The First Rule of Business Growth: Know Your Customers

Debra Ellis President, Wilson & Ellis Consulting

Posted on January 14th 2014

The First Rule of Business Growth: Know Your Customers

Duck Commander, A&E, Cracker Barrel People choose your business for a reason. It may be convenience, service, quality, the “in” thing to do, or a combination. Knowing why your customers choose your company and how they want to be served is critical to creating a sustainable growth strategy. Without this knowledge, your marketing can do little more than fire shots in the dark.

Some companies create detailed personas to describe the people that patronize their business. Personas are an excellent tool for identifying target markets. They can be used for marketing, merchandising, and service. The key to using them well is to recognize that every business has multiple personas and there will always be exceptions.

What happens when companies don’t know their customers?

The “Duck Dynasty” battle between network and reality show stars provides good examples on the importance of knowing your customers. It shows the power of knowledge and problems that can come with ignorance. Three brands took a position on a controversial issue. One had a good understanding of the customer base and effectively used it. The other two missed the mark. Please note that the purpose of reviewing this public drama is to look at lessons to be learned. The following is a recap for the handful of people who may have missed the drama that played out on every major news network and social media site:

Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the family that owns Duck Commander and stars in “Duck Dynasty”, made controversial statements in a GQ interview. A & E, the network hosting “Duck Dynasty”, suspended him after receiving complaints. An immediate backlash from viewers and fans followed the suspension. In the midst of the drama, Cracker Barrel posted this on the company’s Facebook page:

Cracker Barrel Post about Pulling Duck Dynasty

It reads, “Cracker Barrel’s mission is Pleasing People. We operate within the ideals of fairness, mutual respect and equal treatment of all people. These ideals are the core of our corporate culture. We continue to offer Duck Commander products in our stores. We removed selected products which we were concerned might offend some of our guests while we evaluate the situation. We continually evaluate the products we offer and will continue to do so.”

The message was confusing.

If the company taking a position against Robertson’s comments, why not pull all of the items? Cracker Barrel customers and Duck Dynasty fans were alienated by the post. They responded quickly. The company’s Facebook page shifted from discussions on home style cooking to debates about freedom of speech. In less than 48 hours, this appeared on the Facebook page:

Cracker Barrel posts apology over pulling Duck Dynasty products

The full comment reads, “Dear Cracker Barrel Customer:

When we made the decision to remove and evaluate certain Duck Dynasty items, we offended many of our loyal customers. Our intent was to avoid offending, but that’s just what we’ve done.

You told us we made a mistake. And, you weren’t shy about it. You wrote, you called and you took to social media to express your thoughts and feelings. You flat out told us we were wrong.

We listened.

Today, we are putting all our Duck Dynasty products back in our stores.

And, we apologize for offending you.

We respect all individuals right to express their beliefs. We certainly did not mean to have anyone think different.

We sincerely hope you will continue to be part of our Cracker Barrel family.”

Meanwhile, the controversy surrounding the comments continued to rage. A Facebook page supporting Robertson gained over 100,000 likes in a matter of hours. Thousands of people signed petitions to bring Phil back. The Robertson family responded to the suspension with this statement, “We are disappointed that Phil has been placed on hiatus for expressing his faith, which is his constitutionally protected right. We have had a successful working relationship with A&E but, as a family, we cannot imagine the show going forward without our patriarch at the helm. We are in discussions with A&E to see what that means for the future of Duck Dynasty.”

A few days later, A&E reinstated Robertson with this statement, “As a global media content company, A+E Networks’ core values are centered around creativity, inclusion and mutual respect. We believe it is a privilege for our brands to be invited into people’s home and we operate with a strong sense of integrity and deep commitment to these principals.

That is why we reacted so quickly and strongly to a recent interview with Phil Robertson. While Phil’s comments made in the interview reflect his personal views based on his own beliefs, and his own personal journey, he and his family have publicly stated they regret the “coarse language” he used and the mis-interpretation of his core beliefs based only on the article. He also made it clear he would “never incite or encourage hate.” We at A+E Networks expressed our disappointment with his statements in the article, and reiterate that they are not views we hold.

