You’ve probably seen the headlines: Survey finds that 7% of American adults think that chocolate milk comes from brown cows. The story was “broken” by Food and Wine, and received coverage on The Today Show (and, Huffington Post, and became the subject of two (yes TWO!) Washington Post Articles, one Wonkblog post and one Volokh Conspiracy post.

The study itself was sponsored by a dairy industry group, Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, and used an online survey to query 1000 adults from all 50 US States. The findings included not only that 7% figure, but also that 48% of respondents didn’t know where chocolate milk came from. The Center has not made the entire study public, but has done quite the job promoting the sensational “finding” and its public information (marketing) website

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Just in case there is any doubt, milk comes from cows of all colors, as well as other animals such as goats, or in plant-based concoctions such as soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, and my personal favorite cashew milk. Chocolate milk is milk to which chocolate (which comes from cocoa beans) and sweetener (of the sugar, corn syrup, honey, Splenda, Stevia, Aspartame, etc. variety) is added. See Chocolate Milk on Wikipedia for the detailed scoop; and this recipe from the Loveless Café for a traditional version and this one from Bobby Flay for chocolate milk with a coffee twist.

The press coverage took many forms, from the snarky “where do these people think strawberry milk comes from” and “Where do these 7% of Americans think that Peeps milk comes from?” to the sensational, “If you do the math, that works out to 16.4 million misinformed, milk-drinking people. The equivalent of the population of Pennsylvania (and then some!) does not know that chocolate milk is milk, cocoa and sugar.” (Thanks Washington Post)

If you are now sitting and pondering the overwhelming ignorance of 7% of your fellow citizens, take heart. The Washington Post Wonkblog post notes that what is most surprising about the 7% figure is that it isn’t higher because, “many Americans are basically agriculturally illiterate.” And, also remember that as a small business owner these are your customers—so rather than laughing at them, you need to understand them and you need to learn how to reach them, market to them, and serve them. The Milk Survey provides some valuable lessons that will help you do just that.

1. Extrapolation is a Dangerous Thing

The Washington Post sensationalized this study by extrapolating from the 70 out of 1000 people surveyed who answered that chocolate milk came from brown cows to the claim that 16.4 million Americans were misinformed about the origin of the drink. That’s a pretty big leap, particularly because the survey methodology remains a mystery and we have no real way of knowing whether the sample group was in any way representative of the US population as a whole. Realizing this, the Huffington Post attempted to get as much information about the survey as possible, but was only able to confirm that the online survey was conducted by market research group Edelman Intelligence, and that “Responses came from all 50 states, and the regional response breakdown was fairly even, with a slight uptick (approx. 10% higher) in the South.” That doesn’t tell us much—such as the average age of the respondents, whether they lived in rural or city areas, gender, education level, or even whether they regularly consume chocolate milk. It also does not tell us how the survey respondents were recruited—presumably all had online access, but we don’t know if they were solicited on a site where people volunteer to take surveys, from a milk fan site (or a beer fan site), etc. It certainly does not provide enough information to extrapolate the findings to the entire US population.

The Lesson: As Henry Clay reminds us, “Statistics are no substitute for judgment.” Using surveys of your customer base can be a valuable way to improve your products and services, find new marketing venues, develop new offerings, and hit those customer “sweet spots” that will help you grow your small business. But, you need to be careful of making major decisions based on minority opinions. This means not taking sweeping action based on one loud voice. It also means understanding where the biases in your customer surveys lie so that you can account for them. For example, if you survey all of your New York City customers the findings may not translate to your Upstate New York customers. Similarly, the users of one of your products may have opinions about your company that do not translate to customers using other products. Understanding these nuances can help you use customer survey statistics wisely. See Putting Statistics to Work for Your Small Business for tips and tools that will help you get it right.

2. How you Ask a Question is as Important as What you ask.

There are many explanations, other than agricultural ignorance, for the 7% of survey respondents who answered that chocolate milk came from brown cows. In fact, the most interesting missing piece of information about this survey is that we don’t know exactly how the question was worded or what the other choices were. For example, if the question was “Where does chocolate milk come from?” and the choices were “brown cows, pigs, the store, a carton, don’t know” the results are hardly surprising. In fact, the only truly wrong answer is “pigs” unless you have some kind of pig-milk fetish. (Note that the milk in traditional chocolate milk can come from a brow cow just as it could come from a black, white, or spotted cow.) Alternately, if the question took the form of, “Chocolate milk comes only from brown cows” and the answers were “True, False, Don’t Know” it is even more surprising that 48% of people answered “Don’t Know” than that 7% answered “True.” (A grammatically interesting point is that the previous statement is different from “Chocolate milk comes from brown cows” which is also different from “Chocolate milk comes from only brown cows” (as opposed to only white cows or only pink cows or brown and white cows).)

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The Lesson: There are many ways to ask the chocolate milk question, and each of them comes with its own pitfalls—for example, conclusions about the where does question is largely dependent on the answer choices, while conclusions about the true/false statement could be biased by anchoring (you might get totally different results if you rephrased to “does chocolate milk only come from brown cows?”). To get true value out of customer input, whether as part of a survey or in daily one-on-one customer conversations, you need to construct questions that will yield useful, actionable results, not biased responses springing from confusion or ambiguity, from reinforcing your own pre-existing beliefs, or from an inopportune display of humor. See How Does A Question Mean? for tips on understanding how to craft an effective customer survey.

3. Your Customers May Not Know As Much About Your Company as You Think They Do

Giving the survey the benefit of the doubt, one could conclude that American adults are missing a key piece of information about the origin of chocolate milk, a product that many of them are familiar with and presumably consume. This bit of origin-ignorance makes one wonder just how much information the average consumer has about the products and services they regularly use. And, it should prompt businesses to ask just how much their customers actually know (or don’t know, or mistakenly assume) about their company and their offerings. The answers may be surprising. They may even be a source of lost sales. (I remember when I was a kid hearing about a brand of bubble gum that supposedly was made with spider eggs—completely untrue, but I didn’t buy it either.)

The Lesson: What you don’t know can hurt you, and what you assume can hurt even more. Don’t assume your customers know that your handcrafted products aren’t mass produced commodities; don’t let them think that your highly-trained service personnel could be replaced by any breathing body; and don’t let them devalue the extensive resources (research, development, testing, creativity, optimization, etc.) required to produce a product that on its face is comprised of only a few cents worth of raw materials. Use education as an integral part of your sales, marketing, and customer relationship management programs. This means more than letting people know about new products or services and what they can do. It means providing backstory, color, and the reasons for selecting your company over your competitors, as well as why your offerings are a great value or worth a hefty premium or good for the planet. What and how you communicate will be as individual as your small business. The important thing is that you communicate—if you think it is important for customers to know; tell them; multiple times; don’t assume they know even if you think it is obvious. (Of course, there may be things your customer doesn’t need to know; and that’s fine. As some have noted, knowing the origin of chocolate milk may not be terribly important as long as you know where to buy it.) For examples of this concept at work see 5 Brands Successfully Using Education to Engage, and for tips on how to put it to work for your small business see Forbes post 5 Ways To Implement Education-Based Marketing.

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Lisa Hephner

Lisa Hephner

My name is Lisa, and I'm the Vice President of Knowledge, responsible for the management of corporate, product, competitor, marketplace, legal, and regulatory knowledge, and creation and dissemination of knowledge tools using these assets to PaySimple prospects, customers, employees, and partners.

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