Key business takeaways
- Be nice and be helpful—or as Wesley says: How can you help your customers so that your interaction is the best part of their day?
- Give your customers the tools they need to bond with each other (for Wesley, that included naming his core audience: the honeyloves)
- Customer feedback can help you hone in on your brand and the unique value it provides. Ask: “How did you find us? What could we do better?”
According to Wesley The Keeper, owner of urban honey brand Akron Honey, a brand is not a logo, a slogan, or even a marketing strategy. It’s a feeling.
It’s the feeling people get when they interact with your story. It’s the warmth they feel when they read, hear, or experience the passion in your work. It’s the pride they have knowing their favorite business is thriving.
And it’s the business owner’s job to tell that story in a way that’s so compelling it takes on a life of its own. According to Wesley, if your brand elicits positive emotions or familiarity, it’ll be easier to sell. “When you’re manufacturing feelings, you can be selling anything,” he said.
Today, customers interact with small business owners in countless ways: speaking face-to-face, commenting on a social media post, or calling on the phone with questions. They can also spread your story organically through word of mouth.
“They’re sitting at dinner, having tea with some other friend, and their friend pulls out Akron Honey,” Wesley said. “And all of a sudden, you have no control over what’s about to happen. Your product is in front of someone now. How you’ve impressed the consumer of that product, that determines how that person is going to interact with your brand.”
So how do you ensure the impression they give—in person, on social media, or in a Yelp review—represents your brand well? Wesley, whose small business has expanded rapidly through the power of community feedback, sums up his strategy with a few core values: Be authentic, be nice, and above all, be helpful.
If you help someone enough times, over and over and over again, that’s the feeling they’re getting from you. That’s the brand.
“At the end of the day, it really is just trying to be helpful to your consumer,” he said. “That’s the ultimate measuring stick to any decision that business owners make: ‘How helpful is this thing for your consumer? How helpful are you as a brand?’ Ultimately, if you help someone enough times, over and over and over again, that’s the feeling they’re getting from you. That’s the brand.”
Be nice and helpful
Wesley’s number one tip? “I would tell any brand to be nice and helpful,” he said. “The most important part [of branding] is what you do every single day: It’s your interaction. It’s maximizing those interactions and getting the most out of it by being the best part of your consumer’s day.”
Wesley first honed his customer service skills working as a general manager at Verizon Wireless, where customers would call nearly every shift with a complaint that bordered on unreasonable. But he never passed up the opportunity to change their minds.
“You could have the golden ticket to this customer who’s trying to get help from you, but it takes you deciding to be nice about it or not,” he said. “One of my mantras is just be as nice as you can 100% of the time. Not one person can say, ‘Oh, I had a bad experience with that brand or such and such was mean on their team.’”
Wesley upholds the same mantra now that he owns and operates Akron Honey, which has expanded from a local company to a community brand with national offerings. The product—urban honey harvested from bee fields in Akron, Ohio—is carried in subscription boxes and 30 grocery stores nationwide. But the more customers Wesley courts, the more feedback he invites.
For example, customers have recently messaged him asking for beeswax, which the brand does not make or sell. “Typically, when brands have that situation, they’ll wait two days to get back to you and then they’ll say no. But we respond immediately and we don’t give them a negative—we give them a positive. So we say, ‘Hey, although we don’t do beeswax, here’s somebody who does, and they get a link [to another local brand.] They can count on us to be helpful no matter what.”
Solve a problem
According to Wesley, a product can solve many problems outside its immediate purpose. Say you suggest a lunch special at the restaurant near your office—the quality of the meal isn’t the only thing sparking the recommendation. You also appreciate the convenience, the price, and the friendly greeting from the owner. “The product is satisfying their hunger, but there are other problems that a brand satisfies,” Wesley said.
For example, Akron Honey seeks to provide a more interesting, flavor-forward type of honey. But that’s not all it provides: By turning abandoned lots into apiaries and connecting with other local business owners through its Market Day events, Wesley directly contributes to the revitalization of low-income neighborhoods in Akron, Ohio. He also makes regular school visits to educate kids about beekeeping. As Wesley told Yelp last year: “Our honey is so local you can walk by it.”
If your product isn’t solving a problem, maybe your business approach will. For example, Welsey views the oversaturation of social media as a problem to solve—not with honey, per se, but with quality content. (Wesley’s social media is full of entertaining and educational content that showcases his family and personality.) “All the noise online makes it almost deafening and monotonous for [consumers],” he said. “Maybe they need something fresh. Maybe they need to feel like brands are really aligning with how what they go through, what they feel.”
Identifying why people come to you and how you can help them ultimately brings your brand closer to home, Wesley said: “As time went on, that same set of needs or problems shifted to: ‘I love that while you’re developing the community, you guys can have a sense of humor that relates to me.’”
Create a community
Lady Gaga has the Little Monsters. Beyonce has the Beyhive. Wesley The Keeper has the honeyloves: his most fervent supporters, who interact with the brand online and even provide in-person feedback over meals at the Wesley family home.
As the frontman for soul band Wesley Bright and The Honeytones, Wesley knows how to build a fanbase. He and his marketing advisor, Vanessa, decided that naming his customers would provide a similar sort of identity-building experience.
“We thought: We have a superpower that is community. We have the ability to create community around anything—whether it’s urban honey, honeybee education, a market in the middle of the street. We need to make it easier for [our consumers] to feel the way they do. They want to be a community? Let’s give them a name.’”
Not every small business has a customer base that’s clamoring for a name, nor does Wesley suggest every business owner take this approach. But he does recommend giving customers tools to feel closer to your brand and identify with each other.
[Customers] are more than just billboards. They’re this organic force, growing this thing that you planted.
In other words: If community is one of your values, then help your customers feel it. “[Customers] are more than just billboards,” Wesley said. “They’re this organic force, growing this thing that you planted,” he said. “And anything they say, you should always be listening.”
For example, Wesley got consistent feedback that the honeyloves liked the look of the glass jars and were even putting them on display as home decor—something more functional than a plastic bear that ends up in the back of your cabinet. He took note and now includes tips in his messaging on how to use the jars when you’ve used up the honey.
Put your customers first
Branding has been a part of Wesley’s business strategy for years. It’s helped him learn when to say yes to new opportunities—and when to say no. After winning LeBron James’ reality show Cleveland Hustles, he turned down the $100,000 investment, which would have required him to move the business to a brick and mortar in Cleveland.
He made this decision partly because he felt that uprooting the business would not be true to his family or his customer base. As he told Yelp last year: “One of the things we constantly do is make our consumers the heroes of our story. We don’t move unless our consumers tell us to move.”
“We’ve got this community that made us famous,” he said. “I have a problem with the notion that the moment someone starts coming at me with these dollar bills and these zeroes, I’m jumping ship and kind of abandoning those folks who prop me up… I really feel that there is a way to grow a brand here in Akron, rather than going up to Cleveland, and I’m proving that right.”
For Wesley, the best market research has been getting out in the neighborhood. He’s attended industry expos and read free marketing resources on the internet, but always comes back to the primary source: his customers. He frequently asks the honeyloves what they think of a new product or initiative on social media, commenting: “Why did you buy it? How long have you had us for? How did you find us? If there were two things that Akron Honey could do differently, what would they be?”
You may think you know what your brand stands for, how it feels, and what it’s growing into organically beyond your control. But getting those answers from the people who care about it—your customers—can help you determine if you’re on the right path. “Just by listening and watching who’s buying your stuff, you start understanding that,” Wesley said.
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