Episode #117: Got Buttermilk? The Allure of a Brand Story

Grad Conn

April 16, 202113 min read

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I love buttermilk. Like, really love it. Possibly way more than is culturally appropriate. Today I open up the marketing fridge, pull out a half-gallon of Marburger, and talk about the often overlooked emotional aspects of the products and services we sell. I don’t care whether you’re selling buttermilk or bismuth, there are real consumer stories associated with your products. And that’s the real power of a brand.

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Thank you, Jimmy. The perfect music for today’s subject. Perfect day, perfect music. Welcome to the CXM Experience. As always, I am Grad Conn, CXO at Sprinklr and today is a monolog show. So, if you don’t like those, this would be a good time to move on to the next podcast, which will be an interview, but today is just going to be me. And I’m going to be talking about something pretty personal. I’m going to get real and get right into the lower levels of the body talking about something I like to drink. And, actually, my favorite drink which I’ve recently rediscovered. It has always been my favorite drink. But the quality of it got so poor. And it was so hard to find good examples of it that I started to turn away from it because it was always super disappointing.

I recently moved to Florida, I’m in Delray Beach and I’m able to go to Publix stores. Publix grocery stores are amazing. I really love Publix. They’re great; great people, great store, nice and clean, great selection, just a great old fashioned, suburban, American grocery store, but with an amazing array of stuff. They carry a brand called Marburger, which is a farm dairy. And Marburger sells my favorite drink. They are probably wondering what’s going on at Publix because my suspicion is their sell to volume on this product has probably increased about fivefold since I moved to the neighborhood. I am a big fan and I really, really love buttermilk.

So, let’s talk about buttermilk. First of all, greatest name for a drink ever. Buttermilk is just the best two words put together that you’ve ever heard. Buttermilk is viewed as a reasonably disgusting drink by most people that I run into in North America, although beloved in different forms, particularly in India.  I’ll describe a little bit about what buttermilk is just in case you don’t know. And I will wax eloquently about the Marburger buttermilk. They’re fantastic so I’m going to say a lot of really good things about them. By the way, it’s a whole milk buttermilk, which is part of it. Too many buttermilks are made from light or skim milk and they don’t taste right. I think there’s something about the word buttermilk that makes it sound like it has a higher calorie count. I don’t know what that would be but in fact, the calorie count in buttermilk is identical to that of milk.

Let’s talk about what buttermilk is. So, buttermilk is a fermented dairy drink. Traditionally, it was the liquid left behind after you churned butter out of cultured cream. But today, most modern butter is made, not with cultured cream but with sweet cream. So most modern buttermilk is actually cultured milk. And it’s very common in warm climates like the Balkans, India, the Middle East, and the southern US where unrefrigerated fresh milk tends to sour quickly and butter milk lasts a really long time  unrefrigerated so buttermilk can be drunk straight, which is what I do. It’s also great for making soda bread because the acid in butter milk reacts with sodium bicarbonate to produce a better rise and is basically a leavening agent. Buttermilk is also used in marination. It is really great to put a piece of chicken in a whole bunch of buttermilk, the lactic acid in the buttermilk will tenderize and help retain moisture and make the meat really delicious.

And so, why do I love buttermilk? I’ll talk a little bit about Marburger. But then I’m going to move on to what buttermilk means to me. And I’m going to relate that to customer experience and maybe pull together a way of thinking about the way people look at products from a nostalgia point of view. Marburger buttermilk has everything perfect. It is tangy, which is really important in buttermilk. It has got to have a bit of tang to it. It’s super thick, really pours like a milkshake. It has a nice consistency to it –  just a little bit thick, a little bit chunky, and it leaves a really great aftertaste in the mouth. So, it is all about the taste and all about the tang. And Marburger has done an amazing job of that. It’s a thick, tangy, gloppy, wonderful mess of a glass of milk. I could literally drink it all day long. And I go through about two or three bottles a week.

