How to find more customers for your vegan business
It doesn’t matter if you sell a physical product or if you offer a vegan service (or even if you are a charity looking for donations) you rely on people handing over their money.
So how do you REALLY find more customers for your vegan business? It’s time to go right back to basics.
You can also hear this article as a podcast
Finding customers is the LIFEBLOOD of any vegan business. And it doesn’t matter if you sell a physical product, or if you offer a vegan service, or even if you are a charity looking for donations – you RELY on people giving you their money. And this is where many vegan businesses falter. Because, it can seem, vegans aren’t always the best people at making money. We all need customers, and usually – we all need more of them.
So we’re going to get right back to basics. You might be wondering about the best way to find customers. Should you be using Instagram, should you be doing PR, or should you even try some appointment-making telemarketing or Google Pay Per Click advertising? And if this is where you are starting when trying to work out how to get more customers then you need to just STOP. Right now. So often, business create a marketing plan and they talk about the budget, what channels they are going to use, what promotions they are going to do, and do you know what is completely missing from the entire plan? THE CUSTOMER.
This might sound either obvious or dumb, but if you want to start finding more customers then your whole thought process needs to stem from knowing and understanding that customer. And the biggest mistake that a vegan business owners can make is thinking they know their customer, because THEY ARE their customers. They think that they are selling to people just like them – especially, if you set up a business on the back of you creating an answer to your own problem because you couldn’t find a solution out there.
Well let’s clear this up straight away. YOU are NOT your customer. And if you are basing all your marketing decisions, your branding, your promotion and what your products are assuming that your customers will want exactly what you want, then you are only ever going to sell to a market of one.
If you are selling to other vegans then you might think that your customers are at the same point in their vegan journey as you are. You might assume that because your customers follow a vegan diet that they will also avoid palm oil, because that’s what you do. You might assume that because you are vegan for the animals, that your customers are also and will engage with an ethics-lead message. Well, all you have to do is spend some time in some vegan Facebook groups and chat rooms and you will soon find out that ‘vegan’ means a lot of different things to a lot of different people! Unless you have already talked to and surveyed your customers (or potential customers) in detail, and unless you have researched the wider marketplace beyond your personal experiences, you need to assume that, right now, you know absolutely nothing about the people you are selling to.
You might think this sounds harsh. But let’s take the example of Beyond Meat with their Beyond Burger – if YOU were in charge of selling their meat-replacement burger, where do you think you’d market it? Would you head around the vegan fairs, or try to get Earthling Ed and Joey Carbstrong to promote it to get it in front of as many vegan consumers as possible? If so, you’re wasting your time. Because vegans are not the customers for the Beyond Burger. 93% of Beyond Meat’s customers are meat-eaters. And that’s their own official research stats. Vegetarians and vegans hardly get a look-in, and had they set out with a marketing campaign targeting vegans, they would not currently be valued at 3 billion dollars.
We’d all love to have a company worth that, but it’s a really important point. Just because you are vegan yourself, and you set out to sell a vegan product, YOU ARE NOT YOUR CUSTOMER. And if you haven’t already extensively researched and identified who your customer is, then there’s no point even thinking about what social media platform you are going to be on or what kind of promotions or marketing messages you are going to use because it’ll all just be a wild guess. You need to understand your customers inside-out so that you can learn HOW to connect with them. And this is where you really need to get rid of your preconceptions and stereotypes of who your customer is. You’re just as likely to find a carton of Oatly in a building site fridge as you are in a student’s kitchen. And you can only imagine the different approaches your sales and marketing would have to take if you were trying to connect with both those customers.
So, let’s go back to the question: how do you actually find more customers as a vegan business? Well, the honest answer (and it might not be the answer you are looking for, you were probably just wanting to be told to go do Instagram or something) but the way you find more customers is to take the customers you already have and make them your BEST FRIENDS.
People say “I talk to my customers all the time! I already know them” – but do you, really? Have you ever asked a customer why they bought your product? Have you sat down with a customer to find out what decision-making process they went through whilst they were deciding to buy your product? Did you ask how long they took to decide to buy from you the first time, what questions they had and who else were they considering buying from? And have you ever asked them what made them almost NOT buy, what nearly put them off? And can you see that if you had all that information, if you knew the answers to all those questions, how much better you would be at finding customers for your business? Do you even ask your customers the simplest question of where they first heard about you from? Because if you haven’t spent time learning all this – then finding and connecting with new customers will ALWAYS be an uphill struggle.
"And this is the absolute secret to finding more customers: you take the people who have already bought from you – even if that’s only ONE person – and you talk to them."
You need to study these good people who give you their money, and understand the process they went through when deciding to part with it. And this is the absolute secret to finding more customers: you take the people who have already bought from you – even if that’s only ONE person – and you talk to them. You make them your best friends, you find out everything you can about them so that THEN you can learn how to connect with more people just like them.
