This article was originally published in Plant Healer Magazine, a quarterly downloadable, full color PDF magazine that “combines cutting edge science with heartful intuitive practice, personal stories that inspire, and practical skills that enable.” Follow this link to join the folk herbalism resurgence.
One of the most important steps in starting a business venture is conducting a thorough market analysis. This helps to determine whether your idea is feasible, and how likely you are to succeed in the marketplace. However, herbalists who consider working with plants to be a vocation and way of life, and not a “job” or “business”, may be especially reluctant to analyze the market and investigate comparable herbal businesses before bringing products or services to market. Yet this process is arguably the most important step in ensuring that your business will succeed, and in helping the entire community of herbal medicine to continue to thrive. Conducting an herbal market analysis is especially successful when it is grounded and connected to these three concepts: it embraces the principles of service; it is considerate of other herbalists; and it is geared towards fostering a culture of success in the herbal marketplace.
Being of Service
Perhaps the most important question to ask when beginning your market analysis is: “how can I best be of service with what I have to offer?” This requires shifting the energy away from solely considering our own needs—what we want to do and how we want to do it. And instead considering the needs of our greater community and how our skills and abilities can best benefit our communities and the field of herbal medicine in general. Making this shift can define whether or not an herbal business will be successful. Any “true purpose” in life rarely only involves addressing our own needs; framing the question in a way that considers how our skills can benefit both ourselves and others will result in a more fulfilling and successful business experience.
When I first set out to start my own retail venture, I was entirely focused on following my dream and creating my vision. I had a very specific aesthetic that I wanted to create, and very specific products that I wanted to sell. As an entrepreneur I wanted the business to represent my unique point of view and to reflect my values as an individual. However, once I began my market analysis I realized that the needs of my community didn’t always align with my own personal preferences, and the products the community wanted to buy were not always the products I liked. At some point I realized that my business wasn’t just about me – it was a co-creation with my community, and an opportunity for me to be of service and provide something of value for my customers. I quickly learned that I needed to adapt to the needs of my customers in order for my business to survive.
Being Considerate of Other Herbalists
Now that herbal medicine is going “mainstream”, the market is quickly becoming flooded with a variety of herbal products. Herbalists can no longer afford to forge their own path without also having adequate business preparation. Offering another herbal product or service that is identical to the ones that are already out there can not only hurt your own chances of success, but it will saturate the market and risk hurting fellow independent herbal businesses as well. In this day and age, it’s important to do your market research and define the unique target audience that you wish to reach.
Defining your target audience is similar to finding a niche for your self. This might involve addressing an underserved population of people, or using your specific skills and expertise in an unconventional way. Your target audience generally has similar buying habits and possesses particular characteristics; you can also have a primary target audience and a secondary target audience by order of importance.For example, if your primary target audience is children under the age of sixteen, then your secondary target audience will be the parent(s) of the children. Consider the following questions: What can you offer that is not already being offered? What can you do in a way that isn’t currently being done? How can you fulfill a need in your community? What do people want that isn’t readily available? An example would be creating a line of herbal products for elderly people, or offering herbal workshops for teenagers.
Once you have defined a target audience, the next step is to determine which segments of the audience you wish to serve. Your business can (and probably will) address more than one segment, however the more specific the segment of your audience, the less likely you are to encounter other comparable businesses. And the more accurately you can define the exact segment of your target market that you wish to reach, the more successfully you can create a message, brand, and marketing strategy that speaks directly to your audience. For example, if your target audience is elderly people, then perhaps you will choose your segment to be palliative care; if your target audience is teenagers, then perhaps your segment will be at-risk youth.
Once you’ve defined your audience, the final step is to create your marketing strategy, which is essentially a road map for how you plan to position yourself in the marketplace. The classic cornerstones of a marketing strategy are the 4P’s:
Products—planning and executing your concept
Price—cost and revenue
Promotion—communicating your message through publicity
Place—delivering goods to your audience through direct, retail, wholesale, or export
Your marketing strategy should also define your strengths and weaknesses, and anticipate your opportunities and setbacks.The most effective marketing strategies are based on underlying needs, and it’s namely the buyer’s needs you aim to satisfy.
For example, are you providing a workshop, or are you creating a community building experience? Are you conducting an herb walk, or are you facilitating a connection with nature? Are you providing a medical consultation, or are you offering an environment conducive to healing? Knowing which needs you are addressing will ultimately help you to communicate more effectively with your audience. It is also important to consider trends in the industry such as do-it-yourself tutorials, reusable packaging, and social media.