Let’s talk a little bit about what I like about butter milk and why and a little bit of the history of buttermilk, which is interesting. It was first commercially introduced in the US in the 1920s. Originally, the people who really got excited about it were new immigrants, because they were coming from Europe where some of this stuff is more common. I’ll talk a little bit about my grandparents. They liked the viscous nature of it. Also, it was viewed also as a food that slowed aging. I’ll talk a little bit about that, too. It reached an annual peak sales in 1960. And since then, it has declined in popularity. It is used as an ingredient in a lot of commercial baking and people still bake with it but as a drink, it’s become pretty marginal.

Today, buttermilk sales are about half of what they were in 1960, despite the population doubling, so it’s definitely becoming a niche drink. I do enjoy drinking buttermilk with groups of people because they’re usually completely disgusted by it. So, it’s super fun. The basic idea of buttermilk is, because it’s fermented, a lot of people see it as something that is almost like a health food.

Let’s talk a little bit about my grandparents. I had two amazing grandparents, Babi and Dziadzi, who lived in St. Catharines, Ontario, and we would visit them frequently, especially when we lived in Ontario. We would see them, to my memory, it seemed like almost every Sunday; that couldn’t have been true. But maybe in the summers it was every Sunday. Often, we would spend the day with them on a Sunday hanging out just doing stuff – very, very low key, beautifully laconic. And then we would grab a pizza and zip home to Mississauga and have the pizza when we got home. They always had buttermilk in the refrigerator and while I can’t remember the name of the brand, I do remember the packaging really vividly because it had a picture of a strong man on the package and it was all about how good it was for you.

It was sold very much on the health benefits. What was really interesting about that buttermilk, and especially to a child’s taste buds, must have been really tangy. I remember that tang and that real sour taste which was so fantastic. And there were little yellow flakes in the milk itself to kind of connote the buttermilk as little power flakes or power buds or something. It was the best buttermilk you’ve ever had. It was incredible. And Babi and Dziadzi had this dish that they would make. Dziadzi told me the history of it, which is that it had come from a time when Poland was gripped by famine. People were starving and didn’t know what to eat. The king decreed that the national dish of Poland would be potatoes and buttermilk. Sour milk was not hard to get and stayed well and potatoes were still reasonably plentiful. And so, the dish we would have, my mouth is watering just thinking about it, was a soup bowl full of buttermilk. Babi would have a big bowl of mashed potatoes in the center of the table. And she made amazing, mashed potatoes because she would have fried onions in them and lots of butter and they were mashed beautifully – all fluffy and just gorgeous, mashed potatoes.

We always ate this dish and at the height of the summer. Babi and Dziadzi didn’t have air conditioning. And so, their house was like a million degrees. I would literally have to sit in shorts with no shirt on just to manage the temperature. So, we are all sitting around the table half naked. And then we would take a soup spoon and we would take a little bit of mashed potato and then we would put that into the soup bowl in front of us and then essentially dip it in to fill the rest of the spoon with the buttermilk, so it’s like a little bit of potato and a little bit of buttermilk. I know that sounds like a reasonably simple dish. But to this day, it’s maybe one of the greatest things I’ve ever eaten. And we had it frequently enough that I could look forward to it. And pierogi was pretty amazing too. But this was really good. And so, we would  eat this dish and from that grew this great love of buttermilk.

Now over the years, the idea of buttermilk’s original intent being left over from churning went away and then people started going to skim milk and buttermilk became degraded over time. As I would have buttermilk over the years in different places, I would be so disappointed because I had this incredible childhood memory of either having the potatoes and buttermilk, or just sitting in the backyard. With Dziadzi and Babi in the garden. You can hear the crickets on really hot summer days in southern Ontario, and the crickets buzzing, just buzzing, and otherwise very quiet. No other sounds. Babi working in the garden. Dziadzi sitting beside me, talking on the bench, sitting there with a glass of buttermilk. Man, I will say that I’ll give myself credit in that I appreciated it at the time. Not maybe as much as I appreciate it now, but I did appreciate it at the time. I knew it was special. And I remember really soaking it in like photographing it with my mind so I could never forget. And buttermilk was part of that.

