Customer Education and Brand Loyalty

photo by Trey Ratcliff
photo by Trey Ratcliff

One of the reasons I love being a bartender is because it affords me the opportunity to increase my knowledge and expand my skill set. This works obviously to my advantage and that of my employer but also to my customers.

As a bartender, part of my role is making the customer experience as good as it can possibly be whether that involves cracking a joke or telling them the history of their chosen drink and it's components. The great thing about this interaction is that as well as being a great tool to keep customers coming back, nine times out of ten it results in a tip, a smile, and a sincere 'thank you.'

There is a distinct lack of this within the industry. Knowledge is useless if you can't put it into practice or share it with other people. Not only that, but having more learned consumers will be hugely rewarding for your business. If customers are more knowledgeable about different brands and difference in quality of the things they drink there'll be a noticeable increase in the sale of more premium products and in turn an increase of profits. The knock on effect this has is that holding stock levels on the bar will be shorter. No longer will that bottle of premium vodka or rare whiskey go untouched. It's one the most effective methods of up-selling behind the bar.

The topic itself is extremely generational in the sense that in the 80s and 90s when the world was once again establishing a spirit and cocktail culture, there were a few brands that managed to become leaders within the market. Products like Stolichnaya, Jack Daniel's and Bacardi were topping international markets with their high sales figures. At a time when rum was rum and vodka was vodka, there was almost no premiumisation within the spirits market and the brands that were prominent then are still up there now as the most ordered brands over the bar. Most people tend to stick to what they know and this has developed into a sort of brand loyalty that still propels certain brands higher up the market. Of course this isn't to say that those products aren't great, but obviously now there is a much larger array of products to choose from.

There have been many times when I have helped customers make more informative decisions about their drinks. Usually it's because a customer has had a misinformed perception of a product either from not knowing any better or because of a few bad experiences. The main culprits here tend to be tequila and gin. What people often don't realise is that there are different styles of spirits and that they are more likely to enjoy a tipple from a category that they would never normally choose if you help them pick a style that is more suited to their palate.

For example, one night there was a couple in my bar on their first visit who had been accustomed to drinking Gordon's Gin for a number of years. They had never tried anything other than Gordon's or supermarket imitation, mostly because they were wary of the price tag that often accompanies something out of that bracket. They had no idea about different styles of gin. It was a fairly quiet evening so I talked to them about the differences between London Dry, Old Tom, Plymouth, Xoriguer Menorcan gin, Genever, and new wave styles. I gave them a little taster from each style and talked about the differences in botanicals and quality. In the end they each realised that they preferred not only different styles but different balances in flavour between brand. The one preferred a sweeter more citrus led gin while the other enjoyed a more full juniper led style. I even got them to upgrade their choice of tonic and showed them how garnishing with extra botanicals or herbs can alter the overall flavours and experience of the drink. Now they're regular customers who are more informed on their drink of choice and less wary of the cost because they know that good quality is worth the extra. Thanks to my service they gave my bar a great review and I was praised by my employers for the hard work. It's this brand awareness that wins points with customers and will have your business doing better in the long run.

gin tasting, photo by Ron Dollete
gin tasting, photo by Ron Dollete

We can increase brand awareness by promoting product tasting events or hold them ourselves in our bars. These events are growing in popularity with bartender and consumers alike. As people are beginning to be more interested in the products they are drinking, so too are they booking themselves into these tasting sessions. This is because they want to drink more intelligently and they want to learn more about the processes that go into making the drinks they enjoy.

Tasting sessions usually involve a particular brand's range or a range of different brands within the same category. As well as tasting in flights, these are often paired with food as a means to compare spirits' versatility - to show they can be just as versatile with food as wines.

It could be helpful to get in contact with your local brand ambassadors and arrange events showcasing their company portfolios. Diageo and Brown Forman are particularly adept at holding these events and can often be found hosting in most cities. It's well worth seeing what is available and doing what you can to enlighten yourself and others about spirits and their history. Even ambassadors for smaller brands are willing to train staff on their product because it spreads the word and helps to increase their sales and re-orders. It is extremely important as bartenders that we attend these sessions, even on our days off. It increases our knowledgeability and product awareness behind the bar and is the easiest way for us to transfer that intelligence to customers.

One initiative that I'm starting in my bar is a mixture of staff training and consumer education about different spirits. Each session will include a staff taster session that goes towards educating them on a particular spirit such as rum. Then they will get to put their newfound knowledge and skills into practice at the consumer rum tasting evening. We'll be doing one session a month in aims of changing consumer perceptions about the products they drink as well as getting our staff up to the same level of training. Each session will include a tasting flight paired with great Spanish tapas and a talk from a brand ambassador. Interest from customers has been high and we are now in the midst of implementing the plan to begin in the next month or two.

Another option to learn even more is to enroll in a WSET course. The Wine and Spirits Education Trust is a global education initiative specialising within the drinks industry. There are different levels of qualifications available from wine based to more spirit and service led. Not only do they teach about production and history of the wines and spirits, but also how to taste. Most employers offer access to the courses as a means to further advance their employees and if they don't pay for the course outright, many do contribute to the course fees.

Gaining a qualification and learning about distilling and production methods is another way to improve service in your bar. Customers are more likely to allow you to recommend drinks if you really know what you're talking about and that pedigree is a huge selling point in your service cycle. Besides creating better customer loyalty, it simply impresses people. Who doesn't love learning new trivia that they can then relay back to their friends and family?

photo by Kevin Jaako
photo by Kevin Jaako

As bartenders we are the advocate of brands and a point of sale -  the first contact between consumers and a market that is ever expanding with new products everyday. It is our job to get people to step out of their comfort zones and try something that perhaps they would not think about ordering by themselves. This is why it is so important for us bartenders to attend these events. I often find myself talking to customers about different brands and relaying back little nuggets of information that I've learned at a tasting session. I've attended great sessions by Bacardi, Atlantico rum, Buffalo Trace and Bombay and each one has not only been informative but fun too. Usually these sessions are accompanied by competitions and it's a great way to expand your skill base and showcase your talents.  For the most part it's a fantastic way to network and get involved further within your bartending community.

Do it as a means of opening up possibilities and making new friends as well as becoming the best at what you do.