You will know the questions they had, you will know which social media channels they are on and you will know what pushed them over the line to become a customer. There’s no point in spending lots of time and money getting your marketing messages in front of people if you don’t fully understand the reasons why those people would buy your product in the first place. There’s no point paying for a campaign to send a thousand people to your website if, when a person comes to your site, what they see there doesn’t connect with them and convert them to becoming a customer.
You need to work out what a customer actually wants to buy from you, and you need to understand that the actual thing they are buying (so the thing of value that they are parting with money for) might not actually be your product. Whoa, I know, this can make your brain hurt – but your product might just be the tool they are using to solve the real problem they have – and they are paying money to solve that problem, not to buy your product.
For example, someone doesn’t look for a fitness coach because they want to ‘get fit’. Their problem usually isn’t fitness, their problem is that they want to improve their confidence by changing how they look, they want to drop a clothing size, or have more energy or look good for their wedding day. No-one looks for a fitness coach because they want to get better with kettlebells, even though a twice-weekly kettlebells session might be what they actually get sold. Once you understand this, once you understand the actual thing a customer is buying, then you can change your messages, your words and your images to match that.
Let’s take two vegan ice creams for example: Ben & Jerry’s non-dairy range and the Vegan Magnum. Both sell pretty much the same thing, and if you have a vegan Magnum and a snack pot of Vegan Ben & Jerry’s next to each other in the chiller cabinet, different people are going to naturally pick different ones. If someone is more concerned about the environment, they might decide to pick up the Ben & Jerry’s non-dairy – they know it was set up by a couple of hippies, there’s even a photo of them on the back, they see the fair-trade logo, it looks rustic, they can see they are making strong moves into plant-based, the brand just connects with their life view. Whereas the person who would choose the vegan Magnum might be after something more indulgent, they eat plant-based but they don’t really think about where the ingredients come from, they are just after that chocolatey ice cream hit and want something familiar to what they had before they went plant-based. But the truth is, both these products are produced by the same company. Unilever own both Ben and Jerry’s and Magnum. So they don’t care which you pick up.
What they do understand however, regardless of your thoughts on huge companies like Unilever and Procter and Gamble, is the reasons different customers buy. They won’t just try to sell a product to everyone. They know their customers to within an inch of their lives, and will launch (or buy) separate brands to better exploit the reasons they know different types of customers will connect with.
And YOU need to know your customers just as well as they do, because a person will only buy from you if your product gives them not just what they need, but also what they want. And the only way to find out EXACTLY what they want and what they need and what connects with them is to talk to them. There is no magic to this, you don’t have to be a multi-million dollar company to research your customers. In fact, you can do it a lot better because you can develop real, personal relationships with your customer base. And especially if you are a vegan, ethical business and your customers align with this, then there’s every chance that your customer will want to help you find more customers – all you need to do is pick up the phone, or drop them an email and ask.
So what you need to do is this: take your best customers, the people who buy the most from you, and send them an email. Make it clear that you are not selling, but be honest that you are trying to grow the business and you just want to understand your customers better and find out why they buy your product. From experience, most people will react positively to this. And if they are indeed your best customers they will probably love you and your business already and be surprisingly happy to talk. Invite them for a Zoom session or a phone call at a time that works for them, and prepare a list of questions that you want to ask. The reason that it’s better to do this on the phone or on Zoom rather than just sending out a survey is because on a survey, people only answer the questions you ask them. If instead you give a customer some room to just talk about your product and their relationship with it: why they buy it, what they use it for, then you’re going to get answers to the questions that you didn’t think to ask. And their answers might surprise you. They might not have connected with you and bought your product for the reasons you thought they did.
Doing this is especially important if you are an e-commerce company. If all you know about your end customers is their name, where they live and an email address then you’re in big trouble. Any marketing you do, or any product development you do will be like telling jokes to an audience who’s in a different room. They are watching you but you can’t see them, so you’ve no idea what kind of messages they are going to connect with and what’s going to make them buy.
And you might say that if you are selling B2B (you’re selling to businesses not people) that this doesn’t apply. But it does, because BUSINESSES do not buy from you; a person WITHIN a business buys from you. And they will have their own problems they are trying to solve and their own reasons for buying that, again, you might have never thought about.
But what if you don’t yet have any customers to talk to? Well, if you haven’t got any customers, hopefully you’ve already started building an audience. You can carry out the same exercise on people who are showing an interest in you: maybe you’ve started to grow a mailing list, or you’ve already shared your business with some people who have come back positive. Or maybe you can make some posts in vegan Facebook groups with an image of what you are looking to sell, asking if anyone buys something similar and would be willing to give you some insight into why they do. It’s not as easy or good as getting feedback from people who have ACTUALLY parted with money, but there are still ways. And once you do get that first customer, then that’s the person who you make your best friend!
