This blog first appeared as Steve Wunker's piece for Forbes
By Steve Wunker
At first glance, the liquor business may not seem in dire need of customer-centric innovation. After all, revenue from the alcoholic beverage market has been steadily rising over the past decade and is projected to continue that way, after a slight dip in the wake of Covid-19. Drinks have become a critical ingredient in many customers’ experiences, whether it’s a casual night out with friends or a more formal occasion. To top it off, the industry has diversified its offerings to meet changing consumer preferences, from customized tasting events, mocktails, and low-calory drinks to artisanal production.
But if you look more closely, you will find that most of these trends have affected wine and beer, not liquor. Low-sugar fitness wines and niche localized beers have gained significant traction over the last few decades, but innovation around spirits has taken more time. Small distilleries have emerged in the same way craft breweries did years ago, but in most cases, their unique products haven’t become mass-market. Finally, the way that companies introduce customers to new drinks hasn’t dramatically changed in the recent past.
We are starting to see some organizations change their approach. Pernod Ricard just recently launched its Absolut Juice, a blend of vodka with natural flavors that targets Gen Z consumers for earlier-in-the-day occasions like brunches and barbecues. Likewise, more and more liquor brands are promoting sustainable production plans to appeal to a younger, more environmentally conscious customer base. But there is a lot of room left to redefine the liquor business, both around the offering itself and the customer experience. So how do you find new ways to resonate with customers?
This is where Jobs to be Done comes in – a theory that puts the customer’s deepest needs and desires at the heart of innovation. Companies often innovate based on what customers have bought in the past, rather than why. They might ask customers what they want in a product or service and how their offering might be improved. But this mindset narrows down the range of possible solutions, since it draws from what customers are currently buying. This means that entire sectors have limited their growth by simply replicating past approaches, rather than developing truly new ways to connect with customers.
The liquor business is no exception, as the story of a French startup named Côquetelers tells us. Launched in 2019, this independent bottling company has made it its mission to introduce the French to their country’s wide range of original spirits. By partnering with small distilleries of relatively little reach and renown, Côquetelers bridges the gap between highly unusual flavors and an eager, urban customer base – and in the process reinvents the way people can appreciate and consume spirits. From their products and customer experience to their marketing strategy, Côquetelers has shown how applying a Jobs to be Done approach can redefine the liquor category. Here’s how.
1. Address unmet customer Jobs to be Done. People consume liquor for a host of reasons. They could be celebrating a specific event or enjoying a festive evening after a long day of work. The types of drinks they are drawn to will also depend on the time of day, the setting, and the people they are with. Companies know this and have built entire marketing campaigns around these emotional Jobs.
But this is only part of the story. Whether they are cultivating a deep-seeded interest or simply looking to taste something new, more and more customers want to go beyond your typical whiskey, rum or gin. As with other categories such as cheese, fashion, and cosmetics, they are also inclined to make more ethical choices about whom they buy from. Looking at adjacent industries, it would be reasonable to assume that many customers will prefer investing in local products or supporting small businesses, particularly in a market dominated by a handful of multinationals like Pernod Ricard.
How does Côquetelers cater to these under-addressed Jobs to be Done? The answer lies in their value proposition: quality and authenticity. The company prides itself in resurfacing forgotten facets of French heritage – obscure flavors from fir tree liquor to whiskey-chestnut blends. To do so, they partner with artisanal distilleries from various regions, specialized in crafting these unconventional spirits. Many of these distilleries had avoided partnering with large distributors, but trusted this smaller startup to expand their reach. In turn, urban customers can then discover these liquors at their neighborhood bar or through a selection of samples, boxed and shipped to their home.
2. Take Job Drivers into account. As customers’ attitudes or circumstances change, so do their priorities. We call these attitudes and circumstances Job Drivers – factors that determine whether a Job is more or less important to a given customer.
For Côquetelers, a major factor to watch out for was Covid-19. As days melted into each other during lockdown, people had a renewed hunger for surprise and discovery. With no place to go but home, many of us took on new hobbies, switched up our routine – anything to feel like we were learning something new and finding excitement.
Côquetelers decided to tap into this sentiment by offering some excitement of their own. Thanks to their online inventory and library of video-taped recipes, customers could order kits on their website to make cocktails at home. Not only could they spice things up with an unconventional drink, they could also learn how to mix the ingredients and make these cocktails from scratch.
Different Job Drivers require different approaches. So when lockdown restrictions gradually loosened, Côquetelers started to think of new ways to appeal to customers. Learning and discovery were still important, but what was pressing for most people was a desire to connect with others. After months of confinement, many of us could finally see our friends and family, meet new people, and feel part of a community.
To address this need, Côquetelers plans to open up a distillery-pub in Paris – a concept imported from abroad, whereby a fully functional distillery doubles as a bar and restaurant. Customers can come in to have a drink or a meal, but also to learn about the production process and create their own custom blends. Whether they are coming in for an event or checking in on their spirits quietly fermenting, customers will have a place to come back to and socialize in.
3. Overcome obstacles to adoption. Some of us will have had this experience: you are at a wine tasting event, perhaps with friends and family, or maybe it’s a work affair. You taste each wine laid out in front of you, and you are stumped. What words do you use to describe what you are feeling? How do you know that you are using the right terminology?
Now take this same tasting event and replace the wine with spirits you have never heard of before. A Flandres-Artois juniper liquor? A gingerbread blend mixed in with calvados? Things just got more complicated.
We call these challenges obstacles to adoption – sources of difficulty that might deter customers from purchasing a product or service. Food & beverage companies struggle with this all the time: many customers are reticent to try something new. Côquetelers was acutely aware of this, particularly in the alcohol business where there are expectations about how to appreciate or discuss a beverage. Whether you’re at a tasting event or reading the label on a bottle, the process of discovering a new drink can feel quite formal, stuffy even, and relies on complex terminology that hardly resonates with the average person. At best the customer is left unable to articulate their experience; at worst, they come out of it feeling intimidated.
In response, Côquetelers decided to strip away the pomp by making the discovery experience simple and intuitive – both in their packaging and tasting events. Instead of resorting to industry jargon, they use more evocative language and allow their audience to associate each liquor with a relatable memory. A melon liquor might remind you of the sound of cicadas on a hot summer’s day; a sweet juniper blend will bring you back to the smells of a bakery early in the morning. In the process, Côquetelers gives customers a more accessible vocabulary to express and enhance their enjoyment.
Their emphasis on simplicity goes beyond terminology. For those who are interested in making cocktails at home, Côquetelers ensures that each recipe is easy to replicate: they feature few ingredients, understandable dosage, and simple tools. This pared-down approach is especially critical, considering they are introducing customers to unusual flavors.
In conclusion, the liquor industry is ripe for change across the board. From experimental flavors to a different tasting approach, companies can leverage Jobs to be Done to resonate with their customers in totally new ways. Identify unmet Jobs that you can fulfill, adapt your approach to changing Job Drivers, and make sure you address the obstacles along the way.
This piece was written with my colleague Charlotte Desprat.