Fostering a Culture of Success in the Herbal Marketplace
Conducting a market analysis is really a community building experience. It’s an opportunity to create a network of vibrant, diverse, and unique herbal businesses each striving to address different segments of the general public. Therefore it’s important to complete a comparative market analysis in order to research all other businesses and professionals who are already out there – particularly those who are also addressing the same segments of your target market.
This means describing the products, pricing, business strategies, strengths, and weaknesses of your comparable businesses, and looking for ways to differentiate yourself from them, or to address the same audience in a different way. Perhaps you can forge strategic alliances with them, and work together to effectively address your audience. Forging community ties with like-minded businesses and practitioners can help you better serve your customers, and increase your chances of success. And being different helps everyone – it offers more choices for consumers, improves your likelihood of success, and creates a more vibrant community. The ultimate goal here is to diversify – not saturate – the market. And remember, it is better to be copied than to copy others!
Recently, a friend of mine recently set out to open a baby boutique specializing in high-end eco-friendly goods. As part of her market analysis, she examined all the comparative businesses, as well as the needs of her community. She quickly realized that her community was more interested in supporting a consignment boutique for children, than an expensive eco boutique, and she also discovered that another entrepreneur in her neighborhood was intending to open a consignment boutique geared towards babies and children. Rather than becoming completely discouraged or overly competitive, my friend contacted the consignment entrepreneur and suggested that they join forces and open a store together to reach a larger demographic. This new store has been very successful, and customers often take the money they’ve made from selling their goods on consignment and spend it on high-end eco products.
It’s important to include both primary and secondary research in your analysis. Primary research involves analyzing the needs of your target audience, which can be done through interviews, questionnaires, surveys, and focus groups, including direct feedback from a sample of potential clients or customers. This primary research involves asking questions such as: “What factors do you consider when buying this product or service? What do you like or dislike about the similar products or services currently on the market? What is the appropriate price for this product or service? What areas would you suggest for improvement?” Secondary research involves reviewing previously published information, such as the revenue for your industry and target market, the strategies of comparative businesses, and segments of your target market. Consult experts as often as possible, such as market experts, market research firms, trade associations, or credible journalists.
Several years ago, I had the idea to launch a tea company that sold hand crafted herbal teas and high end imported teas packaged in beautiful tins covered with Japanese paper. In order to determine the feasibility of this business, I made a few dozen samples and started selling them at a local farmers market in order to get feedback from the public. Meanwhile, I also sent out questionnaires in my community, and held a focus group with a dozen or so friends and business advisors. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and I felt encouraged and inspired to pursue my business idea. However, once I began my secondary research, I realized that the tea industry was quickly becoming saturated with a large variety of both herbal and import teas. And a few very successful tea companies were starting to sell empty tea tins covered in Japanese paper. I realized that it would be an extremely expensive, lengthy, and competitive process to launch this tea company. As a result, I ultimately decided to invest my energies into a different project.
Learning to Nurture the “Right” Idea
I’ve been known to say that ideas are cheap. While this may sound harsh, the intended message is that there is an abundance of ideas from which to choose; and the real work lies is in bringing your ideas to fruition, and turning a concept into tangible reality. Therefore, it’s important not to become too attached to any one idea or concept. If after conducting your market analysis you realize that your first idea might not be feasible, then simply try again with a new idea – the more creative the better! Once you’ve launched an idea, keep updating your marketing strategy on a yearly basis. This will help to account for the changes in the marketplace, such as new businesses, new technologies, changes in your target audience, economic fluctuations, and new rules and regulations. You also want to account for discrepancies in your anticipated target market and your actual target market.
Entering the business world educated and prepared will ultimately foster a culture of success for herbalists. This is of utmost importance now that herbs have gone mainstream, and now that large corporations, pharmaceutical companies, and numerous health care professions are jumping aboard the herbal bandwagon. I look forward to the day where the most educated and talented herbalists are also the ones who can reap and share the most rewards from herbs going mainstream. It’s time for herbalists to embrace the challenge of building a strong and sustainable future for herbal medicine. This involves bringing herbs to market in a purposeful, supportive, and successful way.
 Pyle, Leslie Spencer. “How to do Market Research—The Basics.” Entrepreneur. 23 Sept. 2010. Web. 26 Sept. 2012.