With a little help from the Web, King Arthur has built a fast-growing
premium brand out of one of the world's most mundane commodities.
Business 2.0, June 2004 [View original article in PDF
by Vicki Powers
you think you have it tough trying to win brand
if the product you were selling had been commoditized since, oh,
say, 10,000 B.C. That's the challenge faced by tiny King Arthur
Flour of Norwich, Vt. — which would seem to leave the $35 million
company little room for a unique identity, let alone the kind of
brand power that allowed it to grow sales by 20 percent last year,
even as flour consumption shrank in our carb-conscious nation.
King Arthur is No. 3 in sales nationwide, behind Gold Medal and
Pillsbury. However, its whole-wheat flour is No. 1 in sales, and
the brand overall is widely regarded as the flour for professional
bakers and serious hobbyists. "It gives me a much more consistent
product, so I have an easier time teaching with it," says
Nick Greco, an instructor and lecturer at the Culinary Institute
of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
The company works hard to keep that elite status, in part by promoting
its 200-year history. But one of its best loyalty tools is of far
more recent vintage. Called the Baking Circle (www.bakingcircle.com),
it's a 100,000-user online community where members swap recipes,
post messages, and upload pictures of baked goods. "What frustrates
people about baking is that recipes never quite come out the same," says
Joe Caron, King Arthur's director of Internet marketing and operations. "But
the Baking Circle lets them ask questions, so it encourages the
hobby." It's also a way to stoke King Arthur's traditionally
strong word of mouth and to reinforce its connection to hard-core
bakers, some of whom have used the site to organize pilgrimages
to the company's headquarters.
The idea for the Baking Circle arose as the company began to outgrow
its New England roots. As recently as 1993, supermarkets in only
11 states carried King Arthur flour; fans elsewhere bought it through
the company's "Baker's Catalogue," which sells baking
equipment and flour to a subscription list that originally had
just 40,000 people. Since then, the brand has fought its way into
supermarkets in all 50 states, and the catalog now hits 9 million
The Baking Circle helps King Arthur customers continue to feel
like part of an exclusive club even as the brand goes mass market.
Membership has grown 50-fold since its debut, and the average member
not only buys directly from King Arthur three times more often
than nonmember customers but also spends about $12 more on each
order. Here's a look at the Baking Circle's recipe for success.
Involve Potential Members in the Planning Process
During development in 2000, King Arthur queried its 40,000 e-mail
newsletter subscribers about the Baking Circle idea. When 86
percent said they'd participate, the company asked what they'd
like the community to provide. Many of those requests are reflected
today, including the ability to save recipes and see the number
of users online.
Start With Core Customers
After more than a year of testing and development, the Baking Circle
invited King Arthur's e-mail newsletter subscribers — truly
committed baking buffs — to sign up. Two thousand joined in
the first few days. The company followed up with invitations
to other users through its call center and catalog.
Keep the Technology Simple
Because Baking Circle members aren't the most tech-savvy bunch,
King Arthur kept the site basic and easy to use. Simplicity also
meant that just about everything could be programmed in-house,
which kept costs comparatively low.
Reward Them in Return
King Arthur grants members "baker's points" for each
online purchase. They can redeem the points for merchandise or
discounts on online or catalog purchases. (Each point equals $1,
so just four points buys a 5-pound bag of flour.) The company also
hopes the rewards will attract new users and convert "lurkers," who
read the message boards but don't chat, into buyers and active
Mine the Postings
The busier the message boards, the better, because the chatter
gives King Arthur insight into what customers really want. P.J.
Hamel, a 14-year King Arthur veteran, serves double duty as editor
of the catalog and Baking Circle liaison. From that vantage point,
she can monitor what products customers are demanding — say,
a pan that makes square muffins — and work to add them to the
Get Feedback From Fanatics
King Arthur formally surveys Baking Circle members every few months
about the products or ingredients they want, why they buy, and
what new features they'd like to see on the site. It's a kind
of instant focus group with 100,000 people who are deeply interested
in the company. "We'll be in a conference room strategizing,
and someone will say, 'Well, we have a bunch of folks in the
Baking Circle we can ask,'" Caron says. "They're more
than happy to tell us what they think."