The small conference rooms held about twenty people in their late twenties or early thirties. Their job was to sell products to legal drinking age (LDA) consumers.

I started our by showing the different bars we visited around the country. Then I showed a random sampling of people we spoke with during our visits and explained their demographics.

While I was presenting, the door opened, and a man slipped quietly into the room.

All heads turned to see who had joined us. The man was middle-aged and in very good shape. His longish hair was perfectly combed, and he wore a beautiful sport coat tailored in light green and cream houndstooth, a combination I had only seen in Europe.

He stood quietly in the back as I went through all the facts and figures of our research.

Eventually we got to the section titled “Consumer Motivation.” With this slide on the screen, I explained that the 's traditional points—tradition, quality, provenance, and so forth—barely made it into the LDA market's consideration set.

“These consumers only seem to care about these attributes when they're looking for bragging rights. These consumers like to ‘talk sophisticated,' but actually ‘drink sweet.'”

“Excuse me,” the guest in the back of the room interrupted. “But our brand has not been created for people who want to ‘drink sweet,' as you put it. It is created for people with discerning palates who want to savor the finer things in life.” The man told how his grandfather had journeyed from with his special recipe secretly sewn into his lapel. He gave us a brief history of the family's exile on the island of and how they had labored for years to create the finest rum products available anywhere.

Apparently I was talking to a Bacardi! He eloquently related a bit more of his family's history and accomplishments, making it clear that he was not happy with the way his products were now being portrayed. Everyone else in the audience just stared at him raptly with either respect or fear—I wasn't sure.

“With all due respect, sir,” I asked, “when was the last time you bought Bacardi rum?”

“I only drink Bacardi,” he answered quickly, not unkindly but perhaps a bit surprised.

“What I mean is, when was the last time you had only $20 in your pocket and your friend told you to bring a bottle of rum to a party? At the liquor store you could buy a bottle of Bacardi for $18 or Old Mr. Boston for only $12…”

“Old Mr. Boston?” he interrupted, “How can you compare that to our products?”

“I'm sorry,” I apologized. “I'm only trying to point out that a college student with not much money in their pocket might have different purchasing motivations than you. And it's the students' propensity to purchase your products that we were hired to stimulate.”

“I see,” Mr. Bacardi said. “Now that you've put it that way, I have to admit I've never had that experience. I've never actually paid for our products out of my own pocket, and I've never really worried about how much something cost or how much money I'd have left. I don't have any idea why that kid would buy our rum. Please proceed.”

When I was done, our guest thanked me, shook my hand, and went about his day.

Mr. Bacardi left the room and I was left with a greater appreciation of just how important it is to build with a thorough understanding of the consumers' mindset. His willingness to put aside his opinions, experiences, and prejudices—regardless of how deeply held they were—and open himself to another viewpoint was a real eye opener.

Never Assume Anything

My cousin, Marty Steinberg, a partner at mega-law firm Hogan Lovells, responded to my blog post It Was the Best of Times with this:

“The hardest lesson for young lawyers is never assume anything! They assume they know the facts; they assume they know the law; they assume everyone will play by the rules.

My first lesson: Wipe your mind clean of what you think you know, be open to any information, regardless of whether it contradicts what you think you know. My second lesson: Listen hard.”

Never assume anything and listen hard. Good rules for lawyers, distillers, and .

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