But Duck Dynasty is not a show about one man’s views. It resonates with a large audience because it is a show about family… a family that America has come to love. As you might have seen in many episodes, they come together to reflect and pray for unity, tolerance and forgiveness. These are three values that we at A+E Networks also feel strongly about.

So after discussions with the Robertson family, as well as consulting with numerous advocacy groups, A&E has decided to resume filming Duck Dynasty later this spring with the entire Robertson family.”

In a nutshell, an outspoken character made a controversial statement. Two brands alienated their customer base by trying to distance their companies from the character. One brand read the currents well and emerged from controversy stronger.

The lessons to be learned are:

Know your customers better than anyone else. The Duck Commander family has a clear understanding of the people that love their products and characters. They used that knowledge as leverage against A&E.

When in doubt, wait.
A&E and Cracker Barrel reacted quickly to the controversy. If they had waited before responding, it may have become a non-issue.

Don’t straddle the fence. Cracker Barrel confused people by removing “selected products which we were concerned might offend some of our guests.” If the selected products were offensive, why were they in a family friendly business?

Use knowledge of your customers to make business decisions. There will always be advocacy groups promoting their causes. Don’t let the fear of outsider influence hurt your company’s relationship with customers.

If you make a mistake, correct it quickly. Cracker Barrel responded quickly to customer and fan feedback. Reversing the company’s position minimized the damage.

Know your customers well enough to anticipate their response. The response of Duck Dynasty fans and Cracker Barrel customers should have been anticipated. Judging from the online commentary, it appears the only ones surprised were A&E and Cracker Barrel.

Timing is everything. The response from the Robertson family came after their fans created supportive Facebook pages and petitions. There was minimal risk for the Robertson and Duck Commander brands.


Debra Ellis

President, Wilson & Ellis Consulting

Debra Ellis is a business consultant, author, and speaker. She specializes in showing companies how to improve customer acquisition and retention using integrated marketing and service strategies. Her latest marketing guide, 31 Ways to Supercharge Your Email Marketing, is a practical resource for marketers seeking better results with minimal investment. Her engineering background provides statistical insight to finding actionable data that can be used to grow companies and reduce costs.

She is recognized as an expert in marketing from direct mail to social media, customer behavior, and strategic planning. Her expertise is often tapped by media sources including: The New York Times, CNN/’s Small Business Makeovers, Target Marketing, Multichannel Merchant, and MarketingProfs.

Her marketing guides include 31 Ways to Supercharge Your Email Marketing, Social Media 4 Direct Marketers, and Marketing to the Customer Lifecycle.

Debra loves the art and science of multichannel marketing. She is a student and teacher of the methods that transform shoppers into buyers and buyers into lifelong customers. In 1995, she founded Wilson & Ellis Consulting, a boutique firm specializing in creating strategies that make channels and departments work together to optimize the customer experience. Since then, she has worked with over a hundred distinguished clients such as Costco, Edmund Scientifics, Jacuzzi, Ross-Simons Jewelry, and The Body Shop.

Prior to founding her firm, Debra was instrumental in the record growth of Ballard Designs, Inc. while serving as Chief Operating Officer. Today, she uses her experience and expertise to show executives how to successfully navigate marketing channels and integrate activities to profitably grow their business. Her practical approach maximizes the return on investment.

She can be reached via email at She blogs at

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Posted on January 14th 2014 at 10:51PM

This is an excellent post, Debra! Duck Dynasty provides the perfect case study. The importance of knowing your audience could not be stressed more. What advice do you have for people that know who their target audience is, but aren't sure if that is who they are reaching? 

Posted on January 15th 2014 at 5:06PM

Thank you Hailley. The response you receive is the best indicator that messages are reaching your target market. If activity is minimal, test changing the messages to see if people react. If not, then you are most likely not reaching the right people. Test different strategies and messages until you find the right mix.

Comparing demographic information is also a possibility for some marketing areas. If there is a significant difference, then your messages are missing their mark.

Manually spot checking can help too. It isn't comprehensive but it can give you a feel for the type of people your messages are attracting.

I hope this helps.