In a few short years, Coconut Bliss has grown substantially, doubling its revenue from 2008 to 2009. And 2010 is also proving to be another strong year.

Plus, the company's growth may have been even greater, Larry said, had it not been purposely kept under restraint to "keep it personal and authentic."

Nevertheless, Coconut Bliss products are now sold in 99% of targeted stores in the Northwest and Northern California regions, with a solid and growing presence in all 50 states. Soon, the products will be available in Canadian outlets, as well.

That expansion has been largely fueled by customer requests, directed at both the company and, locally, the distributors themselves.

Lessons Learned

  • Get personal: People feel a closer connection to products when they know and like the people behind the brand. So get out there, get acquainted, keep it real, build genuine relationships with people, and let your contagious passion shine through.
  • Empower your advocates: Help your fans to help you grow by offering the tools, motivation, and support they need to demonstrate demand and get your message out to others.
  • Befriend your distributors, too: Get on the good side of the people who directly interact with customers on a daily basis, and find ways to make them enthusiastic about your product and brand.

    "Relationships with people in the stores is crucial. When you convert the soldiers—the workers in the trenches—you cultivate word-of-mouth that continues to work for you," Larry explained.
  • Remain true to your roots: When your brand becomes blessed with a cultlike following, be mindful of growing too big too fast or of dismissing the qualities that helped to establish you in the first place.

    Also take the time to remember and recognize the individual supporters and businesses that helped you launch and grow so that you continue to fuel their passion and loyalty.

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Kimberly Smith is a staff writer for MarketingProfs. Reach her via kims@marketingprofs.com.

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  • by Dianne Tue Aug 10, 2010 via web

    I accidently hit 1 star - I meant to hit 5!

  • by Erin Anne Beirne Wed Aug 3, 2011 via web

    I especially appreciated the comment about how they don't use social media to blast out advertising messages, but rather as an digital extension of personal conversations with customers and fans, and to promote other companies who are a good fit for their clientele.

    As someone who (hopefully, won't know for sure until I read their labels) fits their target market, I hope to see them in Canada soon!

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