Keeping It Personal In The Blackberry Bushes

I HAVE ALWAYS LOVED the first month of the year in the beverage industry. It is a time that marketers assess the previous year, whether good or bad, and come to the conclusion that they must go forward. After all, optimism springs eternal. New initiatives, conceptual over the past months, come to fruition. Innovation comes to the forefront. New products, new sku’s, new packaging and — near and dear to my heart! — new marketing and advertising programs are finalized and ready to roll.

The first month is also a time that many of my beverage friends come to New York to introduce their latest and greatest. They come to visit, which makes for a busy calendar. I truly enjoy getting to see so many people. Seeing their enthusiasm gives me an insight to their commitment to the brands, and lets me get a feel for what might make them successful.

But here’s what’s been happening lately to take the joy out of my first-quarter fun – the Blackberries are in full bloom. See, my guests will sit in my office, or often, at a restaurant, to go over plans and schemes. We’ll be mid-conversation. Then, reflexively, when I thought we were fully engaged, out come the Blackberries. As of this writing, I’ve had six meetings with beverage companies this week, and at all of them, the Blackberries have surfaced. It is becoming painfully clear that, despite my best efforts to connect face-to-face, we now live in a world in which the primary point of contact and interaction between people is a small, hand-held device.

I understand that many of the virtues and efficiencies of these devices have made business and life much easier. But they aren’t the universal solvent. Too often, we see people hiding behind a text instead of actually confronting someone with an issue that needs to be addressed. And that, in the end, gums up the works.

The beverage industry is a people business. Too many of you have lost sight of that. It is imperative that you connect with your customers. Yes, this social networking is how the next generation communicates. But it’s a world gone mad: I see teenagers gathered together in a social setting, and all of them are texting EACH OTHER. We might laugh at it when we see it, but it’s indicative of a loss of empathy.

So I say now that texting is not a substitute for real dialogue. You can’t read nuance from a screen. As nice as it is to push a marketing initiative, you still can’t critique a bottle or taste a flavor from a text. And no matter how demanding the job is, how good is it that you’re now in 24-7 contact with your offices? You have a personal life. Enjoy it. Create divisions. When you are with your colleagues, your customers, your suppliers, give them the respect and attention they deserve. I assure you, you will get their respect and business in return. For goodness’ sakes, please take a step back into real life and put down the Blackberries.

Note: For another view on the use of hand-held communications devices in beverage sales, please see page 12.