If you’ve never done this kind of customer research before then it might be quite daunting to just pick up the phone or book a Zoom meeting with a customer, but don’t worry, take a look at the chapter in our vegan marketing course about researching your customer where you will find templates of what questions you should ask and more instructions of how to set these meetings up and what you need to get out of them.
We do this regularly ourselves with members who sign-up to Vegan Business Tribe – we make them our best friends and constantly tweak our messages and our website on the feedback we get from talking to our new members. What marketing channels we put our time into and where we put our marketing efforts is WHOLLY dictated by talking to our sign-ups and finding out what channels they use and what they respond to. For example, when we interviewed our own VBT members about where they usually get their information from, 75% said they listened to business podcasts, which is what lead to us releasing our own.
And it’s this insight that will make a huge difference to your business. Find out the reasons people buy from you, and don’t be afraid to ask why it took them so long and what could have made it easier. If you don’t do this, it will be a real barrier to you finding customers because you are just shooting in the dark. You are just guessing about what might work, and that can be very time consuming, expensive and, to be honest, soul-destroying! You need to first get rid of your preconceptions of who your customers are, and then spend real time building up your understanding of the good people who are buying from you (remembering that each is a person, not just an order) so you know what to say, and where to say it, to find more people just like them.
"If you spend an afternoon once a week lining up calls with your customers, even if just for a few weeks, it will completely change your understanding of your business."
If you spend an afternoon once a week lining up calls with your customers, even if just for a few weeks, it will completely change your understanding of your business. They will give you ideas and feedback for new products, new marketing ideas, and it will actually make them more loyal customers too. They will feel like they have connected with the people behind the product they are buying. And because you’re going to be asking them all about themselves they are going to leave the call feeling pretty special and important too. Use that to get them more involved with your company. People love to know that they are being listened to: imagine if you’d just bought the latest Vitamix food processor for making your own homemade hummus, and a couple of weeks later the person who actually designed the blender called you asking for your feedback, and really listened to what you said and wrote everything down about what functions you were wanting and what other blenders you looked at too, and really wanted to know why you chose theirs? How many people would you tell about that?! Every time you made butternut squash and sweet potato soup in your processor, you’d remember that you spoke to the dude who designed it. How likely would you then be a Vitamix customer for life?
And you can use this. If you’re speaking to a customer who is particularly enthusiastic, then invite them onto your testing panel. Or ask them if they want to be part of your feedback group that you send ideas out to. And you’ll find not only will they become a more loyal customer, but because you’ve taken that relationship away from your product and made it personal, they will also become an advocate for your business.
And once you’ve done this – once you really understand the people buying from you – that genuinely is half the battle won in finding more customers. THIS is what the big companies do ALL THE TIME. They constantly have feedback panels, customer surveys, focus groups, testing groups, customer profiling exercises, all to really understand the people they are selling to and what messages are going to connect. And because, if you’re a vegan business, then there’s a good chance that your customers are buying from you NOT just for the thing you’re selling. They are likely connecting to your vegan mission, or they want to buy from an ethical company, so you won’t have to pay them for their feedback like the big companies do.
If people want to buy something from your business because it’s vegan, they probably also want to help your company succeed. They want to be part of that journey with you. Which is just one of the many, MANY reasons why having a vegan business is so great.
What we've just covered:
- Start by emailing your BEST customers, be honest and say you are really concentrating on growing the business and ask if they would be willing to give you 20 minutes to help you get to know your customers better. If they are already a good customer, they should already love what you are doing and will be more willing to help than you suspect.
- Plan a list of things that you need to know about them, including some personal details so that you can build up a profile of your customers. And if you need help with this, then go look at the chapter on customer research in our vegan marketing course.
- When you’re talking to them, find out what problem your product actually solves and what made them decide to buy it. Also find out what other solutions they looked at and why they chose yours. Make sure you also find out if there was a reason they nearly DIDN’T buy, why did it take them 6 months to make up their mind, because that might be the most useful bit of information you will ever get.
- Once you know all this, you use this information to change the messages to ones that you know connect with your customers. Use the information to decide which marketing channels you should use. So, for instance if you’re not sure if you should be putting time into Instagram or Facebook then ask your customers which they use the most.
- Do this even if you are selling to other businesses, and not the general public. Remember, you ARE NOT selling to a business, you are selling to people WITHIN a business. And you need to understand all the steps they go through when deciding to buy and what made them pick your product.
- Use this process of getting to know your customers to make them LOVE you even more. Make them an advocate for your business and get them on your testing panel.
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