26th Feb 2016
Today, social media makes collaborating with customers almost effortless. But back in the 1980s, developing a product with the help of the customer was less straightforward. That didn’t stop Lord Karan Bilimoria, though. Here, he explains how an unremitting focus on the customer helped him develop a brand that now supplies beer to more than 98% of the UK’s Indian restaurants.
“The origins of Cobra are well known now,” says Bilimoria, who decided the beer offered in curry houses needed a refresh after graduating from Cambridge University in the 1980s. “The lager made eating unpleasant. I liked ales, but they were too far the other way – heavy and sweet,” he recalls. “That’s when the idea for a less carbonated lager came about.”
But Bilimoria wasn’t the only customer shaping Cobra’s development. From the beginning, customers played a key part in the beer’s evolution. “I was very confident that my own sense of taste was what customers would want, but the first batch was too sweet, too heavy and it wasn’t just me saying this,” says Bilimoria. “Right from the start I was asking for feedback from customers and my first buyers, and it was because of this that the beer went through five iterations before I finally felt we’d got it right.”
The name also came from customer feedback. “Originally we called the beer Panther,” Bilimoria reveals. “But it just didn’t seem to resonate with customers. Cobra was the second option, but it seemed to be what stuck.”
Today, listening to customers is at the centre of the company’s service strategy. Despite achieving sales growth of around 40% per year between 1989 and 2008, Cobra neared collapse towards the end of 2008. Today, profits have recovered, but Bilimoria believes the experience taught him never to take the customer for granted. “We still have sales teams permanently on the road, educating restaurants about our beers, our new products, and even on how to ensure the consumer receives our product in perfect condition,” he explains.