On vacation recently in Boulder, Colorado, I discovered what every business needs to be loved -- and not hated. A tour.
This summer I had two contrasting weeks that help you to clearly see business opportunities. One week I was in New York helping a venerable brand try to regain the number one spot it had taken for granted. The next I was on vacation in Boulder, Colorado, discovering part of the solution to the East Coast firm's challenge.
Boulder is a beautiful town, perched dramatically on the shoulder of the dramatic Flatirons and home to the University of Colorado. The world's greatest marathon runners and cyclists train here, and nearly everyone seems vibrant, or at least incredibly fit, biking, running, climbing and hiking at all hours. But there's another reason you or your company needs to visit.
Seven days a week, Celestial Seasons, the tea maker, demonstrates how vital it is for enterprises to have a real story that nourishes and drives your company.
Unlike so many firms where employees don't even pretend to use their own products - and no one could imagine customers wanting to tour their facilities -- Celestial Seasons shows what is possible. How good is the tour? My wife and kids are eager to return for a second round.
The experience begins before you arrive. The road to the factory is named "Sleepytime Drive," after the company's bestselling herbal tea, the sign a colorful picture of the company's trademark cuddly bear. At the tour entrance, you are handed your ticket, a sampler packet of teas and herbal infusions. The tour kicks off with a short movie recounting the company's local roots and traditions that stretch back to 1969, when the founders began blending fresh herbs picked in the Rocky Mountains. Today Celestial's herbs and teas are sourced around the world, exotic locales from Chile to Madagascar.
Rituals can help make brands catch fire, and what's most remarkable here is that there are no pricey gimmicks. The tour is essentially a guided walk through the company's sole factory. It begins with a quirky ritual that brings smiles of amusement: everyone has to slip on hairnets to tour the plant, and the extra hirsute must pull on beardnets. Then while navigating zipping forklifts and toeing the yellow safety line, you see up close how hibiscus and chamomile petals and teas from distant lands are milled, refined, blended, bagged, boxed and sealed.
Along the journey you learn key parts of the Celestial story, now part of the Hain Celestial Group. The company's bestselling products are herbal infusions and caffeine free teas. Not surprisingly in this company that has mastered storytelling and words to propel it's brands there is a plot twist. In America you can only sell something labeled as "tea" if it has the leaves and leaf buds of the camillus sinensis plant. Hence every Celestial box that is not technically tea is labeled as a "Caffeine Free Herbal Tea."
But this story also has a sensory heart. At one point, the guide throws open a warehouse door and beckons us in. The aroma floods our sinuses and tears our eyes. The reason: Bags upon bags of peppermint stacked 25 feet high. Most of the group can't stand it for more than a few seconds. We learn that without the heavy door every other herb or tea in the building would stink like peppermint. The herb, we are told, is so strong that it can be smelled a mile away. But a hard core few "Mint Junkies" remain. "We have some locals with bad sinuses," our guide chuckles. "They take the tour regularly."
The tour follows the herbs and teas through a maze of machines and robots that bag, box and seal enough boxes to deliver 1.6 billion cups of tea a year. We learn why Celestial is that rare tea producer without strings, tags, staples or individual wrappers. Workers at the plant ruled that with their unique "pillow" style tea bag - they didn't need a string or plastic. Today by eschewing stings and plastic and using recycled paperboard for the box, Celestial claims it annually saves more than 3.5 million pounds of waste from entering landfills.
But the best part of the tour is the Celestial cafe.
There are no brochures laying around or handed out. In the cafe we are greeted by a line of several teas to taste for free in handsome silver coffee urns. There are inviting couches and chairs, and a series of enclaves, each with a table and chairs nestled among photographs and maps, and the original paintings that enliven the boxes. Sit at each table and you are immersed in the unfolding, international story of the herbs and teas. The trademark witty Celestial sayings are even inscribed on the table tops. After the tour, I visited Celestial's intuitive website and was not surprised to learn that that they've won national awards for innovation.
Your journey has a bit of adventure, two pots of tea identified only by numbers next to a little computerized device that prompts you about your impression of each mystery tea. Visitors gladly line up to taste -- and rate -- these new teas.
There is even grace in the departure. A transparent box near the door to collect donations for local charities, stuffed with cash, a gentle reminder that the tour is free and Celestial has its heart in the right place.
The tour made me think of that East Coast brand, struggling to find direction. They have the punch of one of the world's most famous advertising firms touting their products. But no tour to speak of, and the executives and managers I met with confessed that few at the company partake of their products.
Perhaps you're thinking no one would want to go on your tour. That they'd find more to hate than love? But what if you think of your company as your home. Find the story within. It might be a tale of hard work or inspiration. Simple or something more layered.
Don't worry whether it meets the formal requirement of a tour. Consider how a visit to your office or company might be a journey that people will enjoy and remember.
You'll know you've succeeded when they want to come back.
Jonathan Littman is the co-author of the new book I HATE PEOPLE! (Little, Brown and Company; June 2009) with Marc Hershon. A Contributing Editor at Playboy, Jonathan is the co-author of the best selling Art of Innovation.