Startup Advisories

Marketing lessons from the durian trade

Ahh.. durian… the lovely King of Fruits, according to South East Asians. Here in Singapore, durians are the rage. Mostly imported from neighbouring Malaysia, it has become a cultural activity to eat and buy a durian anywhere from US$5 to as expensive as US$30. This year, there was a bumper harvest and coupled with the Ramadan season in Malaysia, many durians came travelling to Singapore, in hope of getting eaten by food connoisseurs.

With so many hybrids of durians, to the many famed places in Singapore selling them, it has gone from a craze to just insane as to how locals can wait in line for their prized fruit. So why mention the whole issue of durian and how do we learn from the durian trade and how it has been abused of late?

One night, I had a craving for durian and decided to line up with the wife at a famed durian stall. Set up in an isolated carpark, the whole place was swamped with cars galore as durian lovers all came to have their supper fill of the fruit. ‘Terrible’ and ‘unfair’ were the thoughts as we waited patiently in line to buy. Despite being sixth in line, the durian seller took over 75 minutes to serve me. While waiting, people walked past us and engaged a conversation with the seller. And before I knew it, the seller began serving these people. When I asked later on why they were served first, he just smiled and said they are his regulars who have already called and reserved their durians. Reserve my foot.

In between all that, chauffeurs coming in all types of luxuries cars drove up and came out and spoke in a huff to the seller, “Tow kay (the boss) wants his usual and is finishing his dinner soon so he wants it now!” and the durian seller focuses on this extra large order without caring about my black face. “US$100 in all,” says the durian seller as he passes the bags of cut fruit, and the chauffeur passes him an extra tip of US$15, smiling through his gold teeth.

As it finally reached my turn, I glared angrily and folded my arms at the guy who tried to snatch the durian seller away from me, who intelligently backed away. The durian seller then gave me the best customer service ever, apologising for the wait. Starting from what is your favourite type to what flavour you enjoy to how much you can eat. Eventually, I can’t recall what happened but I ended up buying the most expensive breed at 2.7kg for US$35! (I am such a sucker)


So what business lessons can we learn?

1.       Love your best customers with the 80/20 rule

80% sales comes from 20% of your clients cum regulars. They spend the most and the margins are literally the highest. In my story above, you can see the towkays who were more than happy to pay for many durians, along with giving a tip to the seller to ensure the seller gives them priority.

Lesson learnt – In your business, have you identified who are your core key clients and have you given them priority service or privileges? Clients always want to be recognised and pampered for their business to you, especially if they are regulars.

2.       Product expansion

The humble durian has proliferated into so many types. 30 years back, the best durian was D24, but now there are easily more than 10 types of all flavours and tastes. The durian growers knew that if no product innovation was done, the craze for durian might just die out. So comes the many varieties – Cat Mountain King, D101, Red Prawn, King of Kings, etc.

Lesson learnt – In your product that you have been building, have you created different sub-brands which you can target a different clientele or re-excite your client base to come back and try your product in a different experience?

3.       Customer Service Recovery

I was definitely mad for the unfair practices that the durian seller did, but his quick turnaround of apologising to me and telling me he has a great recommendation for me made me relent and happy that I finally gave in and end up buying a more expensive durian than expected.

Lesson learnt – When you have a disgruntled client, do you have quick client recovery measures in place? Remember that when a person is unhappy about your business, he will bad mouth you to at least seven people. It gets worse on social media. Having good recovery services help to stem the negative brand perception.

4.       Abusing the durian for PR: Grabdurians, Jordan Yeoh

Knowing that durian is the current talk of the town, I saw two incidents on how the durian was abused for public relations. First of all was Jordan Yeoh, crowned as Malaysia’s hottest hunk 2011, who shamelessly acted like a durian seller while posing his hunky sweaty body off. He knew that durians was a great attention getter, so why not pose with it at the same time to up his brand value? I am sure right now he will get more contracts, maybe selling durian cakes? Another was Grabtaxi, who knew that durians were a major draw and prepare a whole grabdurian event to excite consumers to download their app. They knew the local culture in Malaysia and Singapore and decided to turn it to their marketing advantage.

Lesson learnt – drop the standard crap of Google adwords and Facebook ads. They are an extreme waste of money. Growthhacking is in where you focus on the ability to create a viral sharing pace to gain traction. I am sure Jordan Yeoh has received much more Facebook likes now with his durian stunt. Grabtaxi possibly has now lots more users with their app and a lot of smelly filled durian taxis. In your line of business, can you discover the latest discussion trends in your community? How can you make your product to tie-in together with the current trends?

So there you go, entrepreneurial lessons to be learnt while impatiently waiting so long to eat the durian. Feel free to share more innovative marketing stunts that your company has tried out!

The writer is director and mentor of Angels Gate Advisory, which promotes Singapore entrepreneurship. He has given up on lining at popular durian stalls and hopes friends will invite him to a durian party soon before the season ends.

This article is the sixth of the ‘Startup Advisory Clinic’ Series.

This article first appeared on Tech in Asia.