We’ve been told The Motherhood’s office in Sharpsburg, PA sits on land that was once part of the H.J. Heinz family farm.

In the years we’ve been in this building, I’ve also heard many other stories about Sharpsburg’s most famous son. This is the one that’s most stuck with me (as told by Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine):

Sharpsburg’s residents tended gardens, and the Heinz family’s garden was sufficiently fecund to feed their children (soon to be eight) and provide extra for selling. In 1852, at the age of eight, first-born son H.J. began peddling the surplus in baskets door-to-door in the neighborhood. Two years later his parents gave him his own three-quarters of an acre and he began using a wheelbarrow to deliver produce. By the age of twelve, he had enlarged his tract to three-and-a-half acres and purchased a horse and cart to sell to customers.

Imagine that young Henry John (and how YOUNG he was!) farming and bottling, mostly horseradish, and going door-to-door selling from a wheelbarrow, right here, in our neighborhood.

What was H.J. thinking as he visited the neighbors, building the foundation of what became one of the world’s most well-known brands and biggest corporations?

In 1904, the house where H.J. Heinz founded his company was floated down the Allegheny River from Sharpsburg to Pittsburgh. Photo credit: http://www.post-gazette.com/business/businessnews/2013/02/15/history-of-heinz-it-all-began-with-his-mom-s-garden/201302150279

Of course, it comes back to his mother.

According to this article, H.J.’s mother, Anna, would tell him, “Always remember to place yourself in the other person’s shoes.”

Putting himself in the customer’s shoes, one of the things H.J. must have learned going door-to-door was that families – who were for the most part growing and preparing food themselves – demanded any food they bought from somewhere else had to be up to the families’ highest standards. From Explore PA History:

To convince prospective customers that his horseradish was pure and wholesome – just like homemade – Heinz used clear bottles, instead of the traditional green, to show customers that his was “unadulterated” horseradish that contained no leaves, grated turnip, sawdust, small chunks of wood, or other foreign substances that unscrupulous manufacturers often added. Consumers quickly recognized the quality of his product and soon sales of Heinz’s expanded line of horseradish, pickles, sauerkraut, and vinegar were brisk.

Young H.J. was obviously on to something. He listened to his customers and had a relationship with them, he innovated accordingly, based on what he heard from his customers, and he implemented those innovations, even expanding on them — and then repeated the process again and again.

Photo credit: https://artmap.com/wattis/exhibition/americana-pennsylvania-2011

Customer-led growth is a buzz word now, but it’s proven to be critical for any successful brand. H.J. Heinz planted the roots for not only customer-led growth, but also for what’s best in how brands and organizations use social media to connect and communicate with their customers.

What are some other lessons from H.J. Heinz on customer listening and relationship building that we can apply in the age of social media?

Build Trust by Being Transparent

Just as he aimed to be transparent in selling his own product in clear bottles, H.J. was a driving force in passing the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, a consumer protection law that aimed to prevent the sale or labeling of harmful foods and medicines – and an act that many other food manufacturers of the time opposed. This commitment to product safety and purity helped garner trust among his customers, and it boosted sales for his brand (source).

Transparency is a requisite for any successful brand. It applies to all aspects of a business – from leadership communicating with employees, to ensuring ethical business practices (like properly disclosing partnerships) and communicating successes or failures in an honest way to your stakeholders. In this day and age of interconnectivity and social media, it’s immediately apparent when brands are lacking transparency.

Show and Tell: Communicating Your Value

In the late 1800s, Heinz offered factory tours to demonstrate just how safe and clean his manufacturing process was. The tours highlighted how well he treated his employees through comfortable working conditions and instructing managers to listen to employee concerns. Visitors were also given samples of his products and a pickle pin on the tours. This was such a successful tactic that other companies soon started following suit (source).

H.J. was quoted as saying: “To do a common thing uncommonly well brings success.” It’s commonplace for brands to demonstrate the benefits of a product or service. But doing it exceptionally well – communicating your value in a strategic way that breaks through the clutter – is what drives brand loyalty and spurs positive word of mouth.

Photo credit: http://explorepahistory.com/displayimage.php?imgId=1-2-125C

The quote above, “Heart Power is Better than Horsepower,” is the principle on which H.J. founded his business, and defined how he treated his employees (source).

While there is a need to create efficiency and a role for automation in nearly all industries, without that human touch, so much is lost. That human element is critical to process and respond thoughtfully to the concerns of your customers, or your employees.

Listening to Customers

H.J. not only applied his mother’s advice of placing yourself in the other person’s shoes to ensure fair treatment for his employees, but for his customers as well.

Listening is becoming increasingly important, as consumers are quicker than ever to share their unfiltered experiences via social media. Brands that listen – and respond (whether that’s actually responding or using those insights to shape future practices) – to their customers’ concerns reap short- and long-term benefits.

In fact, customers who encounter positive social customer care experiences are nearly three times more likely to recommend a brand (source). When companies engage and respond to customer requests over social media, those customers spend 20-40 percent more money with the company than other customers do (source).

Today I watched a boy skateboard around our building’s parking lot and wondered what might happen if H.J. Heinz had been that boy today. Imagine what he’d build with the help of social media, imagine what he would do with the power to connect “one-on-one” with his customers, but at scale. He’d no doubt build something that changed everything, this time with a smartphone instead of a wheelbarrow, because he carried with him fundamental lessons from his mom — that empathy, understanding, listening and placing yourself in the other person’s shoes are at the heart of all true success.

Top photo credit: http://historicpittsburgh.org/collection/hj-heinz-company-photographs?page=8