Now I’m finally drinking butter milk a lot again, now that I’m back in Florida. And it’s of course very hot here as well. So, it has a nice similar feel to it and it makes me think a lot about customer experience and emotion and how we connect to people’s core and how it connects people’s really deep emotions. Because I’m pretty sure that the folks at Marburger, who are probably wondering why Publix number 723 is suddenly selling so much buttermilk, don’t really think about buttermilk that way. They probably have an inside out perspective. The inside out perspective that they would have, which is what most manufacturers and product people have, is they they’re making the buttermilk. So, they are obviously concerned every day with the quality of it and making sure that it’s fresh and staying within government guidelines and marking the best before date and all that stuff correctly. And they call it gourmet buttermilk so they’re not fooling around here. They know it’s special because they’re making it out of whole milk.

And I assume they think people are baking with it and getting really good baking results. But are they thinking that every time I have a glass of buttermilk, I’m sitting on a bench with Dziadzi? Or in the kitchen with my grandparents dipping potatoes into it? Or thinking about hot summers when I was a child? I don’t think so. If they were, they would probably be doing different kinds of marketing. What I’m talking about is an outside in perspective, which, as a consumer, I bring all sorts of freight to the party. And I’ve freighted this product with all sorts of really deep, deep personal issues and personal thoughts. This has become something that is emotionally very important to me. And if I were to go to Publix tomorrow, and Marburger weren’t available and all I could get was the light Publix brand, I think that I would be pretty sad. I would be very disappointed, because suddenly I would not have access to that taste that conjures up all those images.

I do think that McDonald’s gets this sometimes, but not enough. McDonald’s is so connected to so many moments. I can remember a number of times when, despite our best intentions as parents, we took our kids to McDonald’s because that’s all they really seemed to want to eat and we were tired; then having some really beautiful family moments with children and having some really beautiful times there. McDonald’s sells their products, for the most part, based on this is how it’s going to taste right now and this is how much it costs right now which is fine. But that’s inside out. That’s their taste test profiles that is product focused. The outside in perspective on McDonald’s is that time your daughter was four and you took her to McDonald’s for first hamburger. Remember that? Would you like to have that taste again? To have that taste again is to bring that moment back.

All food brands have this amazing opportunity for outside in perspective to really, essentially, create customer experience without having to go crazy creating customer experience. All Marburger’s had to do is to be on the shelf at Publix and make their product super tangy and out of whole milk and create a great product. Fortunately, I ran into it. And now every time I have a glass of buttermilk, I’m creating a new memory of having this buttermilk by the pool or having this buttermilk in the hot sun or having this interesting Florida adventure that I’m having. Underlying all of it is all my history with buttermilk over the years, particularly all the years I had with my grandparents who obviously I can’t talk to anymore, but I can bring them back a little bit by having a glass of buttermilk. That is power. That is brand power – to bring that kind of memory back. I can’t bring my children back to four. Can’t talk to them that way. That’s not accessible to me anymore. I don’t have children who are children anymore. But I can go to McDonald’s and I can have a cheeseburger, because I always ate the remnants of what they didn’t eat, and a couple of fries and remember those moments and be right back there again.

Think about your brand from the standpoint of what emotional value you have in the consumer’s mind and how do you access that? How do you connect to that really deep core that people want to have activated? People love reliving great memories. People love to be part of and connected to their past and people love to have that positive emotion. Sometimes it can just be a really great glass of buttermilk. For the CXM Experience, I’m Grad Conn, CXO at Sprinklr and I am off to have a delicious, cold glass of Marburger buttermilk and I will see you…next time.

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